Friday, December 23, 2011
Just like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Artist” is set back in the day when silent films began transitioning to sound. Jean Dujardin (a definite Best Actor nominee if not winner) is the movie star George Valentin. He is silent movies. However, for some reason, once “talkies” become all the rage, it’s out with the old and in with the new. A young up and coming actress named Peppy Miller (the bubbly Bérénice Bejo) becomes the hot new item in cinema. It’s the perfect story to tell for this kind of format, which to be frank, feels like it should be extremely gimmicky, but somehow manages to overcome this trickery. You quickly get over the fact that you’re watching a black & white silent film with modern day filmmaking techniques, and you lose yourself in the story and characters.
French director Michel Hazanavicius (who also wrote the film) has crafted an utterly entertaining, and purely delightful tale. His movie is downright funny – and it features one of the best performances by a dog ever captured on film. His film is completely devoid of pretentiousness. He just wants to tell the story about a silent film star using silent film as a medium to do it. Nothing more, nothing less. His actors – some of which are completely recognizable – give it their all. It was great to see people like John Goodman and James Cromwell – heck even that lady from “Speed” who always shows up in things – getting paid to be expressive and hone their non-verbal acting skills.
What is truly great here – besides all the wonderful technical aspects (like wonderful cinematography and production design, and a pretty cool dream sequence) is the dazzling performances and chemistry of the two lead performers. Dujardin first of all just looks like an actor from the 1920s, which helps; he gives such an animated and heartfelt performance, it’s amazing to realize you never actually hear him speak. The same goes for Bejo who, like her leading man, is able to emote feelings of sadness or glee as if it were as easy as tying her shoes. Ludovic Bource’s wonderful film score is also a wonderful character in the film. I would have to assume that Hazanavicius is an expert in silent cinema, or at least a huge fan, as he directs their performances with great precision and yet makes it seem like an effortless breeze.
“The Artist” was a film I was prepared to dislike since it’s made in the style of film that I’m not particularly a fan of (although Penelope Ann Miller from “Adventures in Babysitting” always helps). I’m sure there are plenty of people my age who would rather go to church than sit through a silent film, but this is the rare exception. I doubt it’ll start a new wave of silent filmmaking – and I don’t know that it’ll be that well remembered years from no – but I’ll be damned if it isn’t simply one of the most charming movies of the year. GRADE: A-
“We Bought a Zoo” tells a real life story about Benjamin Mee (who’s book this film is based on) a single dad struggling to deal with the aftermath of losing his wife. He has two kids to take care of. His young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who’s probably no older than 6 is observant though: her dad is the only one with a full head of hair, so there’s still hope for him in the romance department. He also has a troubled son Dylan (Colin Ford). Lucky for him, Elle Fanning works at the zoo too. Benjamin picks up and sort of hesitantly moves his family to a struggling wildlife preserve which he plans on renovating. There are lions and tigers and a grizzly bear, oh my. It also staffs about 8 or so people, all of with varying degrees of personality and character development. It’s kind of a pathetic lot, one that I wouldn’t necessarily trust taking care of animals with sharp teeth and claws, but I digress. At least they mean well. The most important one though is Kelly Foster( Johansson). Kelly and Ben kind of have a thing going.
So the majority of the film deals with Benjamin’s attempt to renovate not only the zoo, but his family as well. And that’s about all we get really. Cameron Crowe likes making sort of sappy romances and this time it involves fuzzy animals. There’s even a little monkey that is trained to slap his own forehead. Cue audience laughter. If the film has any problem really, it exists somewhere in the script. Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe, who co-wrote, can’t really find much for these characters to do except deal with opening the zoo. Benjamin mopes around, as does his son, who begins a mostly awkward teenage romance with Fanning’s character, who is sort of creepy in her own way. Every time I thought maybe things were being wrapped up, the movie kept going and going. And then there’s Christopher Guest staple John Michael Higgins playing a goofy inspector that the zoo staff despises. God forbid there be strong safety regulations at a wildlife park that houses animals that could kill human beings with one bite or pounce.
