Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Top Ten of 2011

Here's my year-end list.  Of course, I did not get a chance to see every single film that came out this year.  Here are the movies that have been getting some love on others' top ten lists that I did not see: War Horse, Hugo, The Help, A SeparationContagionCertified Copy, J. Edgar, The Skin I Live In, Albert Nobbs, Carnage, and A Dangerous Method.  I can't say for certain if my list would change one way or the other if I had seen these films, so once I've seen them, if I find them to be quite good, I'll just give them a proper review and possibly consider them for my 2012 list.  Speaking of proper reviews, I've already written full reviews for all of these films so I'll try to keep it as short as possible.  Now, to the list.

1. Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn cemented himself as one of my favorite directors with this stylish film.  The intense scenes of tension and extreme violence had elements of Kubrick to them.  Some complained that these scenes ultimately made the film an exercise in style over substance and to those people I would say, "So?"  Let's face it; you can trace back the plot of nearly every movie out there to some other story.  So Drive didn't have a complex plot, but it looked and sounded great and did enough to make you care about the characters.  It helps that Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan inhabit the two leads.  They have to give mostly silent performances and they're both great at it.  The standout of the film, though, is Albert Brooks in a surprising turn as a frighteningly sadistic criminal.  And then there's that great soundtrack that sets the mood for the entire film.  It all boils down to Refn, though.  He is the star of the film and I can't wait to see what he does next.

2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This was the surprise of the year for me.  It's not that I expected it to be bad or anything, I just thought it would be a good spy film but nothing special.  What I watched was the most addictive movie of the year.  True, the film is almost utterly incomprehensible the first time through, but it's still fascinating.  Watch it a few times and it all makes sense, even if you haven't read the book.  Also, it has Gary Oldman giving a rare subdued performance that turned out to be my favorite of the year.  It helps that Oldman is surrounded by one of the greatest casts in recent memory.  Director Tomas Alfredson places his stamp on the film just as brilliantly and quietly as Oldman's performance.  It's a moody, dark film and I have a hard time putting my finger exactly on what it is that makes me love it so much.  (Rare thumbs up for the Academy for giving Oldman the nod, by the way.)

3. The Tree of Life
This is the most divisive film of the year and understandably so.  This is a disjointed dream of a film and you're either on board with it or you're not.  It is a film that could easily be dismissed for its lofty connections between childhood and the creation of Earth.  Years ago, I would have dismissed the film for just that, but now I trust in writer/director Terrence Malick to take me on a beautiful journey that will leave me thinking about it months later.  And I will certainly be revisiting the film for years to come. 

4. Super 8
J. J. Abrams's ode to childhood completely worked for me.  I only wish I had been a child the first time I had seen it.  Still, the nostalgia I felt for the old Spielberg classics was strong enough to make it one of my favorite films.  The child actors did a fine job and seem completely natural for the most part.  Elle Fanning is real find.  Plus, I'm a sucker for lens flares. 

5. Melancholia
Lars von Trier is a challenging filmmaker who divides audiences nearly as much as Terrence Malick.  This film contains some of the most beautiful moments of the year but it is really about depression and while von Trier likes to make himself as important as the stars of his films, he had a hard time with this one as Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg own this film.   Dunst actually gave my favorite female performance of the year, which is why this film made it into the top half of the list.  It is a joke that she was not even nominated for the Oscar.

6. Warrior
Criminally under seen, Warrior is unfairly saddled as "that MMA (or UFC) movie."  Sure, it's easy to describe it as the Rocky of MMA, but to call it that belittles just how good this movie is.  That's not to say that Rocky is a bad movie (I love it, actually), but Warrior is its own film and it deserves a much larger audience.  Now that it's on video, there's no reason to miss out on this one.  Also, Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte are all on their A-game. 

7. X-Men: First Class
After the disappointing third film (which I don't think is nearly as bad as others make it out to be) and the mediocre, sometimes awful Wolverine spinoff, there was not much hope for this prequel.  Then that awesome trailer came out and the film itself accomplished the rare feat of living up to the trailer.  Setting a mutant battle in the midst of the Cold War worked so well and the cast is great.  Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are perfect as young versions of Magneto and Professor X, respectively.  Comic book movies can be truly great sometimes.

