Archive for December, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on December 30, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Dense, impenetrable spy drama based a the John le Carré best seller, concerns the Circus – the British Secret Intelligence Service – and their investigation of a Soviet mole which they believe has infiltrated the highest ranks of their organization. To say this talky production demands your concentration, is a gross understatement. The first half will undoubtedly be a confusing experience for those unfamiliar with the author’s espionage novels. However during the second half the puzzle pieces start to fit together. For patient viewers with the tolerance to follow the story, it’s a handsomely mounted period piece.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not an easy plot to comprehend. The narrative frequently jumps from the present to various points in the past – some recent, some not so recent. There is absolutely no warning to indicate these frequent shifts in time. Realizing the position a character holds and when they retired, will help immeasurably with the sequence of events. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll catch that one individual has died in the present so any moment he’s on screen, you know it’s part of history. John le Carré is fond of using technical jargon in his novels. The movie adaptation doesn’t shy away from this either. The Circus, Witchcraft, Karla and Control are all code names for things that can be inferred from context but are never explicitly explained. It takes awhile to realize the never seen, but constantly referred to Karla is not a woman at all but the Soviet Intelligence officer who recruits and controls the mole inside the Circus. This is merely one bit of information the filmmakers assume you will “get”. Trust me. You’ll be thankful for this knowledge should you decide to trudge through the script’s murky chronology. I’ll leave you to discover the rest on your own.

In the end, one’s enjoyment of Tinker Tailor will hinge on one simple, but all important fact: that you actually care about finding out who the mole is. I didn’t. The dispassionate script failed to capture my interest in this regard. The dense narrative is crippling. For me, the picture’s charms rely on one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch give noteworthy performances, but Gary Oldman is the standout. He proves what a chameleon of an actor he is, as he perfectly embodies George Smiley. His portrayal compares favorably with Alec Guinness who memorably played the part in two highly successful BBC TV series (the original Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1979, and Smiley’s People, made in 1982). It’s an undeniably commendable production. The period details of Europe during the Cold War in the early 1970s are beautifully presented in a superior staging of wardrobe and music. Tinker Tailor is steeped in the depressing mood so often found in Scandinavian cinema. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson favors stark locales and deliberate pacing. I trust fans of the book will find more to love here. Not having read the 1974 British spy novel, I was motivated to watch the film twice. I can attest to the fact that while it makes sense on a second viewing, the movie is still a seriously underwhelming experience.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on December 27, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketRobust spy thriller is the 4th entry in the Mission Impossible series and the undisputed pinnacle of the franchise thus far. The Impossible Missions Force, the independent espionage agency employed by the United States, runs into trouble when the Russian government has placed the blame of a Kremlin bombing on Ethan and his team. An entity codenamed ‘Cobalt’ is attempting to obtain a list of nuclear launch codes so he can unleash nuclear war against the United States. It’s up to Ethan Hunt and his crack team to stop him and clear the good name of the IMF agency in the process.

What really sets MI – Ghost Protocol apart from your garden variety potboiler are the outstanding action sequences.  Actual location shooting at three locales: Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai, highlight set pieces with astonishing stunts. Each individual display would have provided sufficient excitement independently, but put together and there’s scarcely time to breathe. When the team initially attempts to infiltrate the Kremlin, the operation is giddy with disguises, gadgets and humor. There’s a hallway screen that’s an ingenious technology that Benji and Ethan use to remain undetected in the fortified complex. Later, accessing a security room at the Burj Dubai from the outside of the skyscraper is a heart pounding spectacle. Ethan wears a pair of electronic friction gloves that enable him to climb the glass exterior of the Burj. You’ll gasp at the difficulty of the mission.

It’s such a heady delight, it out bonds James Bond. MI – Ghost Protocol is packed to the rafters with the sort of gizmos that were sadly lacking in the famed British Secret Service agent’s last outing, Quantum of Solace. Sticky gloves, bionic contact lenses and a BMW i8 with a touch screen interface are just a few of the tools of their trade. Indeed the comparison to a James Bond film is particularly apropos as the cosmopolitan surroundings and gadgets are particularly germane to those types of films. Strangely, there is no love interest, nor romantic sparks of any kind. That is a component that might have pushed this story into more emotional territory, but as it stands, the development is such a white knuckle ride, you don’t really miss it all that much.