“We Bought a Zoo” will probably satisfy the late December “I want something sappy” crowd. It has all the perfect requirements of such a film. The movie isn’t really bad in any particular way. It’s just not all that interesting or innovative. The performances are decent. Maybe I just didn’t quite buy Matt Damon as a single father of two. I’m sure the family audience at which this film is directed at will be more than satisfied, but I found it to meander too much with not much interesting conflict. But at least it has cute animals. GRADE: C+
Thursday, December 22, 2011
If you’re like most Americans, than you probably don’t know much about Tintin. That’s because it’s way popular in England and not very popular here. It’s a comic book series by Belgian artist Hergé about a young reporter named Tintin (I thought he was just a young teen but perhaps he’s in his twenties) and his trustworthy dog Snowy. They go on fun adventures together and solve mysteries. In the film, Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a model of a three mast shipped called the Unicorn. Of course, he’s not the only one who wants it – the bad guys want it to. It turns out that this model ship (and two others) are hiding clues to a hidden treasure. In turn, Tintin is shot at and eventually kidnapped, and put on a cargo ship where he meets up with the drunken Haddock (Andy Serkis). They’re able to escape, but in hot pursuit while they get caught up in wild action scene after the next. The script (by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish) is really just a series of fast-paced action scenes with hardly time to get a chance to care about anyone but the dog.
I’m actually surprised that I found all of this adventure stuff to be rather uninteresting, as Spielberg has yet to make a “dull” adventure film. I think most of that has to due with the motion capture aspect of the film because I just didn’t find the characters or locales to be particularly engaging. I never once felt for the character’s lives - Tintin never seemed in danger to me, and he was way too brave. In fact, Snowy, the cute Wire Fox Terrier, definitely had the most personality. I would watch an entire spin-off film about him. The film just relied too much on action set-pieces that weren’t all that exciting – or impressive – because they were animated. If this had been an actual live action film, it would have been astonishing. And I realize that’s the point – because you can accomplish certain shots with animation that you can’t accomplish in live action. But if anyone could, couldn’t Spielberg?
“The Adventures of Tintin” is not a bad movie by any means – it’s beautiful to look at – although I’m not even sure why it needed to be seen in 3D – but something about it left me cold. I felt disconnected from the adventures occurring onscreen. Too much time was spent on a plot I didn’t find particularly interesting or characters I didn’t find particularly appealing. The film is a technical achievement (Weta Digital does it again) and it features another enjoyable John Williams score. But had I not known who directed this film going in, I might not have even realized Steven Spielberg was involved. I missed the trademark look of a Spielberg film, which is why at least I’ve got “War Horse” to look forward to. GRADE: B-
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Home Swede Home: The Excellent “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Truly is the Feel Bad Movie of the Christmas Season
Let me attempt to make sense of this complex plot and all those Swedish names. Henrik Vanger’s (Christopher Plummer) great niece Harriet disappeared from her rich family’s estate 40 years ago. There’s been no trace of her. Henrick believes she’s been murdered and he suspects one of his family members. He hires journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to research his family’s history and try to help figure out what happened to Harriet. Mikael is in some trouble of his own after he’s caught up in a libel suit at “Millennium” magazine where he works. Since Henrick is offering lots of money and some possible insider info about the rich businessman suing him, Mikael hesitantly accepts the job where he stays in a drafty cottage while he meets the extended family and tries to put pieces of the puzzle together. Meanwhile, a young socially reclusive woman named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, who took on another iconic female role in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake), who’s an expert computer hacker and heavily pierced, is hired to do a background check on Mikael, and once he discovers how easily she’s able to find info on him, insists that she come work with him to help solve Harriet’s possible murder.
That’s the basic gist of the plot, but there’s so much more. Lisbeth is a pretty interesting character and that’s mostly because we learn that she’s had a rather difficult upbringing and unfortunately her financial assets are locked away, where her sleazy financial guardian makes her perform grotesque sexual acts. This includes a disturbing rape sequence that Fincher doesn’t shy away from. This stuff is hard to watch and feels almost manipulative to get you to side with this character and force you to become implicated in her equally disturbing revenge, where she ties up her attacker, sodomizes him, and tattoos “I am a rapist pig” on his chest. This later helps her sympathize with Mikael’s quest to find out what happened to Harriet and lots of other tortured and murdered women. And of course things get lonely for Mikael and Lisbeth, so eventually they “get together.”