8. The Descendants
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Alexander Payne's films.  I loved Election and Sideways, but his last film came out in 2004 and audiences (i.e., me) tend to have short memories.  I quickly remembered that I loved Payne's films for their heartfelt portrayals of people in depressing situations and the humorous way these stories played out.  It helps to get a strong performance out of George Clooney and a surprise turn from relative newcomer Shailene Woodley (who was laughably snubbed by the Academy this year).  This is a touching, great film that fits right in there with Payne's impressive filmography.

9. The Adventures of Tintin
Okay, I'm not going to lie; I only went to see this because I was bored over the holidays and I had a coupon for an IMAX ticket.  I had no idea I was in for one of Steven Spielberg's most exhilarating movies in recent memory.  The visuals are amazing and the action is simply awesome.  And I mean that in the strict definition of the word.  I was awestruck a few times.  Don't be fooled by the "kiddie" look of the film.  This is Spielberg in classic Indiana Jones mode, and that's a good time for everyone.

10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I should just reserve a spot each year for director David Fincher, although this is his weakest showing yet on my end of the year list (he's three for three since I've been doing this).  That doesn't mean this film isn't fantastic.  It is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  If anything, this film stands as a sign that Fincher doesn't have to be in your face with his style to make an effective film.  I must say, though, his more stylish fare is more impressive.  It's Rooney Mara's performance (surprisingly Oscar-nominated) that soldified it's spot on my list.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
I take forever to make my top ten list each year (one year I flat out cheated and made a top fifteen), so of course there are plenty of other films that nearly made my list.  If this was written on a different day, any of these films could easily have made the cut.

50/50 - They really managed to pull off a cancer comedy while still remaining emotionally captivating.

The Conspirator - An interesting and historically accurate courtroom drama.

Coriolanus - A great Shakespeare adaptation and a promising first directing effort from Fiennes.

Hanna - Joe Wright has become a must-watch director with this stylish action film.

Hesher - Gordon-Levitt is hilarious in this strange film.

Midnight in Paris - Not a Woody Allen fan, but this magical film was just great.

Moneyball - Brad Pitt makes it look easy in this interesting and unlikely baseball film. 

Red State - So close to making the list if only because Smith showed such a different side.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - This one was on and off the list multiple times.  Fought the urge to make this a top eleven just to keep this film on there. 

Shame - Fassbender!

Young Adult - A funny drama featuring great turns from Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2011 Review Round Up: "The Artist," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Coriolanus," "The Ides of March," "The Iron Lady," "Beginners," "Bellflower," and "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

I'm about to post my Top Ten of 2011 list but there are still a few films I wanted to comment on briefly before I release the list.  Most of these are films that have received some love this year during the awards season, which is why I wanted to weigh in on them before I close out my 2011 reviews for good.  Anyway, here they are and my Top Ten should be on here in the next few days.

The Artist - Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, and John Goodman - Rated PG-13

This is the heavy hitter this year as this film continues to win award after award.  First off, it has the gimmick of being a silent film, which does make it interesting.  Secondly, it is funny, entertainging, and touching.  That said, I don't understand why this film is considered anything other than a cute experiment in filmmaking.  I guess some people are just falling in love with the film, but I only found it amusing.  I just feel that giving this film accolades is comparable to giving Chicago the Best Picture award just because it's something we haven't seen...for awhile.  Let's not forget, Hollywood didn't make silent films because they thought they were the best way to get stories out there; they made them because that's all the technology allowed for.  I think this film was made more for Hollywood types than it was for a regular audience.  All of this is really in response to the film's reception thus far.  If not for all the awards, I would probably devote much more space to what I liked about the film, but if you want to read a love fest about this film, just check out...nearly every single other review of it.

