Saturday, December 31, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 23-31

 A Christmas Story (1983) ****
Director: Bob Clark
Writers: Jean Shepherd (also novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”), Leigh Brown, Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Jean Shepherd, Ian Petrella, R.D. Robb, Scott Schwartz, Tedde Moore, Zach Ward, Yano Anaya

Out of all the Christmas movies I’ve watched this year—most of which are ones I watch every year—this one remains the freshest. It so perfectly captures what Christmas is like for every member of the family. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be any member of a family at any time of year. After almost thirty years, I still find details that are new to me. Some of them become obvious just because my own perspective has changed.

It’s also an incredible time capsule for life in the 1940s, and yet somehow everything in it still applies in today’s world. It’s unbelievably timeless in that way, yet incredibly specific to it’s own time setting. I read the other day that the more specific a movie is, the more universal it is. There is no firmer proof of this theory than “A Christmas Story”. It even transcends religious and cultural holiday differences to some degree. The fact that most people would agree with what I’m saying here is even more proof. When the term “classic” was coined, this movie is what they were meaning.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) ***
Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Writers: Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg, Laurens van der Post (novel “The Seed and the Sower”)
Starring: Tom Conti, David Bowie, Ryûichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” isn’t really a Christmas movie. It’s a British POW movie told by Japanese filmmakers. Director and co-writer Nagisa Ôshima gives us a unique and interesting take on “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in this movie starring David Bowie. It’s told from the British prisoner’s point of view with Japanese ideals of dramatics and storytelling.

Mr. Lawrence is sort of an outcast among the British POWs because he’s befriended one of his captors, played by Takeshi Kitano. The commander of the POW camp finds himself stuck with a prisoner, played by Bowie, who has a strange power over him. He considers replacing the British commander with Bowie until Bowie’s actions create some insubordination among the prisoners. All the while, Mr. Lawrence tries to play peacekeeper.

The most interesting aspect of this film is to see the Japanese interpretation of western ideals of honor and duty. Ôshima gets the movements right, but the motivation is a little off. Seppuku is asked of the Japanese officers at several points throughout the film. The commander tries to get the British officers to understand this concept of self-sacrifice.

The British have no interest in understanding this practice that they find savage. I don’t think Ôshima ever quite reconciles the two ideologies. His notion of western guilt is a little off, as seen in the Bowie flashbacks. Still it is an interesting and worthwhile movie experience.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) ****
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Graham, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds

Like “A Christmas Story”, it always amazes me how relevant “It’s a Wonderful Life” still is today. Listening to the rhetoric thrown between Mr. Potter and the Bailey’s is like a precursor to the upcoming presidential election campaign. Potter holds the conservative ideals; the Bailey’s the progressive. It’s a wonder that liberals and conservatives alike so universally love this movie considering how it wears its political agenda on its sleeve.

Is this movie so good that it blinds people to what it is saying about the way the world should be? Do the right just strike its leftist notions down to the Christmas spirit? Why doesn’t that translate into an all year ideal for some? Or when watching this movie do people just have to concede that what’s right is right?

No matter what the answers to these questions, the life lead by George Bailey is a life any one of us could only hope to live up to in our own.

Drunk History Christmas (2011) ****
Director: Derek Waters, Jeremy Konner
Starring: Allen McCleod, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Jim Carrey

I don’t often review short films made specifically for websites, but this gem from Funny or Die just couldn’t be denied. Made by the group calling themselves Drunken History, this year’s Christmas installment is their second “Drunken History Christmas”. It involves a guy named Allen reciting “Twas the Night Before Christmas” while drunk. Considering that he does most of it by memory alone, it’s actually pretty impressive that he remembers what he does in his wasted state.

Watching a drunken guy try to recite a Christmas classic is funny enough, but the crew at Drunk History had the wisdom to hire such gifted actors as Ryan Gosling and Jim Carrey to act out the tale in its drunken telling, and the results are comedy gold. Gosling’s reactions to the drunken gibberish coming out of his mouth at times are priceless. Carrey hams it up as Santa Claus, and Eva Mendes also appears as Gosling’s sleeping wife.

This short had me holding my gut laughing, cackling at the rafters, and just plain short of breath.  Follow this link to view it for yourself. Drunk History Christmas with Ryan Gosling.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) ***
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo, Joey King, Marisa Tomei, Beth Littleford, John Carroll Lynch, Kevin Bacon, Liza Lapira, Josh Groban

“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is surprisingly charming for an ensemble romantic comedy. Perhaps, that is because it is actually about the people in it rather than about the idea of being in love. In building its comedy and drama on the characters it does a much better job of exploring love than movies like “She’s Just Not That Into You” or “Valentine’s Day”.