The script has got a lighthearted sense of humor that never takes the preposterousness too seriously. Tom Cruise is joined by an accomplished crew of fellow operatives. Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg. All three have a nice chemistry together. Pegg brings his playful personality to the proceedings as Benji, newly promoted from technician to IMF field agent. Not an obvious choice to elevate as a member of Hunt’s inner team, but the unexpected promotion is welcome. Just when an early jailbreak scene threatens to becomes just another generic action cliché, Benji floods the prison PA system with Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” to liven things up. The tone, while never campy, is still refreshingly tongue in cheek.

MI – Ghost Protocol wont win any awards for depth. It’s pure popcorn entertainment through and through. But it’s intelligently written, has a game cast with personality, and maintains a high level of fireworks before faltering in the 3rd act. Hard to believe Tom Cruise is pushing 50 as this film has challenging stunts for someone even half his age. One might quibble over a 133 minute action film. This isn’t an epic and these pictures are better when they give us the thrills succinctly. This one starts out with a bang and drags a bit by the time they get to Mumbai before climaxing, rather predictably, with a fist fight. But before that happens there are a several jaw dropping set pieces and each one alone is worth the price of admission.

That MI – Ghost Protocol is far and away the best one yet, has got to be one of the biggest surprises of 2011. Some credit should go to Director Brad Bird for breathing new life into this series. Best known for writing and directing modern animated classics The Incredibles and Ratatouille, his facility for storytelling is clearly an asset here. There has been care to create personalities that seem human so when they’re hanging by an arm off the side of the tallest building in the world, we genuinely feel scared. When Jeremy Renner’s character is required to leap down a vertical cooling tunnel wearing a magnetic suit that will allow him to float, you can see the uncertainty on his face before he jumps. Those subtle touches are endearing because they make these individuals easier to identify with. These aren’t indestructible automatons, these are real human beings and we care about them.

War Horse

Posted in Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Deeply poignant war drama about a magnificent stallion named Joey and his experiences in the midst of World War I. Right from the opening scenes of the rolling hills of Devon, England where a mare gives birth to a young foal, we can feel the director laying the groundwork for an emotional journey. I think human beings have an innate desire to love horses anyway, so it’s not like we need to be convinced of that. However that doesn’t stop Spielberg from laying on the sentiment. His philosophy is to recall pictures of yesteryear with a mixture of stunning panoramas, a lush soundtrack and old fashioned heart. Spielberg pulls out all the stops and his command of cinematic exposition is incredibly effective.

This is stirring stuff and he expertly wrings emotion from both the environment as well as gorgeous music. Absolutely stunning cinematography emphasizes sprawling vistas of rural England and sequences across the battles of Europe to stirring effect. Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has photographed all of Spielberg’s works since 1993 and he’s in fine form here. The landscapes are bold and saturated with color. Scenes are bathed in an ethereal warm glow and shot with an eye for nostalgia. And then there’s that score!  The sweeping orchestration is courtesy of none other than legend John Williams who contributes a suitably majestic soundtrack that perfectly complements the action onscreen.

War Horse is Spielberg’s first effort in tackling World War I as a subject. He skillfully presents British author Michael Morpurgo’s novel with all the discretion befitting a children’s novel. Spielberg has dealt with the subject of war before: Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan. War Horse is not as punishing in subject matter as those forays in the genre. Still he doesn’t pull back from the fact that this is picture about war. As the plot progresses we’re treated to little vignettes as Joey passes hands from an auction to his owner, who subsequently sells him to the British military only to accidentally fall into the hands of the Germans later. There Joey befriends a larger black horse and their friendship is as affecting as any human one. But Spielberg’s touches aren’t all saccharine. He presents the story’s more harsher passages in a masterful way that is powerful and yet never bloody. We’re introduced to tender human characters that we bond with only to have them executed before us. The actual killing covered by the blade of a windmill as it turns. In another serious scene, Joey’s untamed sprint across a war torn battlefield has painful consequences and the scene made me wince as much as anything I saw this year. Be warned, if you’re an animal lover, it will be hard to watch.