Oh, and one last thing: that old timey soundtrack was amusing for the first ten minutes but it became very annoying very quickly.  Once again, there's a reason why they don't make silent films anymore.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Written and directed by Sean Durkin, starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, and John Hawkes - Rated R

By far one of the most disturbing films of the year.  Elizabeth Olsen is the best part of this film and if she doesn't get nominated for Best Actress this year, it's only a matter of time.  She does a great job as mentally disturbed former cult member.  Of course, it's easy to look disturbed once you've been around John Hawkes for a while.  Hawkes gives yet another quiet, menacing performance that surpasses his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone.  The film itself is one that demands a few viewings and actually deserves them as well.  It is a disjointed film and some elements may slip past in one viewing.  Overall, an effective film.  Although I would rather have seen more cult scenes and less sister bickering scenes.

Coriolanus - Directed by Ralph Fiennes, written by John Logan, starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, and Vanessa Redgrave - Rated R

This film seems to be getting attention only for Redgrave's performance.  She is great, but there's so much more to this Shakespeare adaptation.  First off, kudos to Fiennes for wanting to bring a lesser known work to the big screen.  Secondly, John Logan's adaptation is one of those effective slight updates that feels logical rather than goofy.  Fiennes, in an impressive directorial debut, proves, if anything, that he can shoot a very effective action sequence.  If they ever make a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare movie, Fiennes would be a no-brainer.  His acting is great, too.  As the temperamental Coriolanus, Fiennes seethes through the role.  His angry outbursts are fantastic and you can just see the anguish in his face as he holds back in the early scenes.  Gerard Butler does fine, as well, if for no other reason than he is speaking in his natural accent again (I don't know how many more American accent attempts I can stand from him...).  Some may take issue with Coriolanus as a character, but I found his resolve fascinating.  It's refreshing to see a character/politician who is unwilling to shill to the masses rather than speak his or her mind.  Finally, the film simply captivated me.  I was with it all the way.  One of the best adaptations of Shakespeare in a long time.

*I found these last few to be a bit less substantial (except Bellflower and We Need to Talk About Kevin, those films have grown on me, I just can't express how I feel about them properly just yet) than the above films so I'm going to finish up with some very brief comments on a handful of films.

The Ides of March

I dug it and all, but it felt a bit too much like Primary Colors.  Someone becoming disenfranchised with politics?  Doesn't that describe the general public at this point?  It just came off as a bit too serious, especially considering that the point of the film is over a decade too late.

The Iron Lady

What can I say?  I knew next to nothing about Margaret Thatcher going in and after the film was over I didn't necessarily understand why there was a film made about her.  A documentary would do just fine.  But hey, whatever reason you need to give Meryl Streep another Oscar, right?  For the record, she does an impressive job.  It would just be nice to see some new faces win Best Actress.


This one is getting all the attention for Christopher Plummer's supporting performance of an elderly gay man.  He's fine, but I still think Albert Brooks was better in Drive.  The film itself is entertaining and fresh, though I can never truly buy Ewan McGregor as a plucky American...


The synopsis for this film is so nuts it had to be great.  Basically it's a story about two guys who want to make a flamethrower for their post-apocalyptic car so they're ready for a Road Warrior-type future.  That aspect of it is weird and cool and definitely makes the entire film worth it, but what makes Bellflower something special is out it accurately portrays young people and relationships.  Sure it's a bit crazy, but it gets the tone right.  And there are a few cool images, as well.  Worth watching just for the oddity of it all, but worth watching again for how good it is.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I found this movie utterly effective...and I never want to see it again.. Easily one of the most disturbing films of recent memory.  Tilda Swinton is great, but Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell steal the show as Kevin (at different ages).  You want to keep young people from getting pregnant?  Make them watch this movie.  Seriously, this movie messed with me for days.  I've recommended it to multiple people and now I feel bad about it...

Monday, January 16, 2012

"Young Adult"

Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, and Patrick Wilson - Rated R

The Kurgan is starting to forgive Diablo Cody for "homeskillet."