It also centers primarily on just two of its characters, although there are a multitude of subplots going on. Steve Carell plays a nice guy, whose wife has just left him. Ryan Gosling plays a ladies man who has the one night stand down to an art form. He can’t help but notice Carell’s loser at a bar they both frequent and offers to help him redefine himself to make his ex-wife jealous. Gosling likens himself to Mr. Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid how to fight.

“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is a hyperlink movie, but it doesn’t really play like one. It plays more like a character study on the nebbish Carell character. He does successfully transform himself, but at what cost? I was particularly impressed by how the film hid it secrets until they were absolutely necessary to be revealed. The graduation scene was a little hard to believe, however. It doesn’t really matter much, though, because the film so successfully embeds the audience into Carell’s life that you want everything to work out as it does.

Midnight in Paris (2011) ***½
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody

Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is one of the most delightful movies of the year. It isn’t one of his major works, but it is a return to form for the longtime filmmaker in many ways. It’s a less serious movie than most of his more recent work, more lighthearted and fantastical. It’s also quite nostalgic, which is its main subject.

It’s a hard movie to talk about without revealing its secrets, but the movie is a love letter to Paris and writers and artists of all kinds, especially famous artistic icons of the 1920s. Magic is one way to describe it in both literal and figurative terms. And it’s funny. I’d almost forgotten how effortlessly Allen could make me laugh at times. He seems to do it here without trying, and that’s what’s been missing in so many of his comedies of late. I love what happened to the private investigator.

Owen Wilson plays an American screenwriter who is determined to write a novel. He has returned to Paris, which he once visited, with his fiancé and her parents for a pre-wedding get away. He’s in love with Paris. Her, not so much. He tires of her friends, who don’t seem to tire of belittling him. He goes on walks by himself at midnight. The nature of these walks is the key to everything that is great about this movie. That is a pleasure I will leave to you, my readers.

Bill Cunningham New York (2011) ***
Director: Richard Press
Starring: Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Iris Apfel, Editta Sherman, Michael Kors, Patrick McDonald, Annie Flanders

Bill Cunningham isn’t a fashion photographer in the sense that most people think of the fashion world. Cunningham has made a living and reputation out of photographing fashion on the streets of New York, photographing the people of New York rather than the models. He’s worked for the New York Times for several decades and has a hand in influencing the biggest names in the fashion world, yet his subjects are just everyday people, like himself.

“Bill Cunningham New York” is the fascinating documentary about the man, today in his 80s and still going strong. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cunningham’s life is his living arrangement with Carnegie Hall, which during the course of the filming of this documentary made the decision to evict its longtime artistic residences to make more office space for rent. Cunningham still lives like a college student, without any sort of proper furniture. His bed is a mattress sitting on top of book stacks for legs. He uses the public bathroom and has no kitchen. His apartment is filled with files of his old negatives. He’s kept every one he ever took.

This documentary is merely a portrait of an astonishing artist. It isn’t profound, but it is incredibly fascinating. Perhaps its most shocking aspect is that this is really the first I learned about this astonishing man.

Peter Pan (2003) ****
Director: P.J. Hogan
Writers: P.J. Hogan, Michael Goldenberg, J.M. Barrie (stage play and books)
Starring: Rachel Hurd-Wood, Jeremy Sumpter, Jason Isaacs, Ludivine Sagnier, Olivia Williams, Lynn Redgrave, Richard Briers, Harry Newell, Fredie Popplewell

This exquisitely imaginative adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic play “Peter Pan” was one of the most overlooked movies of the Aughts. Never has any adaptation so clearly communicated the insights Barrie had to share about growing up and the relationships between mothers and their sons, fathers and their daughters, and what it involves to be a happy family. On top of that, it is a rousing adventure. Hook isn’t so much a villain as he is another lost soul in Neverland trying to figure out his place in the world and among his relationships.

In a bold choice the movie retains the misconceptions Barrie had of the noble savage in the character of Tiger Lily, but it doesn’t dishonor Native Americans and functions to mark the mystery they held for the British at the time of the story’s original conception.

Barrie’s story is unique in its oddities. From Peter’s chasing of his own shadow, to the pirates’ adoration of having a storyteller on board when Wendy joins them as Red-Handed Jill. The film embodies the imaginations and mindsets of children so well, but in the way even an adult audience can relate to. This is the finest version of “Peter Pan” I’ve seen.

Continental Divide (1981) **
Director: Michael Apted
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: John Belushi, Blair Brown, Allen Goorwitz, Carlin Glynn, Tony Ganios

Netflix Streaming is quite amazing in the way it will get me to check out movies I never would’ve bothered about simply because they just don’t register on my radar any more. “Continental Divide” is a romantic comedy of sorts starring John Belushi in the brief period after he left Saturday Night Live and before his death when he was seeking out projects that defined him more as an actor than a comedian. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good movie. A fact made all the more shocking considering that the director was Michael Apted and the writer Lawrence Kasdan. Both were still working on making their marks in Hollywood. This is not the movie that did it.