Spielberg’s War Horse is a grand saga in the classic Hollywood vein. His picturesque vision recall classics like The Yearling or Shane. Even Gone with the Wind is suggested in the closing silhouetted shots. At the center is a remarkable stallion that gives a heartrending performance. Everything essentially revolves around him as he changes various hands during World War I. It’s a rousing document and one has to actively resist Spielberg’s admittedly calculating style to hate this movie. War Horse is anecdotal in nature, a tale of perseverance from the point of view of a plucky animal. I pretty much ate most of it up, but I’ll admit the picture’s charms are rather blatant. There are instances where it verges on mawkishness. But I’ll forgive Spielberg for that. War Horse is a venerable epic from one of our greatest filmmakers working at his manipulative best.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on December 21, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketTo succinctly encapsulate this elaborate thriller is a daunting task indeed, but I’ll do my best. Crime mystery begins when retired CEO of the Vanger Corporation, Henrik Vanger, hires magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist to probe the still unsolved death of his niece Harriet which occurred 40 years ago. Vanger is writing his memoirs and he uses that as an excuse to re-open the case that still haunts him. Blomkvist has a lot of free time on his hands. His journalism career has just been destroyed by scandal – his name all but ruined after losing a libel case regarding allegations he laid against billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist proceeds to investigate for Henrik, interviewing all the members of the Vanger clan. He’s soon aided by a withdrawn goth punk chick by the name Lisbeth Salander, a researcher and computer hacker. Labyrinthine chronicle runs 2 hours and 37 minutes and it would have to be in order to do justice to that complex narrative. It juggles a dizzying list of characters more suited to a epic novel than in a movie. Indeed there are even multiple endings as the developments tie up all the loose story threads.

What actually elevates Fincher’s remake is visual style. Every scene conveys the auteur’s stunning technique, without exception. Each carefully composed shot from where the actors stand to how a table is arranged is never an afterthought. The cinematography is luxurious and elevates the novel’s pulp fiction roots. Let’s be honest, the source novel is kind of trashy. Henrik Vanger’s isolated mansion, the clean interior of his great-nephew’s domicile, those cold Swedish winters, even the goth punk fashion of our titular character all seem to bear the mark of the director’s artistic vision. The mood is decidedly bleak and the cold harsh atmosphere, brilliantly supports this dark tale. The music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is fittingly ominous. Karen O’s booming cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” deserves a special mention. It plays over an attention grabbing opening credits that is the singular most arresting short that I witnessed all year. I still don’t even know how to describe what I saw. It’s a mass of black oil covering human bodies with technological and biological images that foreshadow what is to happen. After Se7en and Fight Club, David Fincher is clearly the current master of the title sequence.

Anyone who thinks the Hollywood interpretation would pull back from depicting the more shocking details of the book is grossly mistaken as director David Fincher only intensifies the depravity. Sexual violence against women is a recurring theme and the plot is underscored with lurid details. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo earns every bit of its hard R rating. At one point our protagonist Lisbeth starts recounting all of the heinous murders committed by the perpetrator and Mikael Blomkvist has to tell her to stop. “But I’m not done yet” she says. This is the grim David Fincher we know from Se7en. But where that mid 90s masterpiece of modern horror dramatically used shocks that felt intrinsic to the storyline, the shocks here feel exploitative. Witness one act of retribution where the audience is actually encouraged to cheer our heroine on while she takes revenge on her rapist in brutal fashion. It’s that dark foreboding sense of dread that can draw us in, but it can also repel.

Based on the Swedish book published by Stieg Larsson in 2005. The literary best seller has already been the source of one adaptation in 2009. This American remake, while technically superior, adds little in the way of improvements to the overly complicated unfolding of events that also marred the Swedish version. It all begs the question was the remake really necessary? The answer is yes if you’re trying to cater to audiences who resist seeing a foreign film with English subtitles, but no if the point was to significantly improve upon the original. Fincher’s adaptation doesn’t, but it does match the 2009 version for drama. As the details build, the events become simply too engrossing to dismiss. Despite the extreme length, I was riveted the whole time. The two leads are a big reason why. Rooney Mara makes an engrossing Lisbeth Salander. She reveals vulnerabilities in the character that weren’t evident in Noomi Rapace’s much harder character and Daniel Craig is a more charismatic Mikael Bloomkbnist.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may not be up to the brilliance of Fincher’s greatest works. But it is an above average thriller and a lesser work by David Fincher is still pretty worthwhile.