Diablo Cody is a polarizing figure in the screenwriting world.  Some loved the quirky dialogue of Juno while others (me, for instance) were completely annoyed by phrases like “home skillet” and “honest to blog.”  Her next effort, Jennifer’s Body, was an enjoyable, though less successful, attempt at comedy/horror.  With Young Adult, it appears that Cody has matured into a screenwriter who can show off through characters and situations rather than one-off phrases that will become annoying before the film is out on video. 
Young Adult shows the maturation of a screenwriter and that is fitting since it is also about the maturation of its main character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron).  Mavis, the ghostwriter of a once-popular series of young adult novels, is in a funk.  Recently divorced, Mavis spends her days drinking, playing videogames, and occasionally eavesdropping on tweens for writing material.  When she finds out her high school sweetheart has just become a father, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown to break up his marriage and win him back. 
The plot of Young Adult alone makes it a difficult movie.  It’s hard to root for a character whose sole goal in the film is to break up a happily married couple.  Mavis can be funny and it’s even understandable why some characters would be friends with her and give her a break, but essentially she is a selfish, despicable person who only interacts with others when she has something to gain from it.  The film works, however, because it is not a dark character study of Mavis.  Young Adult is all about her, sure, but it’s not so serious that it becomes depressing to watch her act so badly.  While the film isn’t an all out comedy, it certainly doesn’t qualify as a straight up drama, either.
The comedic side of Young Adult is its saving grace, but the humor only works if you’re okay with a laughs with a mean edge.  Mavis is funny, but at the expense of everyone around her.  But just because she’s mean that doesn’t mean she isn’t right and/or funny at times.  Part of the appeal of Young Adult is the question, what is happiness?  Is it having a decent job and a family in suburbia, eating at franchise restaurants and drinking domestic beer?  Mavis is definitely against that possibility because she is of the city and everything is better there because everyone is above these lame, middle-class dreams.  It’s her constant condemnation of all things small town that may rub people the wrong way.  But once you realize that she is much more miserable than any of the “simpletons” around her, it is easy to laugh at some of her awkward and mean interactions.
The best of these interactions are with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who was left disfigured after a hate crime.  Matt forms an unlikely friendship with Mavis and their conversations form the backbone of the film as it is only with Matt that Mavis drops her guard at all.  It also helps that Patton Oswalt holds his own against the immensely talented Theron.  Theron’s performance carries the film, but it is Oswalt that gives the film its much needed heart. 
Young Adult also works as a lost soul film, which seems to be director Jason Reitman’s area of expertise after Juno and Up in the Air.  The problem, once again, is that Mavis is not as likeable as the characters of those other films, but that makes Young Adult stand out.  As for Reitman, he is an able filmmaker who always gets great performances from his actors, but his style is insignificant for the most part.  The only visual elements of the film that show the director’s hand are a series of close up montages of Mavis getting ready for the evening.  They don’t really add anything to the film.  It simply doesn’t make sense to have a close up montage of Theron getting a pedicure.  More importantly, these moments are not aesthetically interesting, either.  In fact, they feel downright lifted from Edgar Wright films. 
Another element that is unnecessary in Young Adult is the way the theme of the film is handled.  Based on the title alone, you can pick up on the idea that this is a film about how some people don’t mature mentally into adulthood.  Mavis’s actions and words show this to good effect.  But Diablo Cody didn’t have enough faith in the audience because she has characters flat out say the theme to Mavis.  Not a major problem, but it’s never good to insult your audience’s intelligence.
Montages and overstatement of theme are small problems, though.  Young Adult, if witnessed in the right mindset, is a funny, sad, and ultimately rewarding experience.  It’s not getting the attention most people expected from a Reitman/Cody team-up this awards season, but many should find it to be just as good as, if not better, than Juno or Up in the Air.  I know I did.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, the ending.  I am not sure if I love it or hate it.  On one hand, it's kind of refreshing to see a static character.  Mavis's delusions were exposed and she got naked figuratively and literally with Matt.  So lesson learned, right?  No, instead she gets a pep talk from a woman who still wants to be part of her high school clique and she ends up convinced that she is right and everyone else is wrong.  The scene plays out almost like a hallucination.  Perhaps that's the point, but there is no definitive evidence that Mavis is dreaming or making this stuff up herself.  Maybe another viewing is warranted.  It's hard to swallow that this character is truly that lost and it leaves the film with an overly bitter conclusion.  I'm not saying that she should embrace the lifestyle she had been mocking the whole time, but at least have her accept that some people can be happy in small towns and others can be happy in cities.