The story follows a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that is knee deep in the city’s political mishandlings. One city alderman is ready to threaten him with violence, so his editor suggests a story away from the big city. Yes, this is a fish out of water romance. Belushi heads to the Rocky Mountains to interview an ornithologist who has a reputation for despising reporters. She turns out to be friendlier than her reputation and more attractive. It’s surprising for a “Fringe” fan to see this early romantic lead for Blair Brown, who plays the mysterious head of Massive Dynamics on the freaky sci-fi show.

Well of course, these polar opposites fall in love despite the fact that their careers keep them separated most of the time. The movie has a lame subplot involving a mountain man that behaves like a savage. It real weakness, however, lies in its leading characters. They’re bores. All they have are their jobs and the movie makes no special attempts to define them beyond their careers, and it doesn’t even go into her career too deeply.

Belushi makes some comedic attempts to funny things up with his fish out of water routine, but even that is fairly routine. It seems this could’ve been at least an interesting romantic comedy due to the divergent life styles these two characters come from, but the movie fails to make either the characters or their life styles all that interesting.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin / ***½ (PG)

Featuring vocal and motion capture performances by:
Tintin: Jamie Bell
Captain Haddock: Andy Serkis
Sakharine: Daniel Craig
Thomson: Nick Frost
Thompson: Simon Pegg

Paramount Picutres and Columbia Pictures present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish. Based on the comic book series by Hergé. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG (for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking).

My parents were readers. They also happened to be very practical people. Books cost money. One of the most frequented stores of ours when I was young was Bookland. My mother would spend hours there. It was in the back corner of Bookland, in the children’s section, where I discovered a treasure—the comic book series “The Adventures of Tintin” by Belgian author and artist Hergé. I believe they were rather expensive comics for I never actually owned any. They were hardcovers. But, I read almost all of them. While my mother shopped, I would sit in the back corner of Bookland reading all about the kid reporter Tintin and his adventures all over the world.

When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was going to adapt Tintin into an animated series of movies, I thought I couldn’t conceive of a better fit. Tintin is like a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond in the form of a family friendly kid reporter. Tintin always has his trusty dog Snowy by his side, and he’s one of those Spielberg kids who always seems to be just slightly smarter than all the adults in the room. His adventures take him to exotic places and have him using crazy gadgets and vehicles, but it is his intellect that keeps him in the hunt for whatever treasure or story to which the clues seem to lead.

“The Adventures of Titin” marks Spielberg’s first foray into animation as well as 3D. To recreate the unique look of the original Tintin comics in a CGI animated format, Spielberg chose to use the motion capture process, popularized by the character of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (that film’s director, Peter Jackson, is one of Spielberg’s co-producers and slated to direct the next Tintin adventure). This process was used in such animated hits as “The Polar Express” and Disney’s “A Christmas Carol”. It involves having live actors perform the physical movements of the characters, transferring those images to a computer, and rendering them into an animated format. The format is especially effective in capturing lifelike facial movement detail for the animated characters.

The results are a rousing adventure beginning with the opening credits of the film. Those credits are probably the best use of 3D in the movie. They have the same retro stylization as the credits for Spielberg’s 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can”. Spielberg does something in the credits that is becoming a new trend in opening credit sequences. Just as in the new movie “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, the opening credits act as an appetizer for the story you’re about to watch by giving you a skimmed preview of the film’s plot.

That plot begins in earnest as soon as those credits are finished. Spielberg and his screenwriters take a few moments to introduce their audience to the plucky hero and the time capsule visual style of the movie by sweeping down into a Brussels market place where Tintin is having his portrait done by an artist who replicates Hergé’s art in his caricatures. We meet Tintin’s faithful fox terrier Snowy, with the perfect pet behavior of movie animals, which is easier to obtain in the animated format.

We are quickly swept up into a plot involving pickpockets, a family curse, a sunken pirate treasure, and the powerful effects of alcohol. Tintin (Jamie Bell, “The Eagle”) finds a beautiful model ship of the frigate, the Unicorn. Before he even leaves the market place with it two different men approach him, one an American the other a professor-type by the name of Sakharine (Daniel Craig, “Casion Royale”), offering him money for the model. Tintin refuses, and each man finds his way to Tintin's home later in the day. The American delivers a warning that ends in death. Sakharine ransacks the place when Tintin is gone.

