Friday, December 23, 2011

Silence is Olden: The Silent Film Homage “The Artist” is Simply Charming

If you had told me months ago that I would go see a silent movie in the theater and also enjoy it I would have said you’re crazy. Silent films are so last century. But somehow the wonderful silent film “The Artist” manages to not only be entertaining, but a fascinating look back at an important era in cinematic history. Nostalgia has been a strong theme this year with films like “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris,” and the “The Artist” is no exception. Watching the film was like a miracle – me, sitting there, not completely bored out of my mind - without a line of audible dialogue uttered.

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-

Animal Kingdom: The Sometimes Sappy “We Bought a Zoo” is Sort of a Miss

Who doesn’t like cute animals? You’ll get a lot of them in “We Bought a Zoo” a kind of sappy end of the year feel good family dramedy about a single dad who moves his family to a wildlife preserve. He wants to “start over.” His preteen son is having trouble in school (he draws violent images which the school is concerned about but they still hang it up in the hallway regardless). He also has a cute little girl. She’s really cute, almost too cute. Benjamin’s wife has previously passed away. It’s hard on him and his family as would be expected. I’m not sure if moving to a zoo is really the answer, but it is for him. He’s a writer and used to crazy things. He flew into a hurricane with a storm crew. The zoo comes fully staffed one of those people is Scarlett Johansson. You can kind of predict everything that will happen next. But at least it has cute animals.

“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

The Canine Mutiny: Steven Spielberg Takes a Crack at Motion Capture in “The Adventures of Tintin”

Where’s Janusz Kaminski when you need him? The wonderful cinematographer has given each one of Steven Spielberg’s it’s trademark look since 1993’s “Schindler’s List” and for the firs time since then he hasn’t been needed because “The Adventures of Tintin” is the director’s first (and hopefully last) foray into the world of 3D motion capture filmmaking. I don’t know if I just don’t “get” motion capture, but it tends to not work (in Robert Zemeckis’ recent films) more than is works (James Cameron’s epic “Avatar”). There’s something about having “animation” so realistic that just doesn’t quite make perfect sense. I’d rather just see live images than computer images that looks really lifelike. This style of filmmaking caused hollow gap between me and film which made me feel distant. There’s something about watching CGI characters get into life threatening situations that just isn’t all that exciting or suspenseful, not matter how well Spielberg stages them.

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

Here’s the David Fincher I’ve been missing! The director known for such dark and gritty fare like “Fight Club” and “Seven” has finally returned to gloomy form after a few attempts at breaking out into the mainstream with Oscar favorites like the strange period drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the mildly overrated “The Social Network.” Here he tells his version of the popular Swedish crime novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (originally titled “Men Who Hate Women”)about a journalist who teams up with a young goth computer hacker to help solve a murder mystery. The world has already given us one film adaptation merely a year and a half ago, but this material was made to be turn into a Fincher masterpiece. It’s cold, stark atmosphere and disturbing mix of violence and sex are weaved into a fascinating, if sometimes complicated, story of vengeance and murder.

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

Going Rogue: You Should Definitely Choose to Accept “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

All four “Mission: Impossible” films have taken on various forms over the years. They’ve all had four different directors and have resulted in varying degrees of success. The first movie, with its overly complicated plot was a fun spy thriller directed by Brian De Palma. The second entry went into silly full-fledged action mode with director John Woo. Things got brought down a little in the much better third entry directed by J.J. Abrams. And strangely enough Brad Bird, known for directing animated films, makes his live action debut with Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol and it’s probably the best entry in the series. Of course most of that had to do with filming many scenes with the large format IMAX film which create such beautiful, breathtaking and sometimes vertigo inducing shots. This fourth entry is made to be seen on IMAX screens where it belongs and is one of the most fun and all around awesome film going experiences I’ve had all year.

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

Season of the Bitch: Charlize Theron Humanizes the Girl You Hated in High School in “Young Adult”

“Juno” had a warm fuzzy pop cultured heart at the center of its story of a high school outcast. “Young Adult” is its darker, more cynical cousin that tells the story of an aging former popular high school girl whose life isn’t nearly as awesome as her old classmates would assume it’d be. Charlize Theron is a wonderful actress who can transform physically for a great performance – like in "Monster" – but here she looks like herself. She’s beautiful and fit. It’s her facial expressions and mannerisms that she nails completely. She can articulate emotion (although her character hardly knows the meaning of the word) with just a simple expression or scrunch of her face. She can tell you what she’s thinking without saying a word. That’s great acting. And it helps when you have a sharp and acidic screenplay by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody and assured direction from Jason Reitman.

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

2012 Golden Globe Nomination Predictions

the nominees:

Best Picture – Drama

The Descendants
The Help
War Horse

Best Picture – Musical/Comedy
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
The Muppets
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

Best Director
Steven Spielberg - War Horse
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Alexander Payne – The Descendants

Best Screenplay
The Descendants
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
Young Adult

Best Score
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
War Horse
The Adventures of Tintin
The Artist

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