Young Adult

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 16, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Mavis Gary is a woman who lives in the past. A once fabulously popular and pretty high school student, things haven’t quite turned out the way she wanted. Now divorced and lonely, she impulsively chooses to revisit an old flame from high school after receiving a birth announcement from him. Yes her ex-boyfriend is now (ostensibly happily) married and expecting the arrival of his first child. But those are mere formalities to Mavis Gary who believes with every fiber of her being that he is in actuality, unhappy, trapped in a prison of a marriage with a wife and baby child he doesn’t want. She decides to return to her hometown and win him back.

Young Adult is an extraordinary study of a 37 year old woman who is at first glance, both beautiful and a published author.  But those superficialities belie a much more depressing picture.  The alcohol-dependent author writes fiction for adolescents – literature classified as “young adult”. The title could very well reference her occupation as well as her stunted maturation level. She’s the author – a ghostwriter really – of a young adult books series called “Waverly Prep”. As the plot unfolds, Mavis is simultaneously writing the last book of the Waverly Prep series which is no longer popular. As her own journey plays out, she concurrently writes for her protagonist, Kendall, which is clearly an extension of her own wish fulfillment. The disparity between what is happening in her own real life and the girl-power fantasy that she writes about, brilliantly contrasts her two worlds: reality and fiction.

Charlize Theron is marvelous. Rarely have I witnessed an individual so physically attractive on the surface and so extremely ugly within. Mavis behaves solely for herself. Caught up in shallow measures of success, she cannot comprehend that anyone could be content living in the insignificant, nowhere town she was originally from. The character is fascinating and utterly believable as a genuine person, despite her questionable and ridiculous behavior. Complementing her artless journey is a former classmate with whom she reunites – Matt Freehauf – played by Patton Oswalt in a stunning performance. Heavyset and socially awkward Matt Freehauf wasn’t friends with Mavis Gary when they were in high school together. Yet they inadvertently meet again and form an unexpected bond. You might have to go back to Ernest Borgnine in Marty to find a more heartbreaking and honest portrayal of an unmarried man child.

Young Adult is a mesmerizing no-holds barred expose of a woman dissatisfied with life and her bizarre determination to make things right. Mavis Gary is a woman you won’t soon forget. She’s bold but mentally confused. Despite her visible beauty, her personality is disgusting and Charlize Theron deserves kudos for her brazen work here. The story goes places that are downright embarrassing. In fact there are scenes in Young Adult that are so cringe inducing, I couldn’t even look at the screen. This is not a cheerful film. In fact it’s downright bleak bordering on harsh. Screenwriter Diablo Cody was supposedly inspired when reporters repeatedly pointed out her own fixation with adolescent subjects. She obviously has a certain accord with this popular girl who never quite left high school.  Cody’s sympathy infuses her creation with a believability that keeps the character from ever being a caricature, although Mavis’ narcissism can be a bit ridiculous at times.  Mavis Gary is a contemptible human being, but one that also deserves our pity. The character study is a raw examination of a life unfulfilled. Its captivating ugliness is painfully splendid.

The Descendants

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 13, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Matt King, married to wife Elizabeth and father of two girls, suddenly finds himself as the sole guardian of his daughters after his wife slips into a coma following a freak boating accident. 10-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old Alex are not the idyllic children every parent dreams of. They are rebellious and disrespectful of authority. In the wake of this tragedy, Matt must simultaneously contend with 25,000 acres of unspoiled Hawaiian land. You see he’s the main titleholder, inherited as a descendant of white missionaries and Hawaiian royalty,

George Clooney is used to playing assertive, suave, debonair types. But his character here is none of those things. Granted he’s playing a wealthy lawyer, so we know he’s successful, but in his relationship with his children, he’s rather impotent. He’s exasperated with their casual profanity and lack of courtesy. He’s cast against type, but the unexpected role becomes a highlight of his career. The imperfections are freeing for him because they allow him to be vulnerable. In one memorable scenario, Matt is informed of some particularly distressing news by his oldest daughter – Shailene Woodley in an arresting performance.  Brazenly contrasting against the seriousness of the scene, Clooney immediately runs, ridiculously with arms flailing, to his friends’ home to confirm the news. The image is the very opposite of cool.

If Clooney has an equal in the picture, I’d say it is the state of Hawaii itself. The plot has Matt wrestling with the decision of what to do with the expanse of natural wonders that have been entrusted to his care. There is a genuine love for the state of Hawaii here that has nothing to do with stereotypical associations like hula dancing or surfing. The naturally gorgeous, quiet landscape beautifully underscores the various interactions between these people, giving the drama a relaxed vibe that feel like real life. It’s authentic and unpretentious. Featuring a collection of classic Hawaiian ‘slack-key’ music stars on the soundtrack, the largely acoustic guitar score also perfectly supports the film’s melancholy tone.