Speaking of small towns and cities, as a small town man I connected more with that aspect of the film.  Part of me got angry with Mavis's treatment of small town folk, but part of me identified with her.  It's hard not to see the more interesting places in the world and not feel a little envious at times.  But I don't feel that the film is a condemnation of small town lifestyles.  It's just another aspect of her that can potentially cause viewers to hate her.

I loved the Mos Eisley joke.  "Most Easily?"

I didn't mention Patrick Wilson in the main review.  This isn't because he does a bad job.  It's just that he's done this before.  Wilson seems like the go-to actor for "Midwest family man." 

I dug the J. K. Simmons voiceover cameo.  After True Grit, this makes two uncredited voicework jobs.  It's a good job for him.  He has a humorous and distinct voice.

Of course, Cody couldn't resist some witty phrases and names.  It's not in-your-face, though.  And I actually though "KenTacoHut" was funny.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

Directed by David Fincher, written by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgard - Rated R

A dark story made even better by David Fincher's cold direction.

It was only a matter of time before Stieg Larsson’s addictive novels got the Hollywood treatment.  Thankfully, Director David Fincher was given the task to bring the first novel to the big screen.  Fincher’s signature cold, methodical style forms a perfect union with Larsson’s dark, somewhat twisted source material.  Add a great performance from Rooney Mara and you have one of the best thrillers of the year. 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the dark story of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.  Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is an investigative journalist who has recently been publicly discredited.  Just as he begins to lie low for awhile he is contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an elderly businessman who wants Blomkvist to solve a decades old murder.  Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) conducts investigations of her own, though through more illegal means, mainly computer hacking.  Eventually their paths cross and an unlikely partnership is formed.
If there’s one word that can describe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that would be “cold.”  First off, the film is literally cold as it takes place in Sweden and snow is ever present.  The protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is cold throughout most of the film.  More importantly, it’s Fincher cold.  The director is known for his style, though the most talked about element of his filmmaking is usually his camerawork: the regatta scene in The Social Network, the “go anywhere, through everything” camera movements of the majority of his films, etc.  In other works, though, like Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Se7en, and now The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s more about the mood of the film.  Fincher’s camera still moves around effectively, but it doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Overall, Fincher creates an unsettling, dark tone that is perfect for this adaptation.  The emotionless tone works so well because of the titular girl of the film: Lisbeth Salander.
Lisbeth Salander was instantly a literary icon upon the publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so the role of the film version is the role of a lifetime.  Noomi Rapace has shot to prominence after portraying her in the Swedish versions of the films, and now Rooney Mara (the girl who dumps Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) is set to do the same after giving a very effective performance.  In one of the best performances of the year, Mara embodies Salander perfectly.  Salander is a troubled young woman, or she is according to the state.  She is under the guardianship of a despicable man (an absolutely repugnant Yorick van Wageningen) and is not even allowed to look after her own money.  Salander does not do herself any favors by embracing her otherness through her style.  She has the appearance of a troubled hacker, though she can definitely handle herself just fine…as long as it’s done her way. 
Daniel Craig is as much the star of this film as Mara is, however, especially considering that the film’s story is mainly about him.  Craig does a fine job, though his character pales in comparison to Salander.  He is still an immensely watchable actor who seems to effortlessly add energy to the film.  Christopher Plummer is fine as the patriarch of the Vanger family, though I must admit I always envisioned Max von Sydow for his role and still wish he had portrayed Henrik. 
The story of the film may belong to Blomkvist, but the film itself hinges on Salander.  From the techno James Bond-esque opening credits sequence, it is clear that Salander’s character is the core of the film.  Her dark past isn’t expanded on with much detail (which makes her all the more interesting), but Salander still has to go through some brutal moments throughout the film and she easily becomes a likable, twisted anti-hero. 
The brutality of the film is all part of Salander’s character and Fincher’s style.  Fincher has never been one to shy away from violence and this film is no exception.  It’s not gratuitous and he even backs away from the more gruesome scenes, allowing the sounds of the characters and the score to do their work as the camera slowly dollies back.  Speaking of the score, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have created a nicely understated and unsettling score.  While their work for The Social Network was so prominent it was almost a character, the score for Dragon Tattoo always seems to be lurking under the surface, which is exactly where it needs to be for a film like this. 
The style, the characters, the performances, and the tone are what make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a great movie, but the story is quite engrossing as well.  The investigation Blomkvist and Salander undertake is a very interesting murder-mystery not just because of the crime itself but also because of the Vanger family and all its secrets.  The mystery is complex and takes up quite some time.  This is a lengthy film, though it doesn’t overstay its welcome. 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an entertaining, interesting, mature film that has immense style, yet manages to be subdued.  There’s something to be said for a director who can place his stamp on a film without being in your face about it.  David Fincher created a great sensory world for an adaptation of fascinating source material, all of which is elevated by performance, most notably that of Rooney Mara.  It was tagged as the “feel bad movie of Christmas” and that is absolutely true in the best way.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