Besides telling a rather absorbing story, which has already been told twice before, so it’s all new to me, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” also offers many great reasons to classify this as brilliant filmmaking. The acting is superb. Mara totally takes command of her role. She’s sort of cold and withdrawn, but feisty enough to be likable and sympathetic. I imagine most young actresses who would take on the role would do it serviceable justice, but Mara completely transformers herself not only emotionally but physically. Craig is good as well, in a less flashy role, and Plummer has a few good moments as well. Overall the ensemble is impressive. Fincher’s trademark bleak style fits perfectly with the story and his cinematographer captures his vision wonderfully. This is simply a film that feels as cold and isolated as it looks. Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ terrifically cold and mechanical score helps tremendously. And probably the coolest sequence in the entire film is the opening titles, set to Karen O’s wonderful cover of “Immigrant Song” with such strange and mind-bending images; it’s a Fincher standout and certainly a worthy rival to “Seven’s” notoriously creepy titles.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is wonderful filmmaking all around. Does this movie need to exist? No. But what movie really needs to exists after all? This movie should exist because it deserves to be made by someone of Fincher’s unbridled talent. It offers everything a fan of his work would want and it’s arguably as good as any of his earlier work. Sure some parts sort of went over my head, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. And if it makes someone want to go back and see the original Swedish version, or even read the book then it has every reason to exist. It certainly won’t warm your heart this holiday season; that’s what war movies about horses are for.GRADE: A-
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Yes Tom Cruise is getting older. But he still has some Ethan Hunt left in him. This time he’s broken out of a Moscow prison by Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). He’s recruited to infiltrate the Kremlin to extract some information about an assassinated fellow agent (played briefly by Josh Holloway). Unfortunately things go horribley wrong when another team piggybacks on their frequency and sets off a massive bomb that blows up the Kremlin, and Hunt’s team is targeted as the culprits. The president then issues “ghost protocol” which basically shuts down the IMF, leaving Hunt and his team to go rogue and clear their name. Like all of the Mission Impossible films, the movies contain plot elements that can sometimes be difficult to follow, yet are constantly entertaining if you can’t quite follow along perfectly.
So what’s so great in “Mission Impossible 4”? The actions scenes – and maybe it’s because I was in the second row of a giant IMAX theater – are mind-blowingly intense. Part of the team’s mission brings them to Dubai where Hunt must climb the outside of Burj Khalifa which just so happens to be the tallest building in the world. There are aerial shots that are almost nauseating to watch, in a good way of course. Hunt wears gloves that stick to the windows and one eventually goes kaput. Even though you know Tom Cruise won’t die in the middle of his movie, the level of suspense is almost unbearable. And Bird even stages an entire sequence during a violent sandstorm which was probably not too much fun for cinematographer Robert Elswit (who shoots all of PT Anderson’s films) who had to shoot action that was able to be seen through basically a brown, dirt covered lens. There is some rather impressive stuff going on here.
The film benefits greatly from some great additions to the cast. Patton who is known for quiter material such as “Precious” really gets to get into the fun and even has a nice fight scene with a fellow female assassin. Jeremy Renner who was an IMF secretary and former field agent gets into the fun as William Brant. He can hold his own against Cruise in the action hero department – and even has some good comic timing. And speaking of which, Pegg is also wonderful in an expanded role now that his character has been promoted to the field. He makes some mistakes unfortunately for the team, but comically for the audience’s benefit.“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is just simply a perfect action film. There’s nothing negative to be said about any of it. Every technical aspect from the music to the camerawork is simply flawless. And I bet they had some kickass craft services as well. Bird certainly came through and crafted a wonderfully entertaining action film that never feels the need to sacrifice story or character for the sake of action, even thought there’s plenty of it. This is a film made to be seen on the big screen because it’s a spectacle – and the bigger the better. Get to an IMAX theater now. This review will self-destruct in five seconds. GRADE: A
NOTE: “The Dark Knight Rises” footage is pretty spectacular as well.