The Descendants is not a revelatory account. It feels like a made for TV movie concerning a family in crisis, but it’s an extremely well acted, straightforward story. How the plot ultimately ends isn’t really as important as the introspective journey in getting there. There’s no one single revelatory display that will shake you emotionally. It’s the many individual scenes where George Clooney interacts with assorted key people, that will involve you. Director Alexander Payne’s darkly humorous, almost mocking, representation of contemporary American society is perceptible here, but it’s much more traditional here than in his other movies. He’s done better work: Both Election and About Schmidt went to surprising places I didn’t expect the narrative to go. The Descendants is a bit more predictable. That still doesn’t negate the fact that this is a superlative human drama that is steeped in the frequent hardships of everyday existence.

Shame

Posted in Drama with tags on December 9, 2011 by Mark Hobin

“For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” – 1 Corinthians 2:11

A successful, young, white collar professional in his 30s grapples with his sexual vices as he makes a living in New York City. His dalliances inform the narrative at first. Then one day his younger sister shows up at his Manhattan apartment. She ends up moving in with him and the addition will severely affect his life. Shame is a drama co-written and directed by Steve McQueen. I’m sorry. With all apologies to this talented British filmmaker, I will forever associate that name with the popular American movie actor who passed on in 1980. “The King of Cool” is simply too iconic. I know. It’s my issue. But I digress.

Shame is not a pretty film. Make no mistake it’s beautifully filmed. The city looks stunning. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt photographs New York and its nightlife with an eye for detail and subtlety. We follow Brandon from his unspecified high powered job out into the night where he meets women. Shame is a searing drama, but not in the conventional sense. It’s one of those candid exposés where we’re eavesdropping on the intimate details. The feeling is seductive as well as a turn off. It reveals a man, literally and figuratively, to the bare essence of a personality. The director follows a judicious minimalism revealing his proclivities one layer at a time gradually. We learn about Brandon through the mundanity of his existence. He wakes, up, brushes his teeth, listens to phone messages, goes to work. His interactions with other people clarify his character and the portrait in quite engaging in that it takes its time. From all outward appearances he appears to be the model of success. It’s only after we start to peel back the layers of his wretched existence, we realize how messed up he is. It’s the explanation behind opening the review with that quote. My choice, not the filmmaker’s.

What makes Shame so absorbing are the performances. Michael Fassbender is fascinating. He is handsome, articulate, has a good career, is socially adept. But as the chronicle slowly divulges who he is, we see a much more unsettling picture. His interactions with others form a profile of the man. He hangs out with a male co-worker, a woman he meets in a bar. Then his sister comes to visit. Her arrival sets the most devastating event of the story in motion. Played by Carey Mulligan, Sissy is just as miserable as he is. But all of his various contacts are important. In one of the film’s best scenes, he goes out on a date with Marianne, a new assistant at work. She is attractive and bewitching. To him, she could be the picture of a normal girlfriend – a woman he could actually love and see as much more than merely another indulgence in his debilitating behavior. In one long extended take, their dinner conversation speaks volumes. It’s telling that actress Nicole Beharie is able to convey so much with her words. How their relationship develops speaks even more with their subsequent actions. It’s an intriguing development, one of many.

The production is deliberately paced, at times almost lethargic. Case in point: his sister is a singer in a bar and her performance of the Frank Sinatra staple “New York, New York” has got to be one of the slowest interpretations of any song I have ever heard. That’s an admittedly touching scene, but at times the listless pace is a bit off putting. Furthermore, I didn’t see why we should even care about this miscreant at first. In an earthly sense, an addiction is detrimental only if it harms you physically or has an adverse transformation on your life. For example, if you neglect your job to the point where it negates your ability to make a living, then you have a problem. But he was able to function as a productive member of society and still indulge in the addiction. There was a moral quandary but not a worldly one. But the account goes much deeper. Michael Fassbinder’s Brandon is a disturbing fellow………because he disturbs himself. He struggles with his own weaknesses and deep down he wants to stop. That’s what holds our attention – his desire to change. Brandon is a tragic figure. Shame is compelling – the audience riveted to the screen, no matter how hard we try to look away.