So what's the deal?  Since Craig is Bond does he have it in his contract that all opening sequences should resemble 007 openings?  All kidding aside, I really dug that sequence, especially the cover of "Immigrant Song." 

As for music, "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)" by Enya will forever remind me of this film now.  The use of that song was hilarious. 

Some brutal moments that made me wince: the football kick of the thing into the know what I'm talking about.  Ouch.  Also, the golf iron to the face.  Some of the images of this film are burned into my memory...

It's been awhile since I've read the book, but I did pick up on a few things and I was very glad to see an empty box for Billy's Pan Pizza in Salander's apartment.  I always found it amusing how Larsson would go into such extreme detail to the point he would list grocery items.  Of course, a detailed director like Fincher would work that in.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"The Adventures of Tintin"

Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the comic series by Herge, starring Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, and Andy Serkis - Rated PG

I had a hell of a lot of fun with this movie.  If it's a children's movie, then consider me a child. 

When The Adventures of Tintin was announced I wasn’t sure what the big deal was.  Sure, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were teaming up for it, but I didn’t understand why.  I, like most Americans, had never heard of Tintin, the young detective that most children grow up reading in Europe.  Initially, I planned on skipping Tintin and just waiting for the DVD, but an action-packed preview and good word of mouth convinced me to check it out.  I am certainly glad I changed my mind, because Tintin turned out to be one of the most fun, exhilarating experiences in the theatre this year.
After ten minutes of Tintin, it is very clear why Steven Spielberg wanted to make this film: without Tintin, Indiana Jones would not exist.  The Adventures of Tintin is the Indiana Jones movie that Spielberg never made.  It’s a mystery set in the past that spans the globe, filled with goofy characters and top notch action.  That sentence describes Tintin and any Indiana Jones film.  In fact, it’s safe to say that anyone who was disappointed by the last Indiana Jones movie will find satisfaction with Tintin. 
Tintin follows the adventures of the young reporter and his dog, Snowy, as they unravel the mystery of the Unicorn, a lost ship rumored to contain an immense treasure.  Along for the journey is the drunken Captain Haddock, whose ancestor was the captain of the Unicorn.  Tintin and Haddock go on a wild journey as they race against the evil Sakharine to get to the treasure first.  Turn the villain into a Nazi and add a supernatural element and this would be Indiana Jones.  As it is, it is a very fun, family friendly film.
I use the term “family friendly” because this film seems to be dismissed by some as a movie meant for children.  If you want to get cliché, you could say it’s a film for the child in everyone, but that’s weak.  Children will no doubt enjoy this film, but that doesn’t mean it is solely for younger audiences.  I myself was reminded of the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Family friendly, children’s movie, whatever.  Tintin has such engrossing and amazing visuals and action sequences that you’ll forget what genre this film is supposed to be in.  If you’re like me, you’ll get so lost in it that you even forget this is an animated movie. 