Friday, December 16, 2011
I can’t imagine that “Young Adult” is going to be a crowd pleasing hit the way “Juno” was. “Young Adult’s" main character is a selfish, self-destructive alcoholic nobody who only cares about her own needs. I’ll tell you right now she doesn’t change much throughout the film which might irk some people. But why should she change? This isn’t a life lesson movie or a traditional Hollywood story. This is the story of a woman who was a mean girl and still is at age 37. But Theron is so good in portraying her that I cared just enough about this despicable human being. And that’s the thing: you get to sort of care about a horrible person, which can sometimes be fun.So who exactly is this horrible person anyways? She’s Mavis Gary. She’s from a small town in Minnesota. She was the popular Prom Queen with the perfect jock boyfriend. She left her tiny town to pursue big things in the big city – Minneapolis. Not LA, not New York. She became the author of a popular young adult series. Well actually she’s a ghost writer. And the series isn’t doing well and has been canceled and she’s working on the last book. She overhears dialogue and gets insight from the teens she observes daily. She drinks a lot, her super nice condo is basically a dump, and she lounges around in over-sized sweatpants and Hello Kitty t-shirts. This is certainly not the life she envisioned for herself. Besides, how often do we achieve the goals we set for ourselves? But if the popular girl ends up like this, what does that mean for the rest of us nerds? She hears about her ex-boyfriend’s new baby daughter, and even though he’s married with a new family, she insists on going back to the stinking town and steal him back. What a skank!
Mavis packs a suitcase and her tiny dog and hits the road. She has a new goal in life: steal back her ex. Lofty ambitions indeed. She stumbles into town where she confronts a former classmate named Matt (Patton Oswalt) who was in a completely different circle in high school and paid for it badly: he was severely beaten by bullies which left him physically scared. Matt and Mavis form one of the more unlikely pairings in recent memory. I’m surprised she even talked to him for as long as she did, but once she found out he made his own booze at home, that’s all she needed to know. Matt, being the voice of reason, insists that trying to steal back Buddy Slate (Patrick Wilson) is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. Mavis clearly hates everything about this town whether it’s the kitschy local bars or the Kentucky Fried Chicken/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut or having to run into her own parents. And then there’s the look of pure disgust on her face when she gets a first look at Buddy’s new baby in person. While most humans smile with joy at seeing an infant, Mavis looks like she just got selected for jury duty. And Theron sells it.
Diablo Cody is a great writer and she makes a wonderful team with Reitman’s great direction. Cody tones down the pop culture savvy dialogue, but her trademark wit is there front and center. It’s cool to see the darker side of both artists and it’s obvious with the success of their other films that they pretty much have free reign to do whatever they want. “Young Adult” is truly a fascinating look at a woman who never quite grew up. She’s stuck in this eternal young adulthood, having to literally write for years about teenagers. As the film progresses you realize that she’s not just a teenager in a woman’s body, but a seriously flawed and psychologically damaged individual, and since I’m not a horrible, evil person, I can even find sympathy for people like Mavis Gary. GRADE: A-
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Best Picture – Drama
Best Picture – Musical/Comedy
Midnight in Paris
Crazy Stupid Love
Best Actor – Drama
George Clooney – The Descendants
Brad Pitt – Moneyball
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Michael Fassbender - Shame
Best Actor - Musical/Comedy
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Johnny Depp – The Rum Diary
Owen Wilson – Midnight in Paris
Steve Carrell – Crazy Stupid Love
Best Actress – Drama
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Rooney Mara – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best Actress – Musical/Comedy
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn
Julianne Moore- Crazy Stupid Love
Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids
Cameron Diaz – Bad Teacher
Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks – Drive
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Patton Oswalt – Young Adult
Best Supporting Actress
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Octavia Spencer – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants
Berenice Bejo - The Artist
Steven Spielberg - War Horse
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Midnight in Paris
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Adventures of Tintin
Best Original Song
“Man or Muppet” – The Muppets
“Life’s a Happy Song” – The Muppets
“Pictures in My Head” – The Muppets
“The Living Proof” - The Help
Star Spangled Man - Captain America
Best Animated Film
Kung Fu Panda 2
The Adventures of Tintin
Puss in Boots
Saturday, November 26, 2011
“Hugo” tells a wonderful story in a wonderful way: we slowly learn about the main character and what motivates him. Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield who disturbingly channels a young Elijah Wood circa “The Adventures of Huck Finn”) has been raised by his clockmaker father (Jude Law). His father dies in a mysterious father and he’s left in the care of his alcoholic uncle and learns how maintains all of the clocks at the railroad station. When his uncle seemingly disappears, Hugo continues to live in the walls and maintain the clocks. He steals food to eat. And he must much out for a pesky security guard played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen who likes rounding up orphan children who loiter. In the meantime, Hugo attempts to steal gears and other parts to fix his father’s mechanical man invention, which he hopes to complete one day. He also must deal with a grumpy toy shop owner who will turn out to be more important than Hugo could have ever imagined.