Cat People

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror with tags on December 6, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketTo call Paul Schrader’s Cat People a remake of the 1942 film of the same name is to really do it a disservice. If anything, it is more a re-imagining inspired by the Val Lewton 1942 B movie classic. Both pictures rely on the same basic template to tell the story of Irena, a young woman who is descended from a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused. Yes, the original was a model of restraint and class and this version, well isn’t. However that is not to say Cat People isn’t without its own charms.

This is a fully realized stylish dream that has moments of real majesty. German actress Nastassja Kinski, daughter of Klaus Kinski, is perfectly cast as the stunningly beautiful Irena. She readily suggests a cat thorough her deliberate movements and cagey personality. She goes to live with her brother in New Orleans whom she hasn’t seen since their animal trainer parents died when they were children. Paul, played by Malcolm McDowell, is one strange dude and not all that he seems. Hint: the movie is called Cat People. Irena soon finds herself at the zoo and striking up a relationship with Oliver played by John Heard. He’s one of the zoologists there who has seized an escaped panther that recently attacked a woman at night. Oddly, Irena is drawn to the captured creature.

One should not overlook the simply fantastic score by Giorgio Moroder. All slow pulsing disco synths, it relies on a space aged futurism that beautifully builds an eerie atmosphere. In many ways the music has held up even better than the flick itself. It also features the second best use of the superior title song “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie. The first being Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

There’s a fine line between sensual and tawdry and this erotic thriller does cross that edge a couple times. That may be two times too many for some viewers. Yet there’s an unadulterated visual flair to the production that is genuinely entertaining. The mood is pretty sumptuous. Let’s face it, this feature is entirely mood. It certainly isn’t about the story which is kind of ridiculous when you seriously ponder it. That’s part of what made the original so much fun. Much of that allure can be found here too. The drama creates a haunting ambience with its odd mix of romance and horror. If you can warm up to its languid rhythms, Cat People will entertain you. At the very least Giorgio Moroder’s hypnotic score will makes sure of that.

Arthur Christmas

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Holiday with tags on December 2, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketKEY: I am using (!) to indicate surprise, shock or being mentally baffled ; a WTF moment.

When a Christmas gift – a bike – accidentally goes undelivered to a little girl, Santa’s son Arthur takes the initiative to solve the problem. Arthur Christmas is a joint venture between Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animations, the British studio known for Wallace and Gromit. Cold, charmless Christmas movie radiates scarcely any tradition or warmth. I didn’t realize the classic tale of Santa Claus needed to be re-written for contemporary audiences but that’s what we’re presented with here. It’s about as captivating as a lump of coal.

The story’s decidedly modern, revisionist history of Santa Claus is kind of icky. Santa travels around in a gleaming red space ship to drop off presents in high tech fashion. However, Santa wants to step down from his position (!) Apparently he is just the latest in a long line of Santas that pass from one generation to the next when the guy is ready to retire. Grand Santa, a cranky 136-year-old (!) is still around in fact. Santa has an older son – Steve, who looks like a bodybuilder and manages everything at mission control back at the North Pole. Steve thinks he’s the logical choice to replace father. Santa’s younger son – Arthur is a klutz that oversees the letter department. The elves joke what a loser he is (!) After failing to deliver one package, Steve maintains that Santa shouldn’t worry about the happiness of one child out of a billion (!) Although more taskmaster than evil, Steve is the closest thing to an antagonist in the film. Santa ultimately decides nothing can be done (!) so his son Arthur plans to rectify the situation.

Arthur Christmas is an overly simplified tale aimed exclusively at very young children. When you get right down to it, the entire plot concerns the delivery of one package. That’s hardly a story to excite the senses. There’s plenty of colorful, eye popping visuals, however. It’s slick and frantically paced but very little of it engenders any sort of tenderness. All of the hyperactivity actually gave me a headache. Additionally the high caliber British cast (James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton) have been instructed to shout all of their lines as if that would makes their voice performances funnier. That doesn’t work in bad sitcoms and it doesn’t work here. It’s not all wretched. There’s a sexually ambiguous little elf named Bryony who is a peculiar gift-wrapping obsessive. She/He/It is kind of amusing. But as for the rest of it, I found this frantic exercise extremely lacking in Christmas spirit.