The fact that Steven Spielberg has made his first animated movie should be enough to garner interest for this film.  Not only is this his first animated feature, but it is motion-capture animation (or mo-cap), and it is in 3D.  Spielberg is an absolute natural for this type of filmmaking and he truly takes advantage of the unlimited opportunities that mo-cap and animation open up. 
As for the look of the film, the mo-cap work here is just as good as any of the other standard bearers out there like Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The animation is nearly photo-realistic at times while also maintaining a comic appearance.  The 3D is exactly what 3D should be.  You feel immersed within the film rather than having the film thrown at you.  Some of the more insane action sequences may have you rubbing your eyes, but that’s a good problem to have.
Motion capture means that the performances for the film were not just voice work.  Jamie Bell portrays Tintin with perfect innocence and energy.  Daniel Craig adds enough evil into his voice to the point that he is hard to recognize as Sakharine.  But, of course, Andy Serkis steals the show as Haddock.  Serkis is already the king of mo-cap and rightfully so.  His performance as Haddock is by far the most enjoyable performance of the film.  Some of the physical gags for Haddock are a bit goofy, but the character is consistently funny on many levels. 
Tintin is an amusing movie, even for a newcomer to the series.  Even though I was not in the know, I still recognized moments that were meant to play fan service.  I obviously wasn’t able to get that much enjoyment out of any character references or hidden jokes, but if you are aware of the series, there should be plenty going on in the background to keep you entertained.  If you’re just a Spielberg fan, though, there is a bit of fun had with some Jaws references, so American audiences shouldn’t feel too polarized.
Overall, Tintin turned out to be the surprise of the year for me.  I knew it wouldn’t be terrible because of the filmmakers involved.  But I was worried about the source material, since it was so unknown to me.  That fear was completely unfounded because it doesn’t matter what you know about the material as Spielberg has already prepped you for this film with the “Indiana Jones” series.  Tintin is just Spielberg’s love of a good adventure film coming to fruition in beautiful 3D, mo-cap animation.  So if you haven’t heard of Tintin before, now is a good time to get to know him.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

After this film, I now think Spielberg is the obvious choice to make an Uncharted movie.  Although, I guess that would be too similar to this film and Indiana Jones for him.  Still, I couldn't help but think of that videogame while watching Tintin

Not complaining or anything, but they could have just lifted any John Williams score from the Indiana Jones series since his music for those films just seems natural for a film like this. 

The Thomson and Thompson characters were a bit annoying, but I guess fans of the series will enjoy them.  I did like the use of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for their voices, though.

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Directed by Brad Bird, written by Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec, starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner - Rated PG-13

This film doesn't have a villain nearly as cool as the Evil Kurgan, but the action more than makes up for it.

The Mission: Impossible franchise has transformed from complicated (some would say overly so) spy thriller to the go-to series for outrageous action.  Some may prefer the former (the first film is still my favorite, though I’m okay with where the series has gone), but it’s hard not to have a lot of fun with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