A story about an orphan boy who fixes clocks doesn’t exactly seem like a wonderful tribute to the birth of cinema. And that’s because the story slowly unfolds and we learn more. We learn that Hugo’s father used to take him to the movies. His father was particularly fond of the films of Georges Méliès, who directed the famous silent film “A Trip to the Moon” and many others. Hugo’s father’s mechanical man invention will lead Hugo on a wonderful adventure with a new friend named Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Isabelle’s godfather is the disgruntled toy shop owner, who is played by Ben Kingsley. John Logan’s script follows with what has to be some of the most touching and affecting tributes to the era of silent cinema in recent memory.
Martin Scorsese who is no stranger to gritty, violent cinema, takes a complete departure from the movies that made him famous to give us a family friendly ode to the magic of movies. It’s so obvious that Scorsese is a lover of cinema and he knows it so well it’s almost disturbing. He is able to capture such beautiful images and the work of his cinematographer Robert Richardson (who also shot his gorgeous film “The Aviator”) is simply a standout. The use of colors and the stylistic elements completely transport you to another time and place. There are some truly wonderfully tracking shots that are a trademark of Scorsese’s work. And working with 3D for the first time, the filmmaker takes full advantage of the technology to completely immerse you in this world. When Cohen’s menacing face slowly leans into the frame towards our young heroes (and the audience) you react by moving your own head back even further. There are just some truly jaw dropping visual moments.
I can’t say enough good things about “Hugo.” The entire film is filled with the work of true artists. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the performances; everything feels authentic. It’s a truly wonderful escapist entertainment that can be enjoyed by children who no nothing about the time period in which it’s set and yet can be enjoyed by film history fans. “Hugo” reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place. Like we could ever forget? GRADE: A-
The thing with Alexander Payne is though, sometimes his movies tend to feel rather slow. There’s never really anything that interesting visually, which is fine when you have an interesting story and fascinating characters. And that was the main problem I had with his previous effort “Sideways.” I didn’t like those characters and I don’t really know much about wine, so to me I felt rather disconnected. “The Descendants” is much improved and what I did like most about it was how much you get a sense of Matt’s wife Elizabeth (played by Patricia Hastie) even though she spends the entire movie in a coma. The script (co written by Payne and Nate Faxon and Jim Rash) is rich with character development and what I liked most about the story was Matt’s relationship with his two daughters.
Shailene Woodley plays Alexandra King Matt’s rebellious teenage daughter, and she gives a surprisingly strong performance for an actress her age (she just turned 20). Having to deal with her mother’ accident and her wishy washy father is hard on her. Sometimes she’s left to look after her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller in her feature debut) who’s rather rebellious herself. Scottie likes throwing the lawn furniture in the pool for no clear reason except that it’s just something to do. Alexandra also amusingly insists on dragging around her surfer dude guy friend around played by Nick Krause; let’s just say he doesn’t get along with Alexandra’s grandfather.
Matt soon learns a secret about his wife from Alexandra: Elizabeth had been having an affair and was planning on leaving him. This throws a much needed comic spin on a truly dire situation. Matt’s best friends, a couple played by Rob Hubel and Mary Birdsong, have known about this and tells him about the man she’s been seeing. He’s played by Matthew Lillard, who probably has his best role since the original “Scream” from 1996.
“The Descendants” is really about the journey of a man who has to deal with a situation that no one really wants to face. He wanted to be a better husband and he wants to tell his wife, but he can’t. And it seems like her prognosis is not good. It’s important to know that the people we love won’t be around forever and we don’t usually get a second chance. The Hawaiian setting works because, like Matt’s opening narration reminds us, this island community isn’t always just paradise. Sure there are sandy beaches and beautiful locations. But it’s still a place where bad things happen. No one here in “paradise” is immune to the pains of life. And I think that’s where the film lost me: I don’t think the movie’s quite as funny as it could have been. The film would rather be a drama with a few moments of comedy, but those few moments almost feel out of place in such a dramatic setting.
“The Descendants” features great performances and a richly developed script, but I found the opportunity for humor rather lacking. The film feels too slow and dramatic to be truly funny. Payne knows how to make dramatic situations funny, but I think something about the way he handled the film’s story left me wanting a little bit more. It’s a film that I’m sure the Academy will surely eat right up, but for me maybe a second viewing will be required. I think I just might have missed something along the way. GRADE: B-