The Artist

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 2, 2011 by Mark Hobin

The transition from silents to talkies in cinema has a dramatically different effect on the careers of two actors. George Valentin is at the pinnacle of his profession. He’s a Hollywood star at the top of his game, beloved by millions. Surrounded by adoring fans, he’s charming, but also a bit narcissistic. As the 1920s draw to a close, silent pictures are still the norm, but a new innovation has been introduced. Talkies, pictures with sound, are the new fad, or so thinks the popular actor. At the same time, young flapper Peppy Miller is eager for a big break and looking to become an actress. A photographer snaps her chance encounter with the big time cinema star when she is seen on the red carpet, playfully kissing the handsome leading man. The drama continues to follow the career trajectories of these two through the motion picture industry with decidedly different results.

To call The Artist stylish is an understatement. The film beautifully appropriates the vocabulary of the silent era. When a crowd applauds wildly in one scene, we hear nothing. In another when George raises his hands to his head and looks up to the sky to scream, the sound is deafening in its silence. In its place, we have a lush (mostly) instrumental soundtrack married with the gorgeous contrast of black and white film. The visual cues of light and dark shadows are that much more crucial because there is no sound to inform the narrative. The Artist is sincerely a loving re-creation of the silent period. Not as the works exist today, but as we imagine them to be. The appropriation is truthfully a lot better than what remains from the actual movies of that time. There are no missing frames or deteriorated quality. The actors’ movements are fluid, not jumpy or rushed. Intertitles are used, but only sparingly allowing the viewer to connect with the actors through reading their lips and gestures. The acting feels more natural and informed by the current age. Yes the performers must rely on facial expressions and body language to indicate emotion, but the execution is restrained. We’re spared the artificial, melodramatic faces that mar productions of that time period. This is the silent era as re-imagined with technological panache. The mood is luxurious and nostalgic. Breathtaking is an overused word, but it fits.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has assembled an impeccable cast. Stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are virtual unknowns outside of France. Their lack of recognizability supports this as some long lost silent film. Male lead Jean Dujardin looks like an actor from the 1920s who traveled by time machine to 2011. He skillfully channels classic stars of a bygone era. Physically he’s cut from the same cloth as swashbuckling matinee idols like Douglas Fairbanks or Clark Gable. He gives a particularly heartbreaking performance. Having to rely solely on gestures to convey feeling is difficult to do well, but he’s incredible here. Bérénice Bejo, the director’s wife in real life, is Peppy Miller and her name describes her attitude. Spunky and cute, she’s effervescent as the ingénue. Think dark haired beauties like Janet Gaynor and or a very young Joan Crawford. Though the Argentine-born actress does not physically suggest the silent era as well as her male counterpart, she has an easy chemistry with Jean Dujardin. The two, along with director Michel Hazanavicius, have actually worked together before on the spy movie parody OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Perhaps it’s ironic to see a French director celebrating American film culture so unabashedly. That he could mimic Hollywood in the 1920s so perfectly is a tribute to his obvious love for American movies.

As mesmerizing as the two leads are, they couldn’t have carried the story without impressive supporting work by a talented cast. Providing some familiarity are American actors John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller. I have no idea the circumstances that permitted them to appear in this exquisitely made French film, but maybe their agents are in need of a raise. It’s been awhile since these actors have appeared in any films of note. They exist mainly to support the two French stars, but all give enjoyable performances here, appropriate to the time period. Lastly I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, a scene-steeling pooch that’s pretty inspiring as well. As George Valentin‘s, faithful companion and co-star, he’s sure to make any dog lover swoon.

The Artist is marked by a poetic beauty.  How can you not love a film that is (virtually) silent yet speaks volumes? Although The Jazz Singer was released in 1927 and is recognized as the first commercially successful talking picture, the majority of movies released were still silent for the next two years. It wasn’t until 1929 that the format eventually took off. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot was the last silent to be nominated for Best Picture in 1929. That will change this year. It takes chutzpah to make a silent movie in 2011. The fact that it’s so darn good, is just an additional benefit. As a period piece, it brilliantly captures the early age of sound, but the plot also presents a searing emotional drama about ego and the transitory nature of fame. In a word, it’s stunning and reminiscent of classics like Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard in terms of themes addressed. I dare say this ranks favorably when compared alongside side those jewels of the silver screen. The Artist is a film for the ages.

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