Ghost Protocol picks up right where the third film left off.  Not story wise, necessarily, but in regards to the action.  Mission: Impossible 3 invigorated the series with its amazing action set pieces, fun tone, and memorable villain.  Ghost Protocol certainly takes the fun tone and action set pieces and amplifies them, though it falls a bit short in the villain department.
The plot of Ghost Protocol is ripe for ridiculous action as the members of Agent Ethan Hunt’s IMF team must stop a nuclear explosion while they themselves are on the run after being blamed for blowing up part of the Kremlin.  To stop the nuclear blast they have to travel all over the world and engage in over-the-top theatrics, like climbing on the outside of the world’s tallest building just to reach a computer. 
If the plot sounds a bit vague, it’s because it is.  I am still not entirely sure what the villain’s true goal was.  That isn’t a fault against the movie, though.  It is probably explained in full spy-lingo detail, it’s just that the action overshadowed the stakes of each situation to the point that it became easy to forget just why the characters were doing what they were doing.  I suppose that is actually what you would call a plot hole, if the reasons are so vague you’re not even sure what they are, but it’s easy to forgive a film that features Tom Cruise running down the face of the Burj Khalifa (the aforementioned world’s tallest building). 
The action is simply astounding.  And when seen in IMAX, it can be nearly overwhelming.  It’s not all big set pieces, though.  The way the action is filmed is easy to follow so you never get that frenetic “who’s punching/chasing who?” feeling that modern action films so often succumb to.  Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles), directing his first live action feature, shows that he knows his way around an action scene.  Of course, a film starring Tom Cruise has to show action in a specific way: you have to be able to see Cruise’s face as much as possible.  This isn’t an ego thing, but more about proving to the audience that it is, in fact, actually the actor performing many of the crazy stunts of the film.  Being able to see Tom Cruise’s face isn’t what makes the action better; but if you have to hold the shot long enough and you have to zoom in close enough to tell who the actor is, then you’re also going to get to see the action in a straightforward manner. 
While Tom Cruise is the face of the franchise, he is certainly not alone in Ghost Protocol.  Jeremy Renner steps in as a new, mysterious team member, and Paula Patton and Simon Pegg round out the cast.  Renner does okay, but his character isn’t all that interesting.  There might be some potential in a sequel, but he pales a bit in comparison to the rest of the cast.  Patton is pretty much just there to be the woman in the film.  And Pegg, of course, supplies comedic relief.  It’s that comedic relief that changes the tone a bit. 
Ghost Protocol comes off as an action comedy more often than not, which is not in keeping with previous films of the series.  (The third film starts off very dark, with a menacing Phillip Seymour Hoffman threatening Tom Cruise, while the most memorable beginning moment of this film is a slightly goofy prison break.)  A few laughs are okay in an action film, but some people may be thrown off by just how often the film goes for the comedy.  It does make the film feel a bit more cartoonish than it should be at times, but a lighter Mission: Impossible is simply more entertaining. 
A bit more comedy isn’t that big of a deal, but what is truly unfortunate is the downgrading of the villain.  Michael Nyqvist (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is okay but this is one of the most uninteresting villains in recent memory, not just in this series but in movies in general.  He’s just the guy who wants to do bad things and that is it.  The character is a complete letdown, especially since the previous film had such a memorable villain. 
A weak villain isn’t the end of the world, though.  Ghost Protocol is about big action, a few laughs, and that is it.  While there are weak elements, the strong aspects outweigh them so much that you’re not likely to notice problems unless you try to look for them.  Can I remember the villain’s name or even what he looks like?  Nope.  Can I still vividly picture Tom Cruise climbing the tallest building in the world?  I think I could storyboard it if need be.  In an action movie, that’s the way it should be.
 Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
The gadgets are interesting, ridiculous, and funny at times, even if they do make the movie feel more like another popular spy franchise.  I really dug the that whole fake hallway screen.
Renner makes for a decent addition, though I would prefer Ving Rhames to be part of the team.  I understand that Pegg has pretty much taken over as resident computer guy so Rhames wouldn't have his own thing anymore, but why tease us with a cameo from Rhames at the end?  Just find a way to work him into the movie since his presence made the first three better. 
Can we finally put the disavowed plotline to rest?  How many times is Hunt going to be portrayed as enemy to the States?  Wouldn't they trust this guy at this point?  He's been set up fifty times it seems.  Shouldn't somebody at IMF put out a memo: Hunt is a good guy and always will be.  Also, it's not like their means are limited even when disavowed since the team had an insane amount of resources even though they technically had no support.  How about having Hunt and his team actually remain official agents in the next film?