Tintin discovers that the Unicorn was an actual ship that disappeared. A man named Haddock captained it. A piece of parchment he finds in the model’s mast says that only a Haddock will be able to discover the secret of the Unicorn. Before Tintin can set out find Haddock himself, Sakharine kidnaps the boy to get the parchment. When Tintin awakes, he finds himself on a ship where the ship’s captain is also a prisoner. Is it a surprise that the captain’s name is Haddock?

While the adventure action is non-stop and the animation is nothing short of stunning, it is the character of Haddock (Andy Serkis, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) who really brings this material to life. Back when I was a kid, nobody thought twice about having a drunkard play hero in a children’s story. Today, it’s a little out of the ordinary, but the character is so entertaining, I’m willing to forgive the transgression. Also along for part of the ride are the comic book’s bumbling detective twins, Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg of “Shaun of the Dead” fame).

Spielberg is in his usual top-notch form directing this action-based adventure that skews more toward the family set than a strictly adult audience. Like his “Indiana Jones” movies, the film is both thrilling and funny, making full use of the exotic locations to which it takes its characters. There’s even a taste of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” fun thrown in with a flashback to what really happened to the Unicorn ship. Spielberg wisely doesn’t overuse the 3D format, but the way he constructs wildly complex action sequences allows the format a purpose beyond just gaining the exhibitors a couple of extra bucks for admission. “The Adventures of Tintin” is in every way the equal to my memories of reading the original Tintin comic books when I was a kid. For those unfamiliar with the Tintin comics, trust me in telling you that this is a wonderful adventure.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol / ***½ (PG-13)

Ethan Hunt: Tom Cruise
Brandt: Jeremy Renner
Benji: Simon Pegg
Jane: Paula Patton
Hendricks: Michael Nyqvist
Sidorov: Vladimir Mashkov

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Bird. Written by Josh Applebaum & André Nemec. Based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. Running time: 133 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence).

For the last thirty years, the Hollywood machine has worked on perfecting one genre of film in particular—the action flick. Nothing has been paid more attention by the Hollywood dollar than the evolution of the action flick. Technological advancements have allowed directors to expand their toolbox to awe audiences into action comas over the years, and some have truly utilized every trick in Hollywood’s book to turn action into an art form. With his live action directorial debut, director Brad Bird turns in what I would categorize as an action ballet under the “Mission: Impossible” banner. “Ghost Protocol” is action perfection, with only two small elements holding it back from total perfection—an underdeveloped villain and an over sentimentalized epilogue.

The underdeveloped villain can be forgiven. There’s hardly time. Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, introducing a mostly new team, including Jeremy Renner as an agent who isn’t quite what he seems. The new team must be assembled. Cruise has to show us how big his muscles have become. We need to see how sexy the female member of the team is. The technician must crack a few jokes here and there. There are some major international landmarks to destroy. A cat and mouse chase must be established, not only between the IMF team and the bad guy, but also between some good guys who must mistake the IMF team for bad guys. They all have to be disavowed. Some cars must be destroyed in a couple of manners never seen before. There must be some infighting between the good guys. Cruise has to scale an impossible monument. It has to look like there’s no way the good guys can win. And finally, they’ve got to stop the destruction of the world. Can you really blame them if the villain is just the guy they’re trying to stop?

A plot synopsis seems pointless for a film like this because it would just sound like every other spy thriller, there are parts that are too complicated to explain in a limited space, and trying to figure it all out is part of the fun. I can tell you that Cruise (“Tropic Thunder”) is back in the middle of everything, after being mysteriously disconnected from the events that have occurred in the previous “Mission: Impossible” movies. He doesn’t even know that Benji (Simon Pegg, “Paul”) has been promoted from his desk job of being the comic relief to field operative, so he can bring his quips out on the mission this time. Paula Patton (“Precious”) is Agent Carter, bringing the female sex appeal to the table along with a little vendetta that threatens to bring the entire operation crashing down at one point. Brandt is played by Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) as a pencil pusher who seems out of his element once he gets stuck on the mission due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control, but he may know a little more about the spy game than he’s letting on.

Oh, yes, there’s an evil plot about nuclear warheads and launch codes that a madman named Hendricks (Michael Nykvist, from the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is trying to get his hands on, but that’s only an excuse to send Cruise and his team into action to stop him with all the stunts and pyrotechnics Hollywood can muster.

Bird proves he knows his spy flick necessities from nearly the opening shot of the movie. He gives us the sweeping in from above shot of Budapest. The score by Michael Giacchino (“Lost”) is like something out of the early 60s. We see a man, clearly on a mission, escaping from bad guys by jumping out a window, twisting and shooting back at the camera. He encounters a mysterious woman in an alley, who appears to be his contact, but his phone notifies him something is wrong. Too late, she’s not who he thought.

There are several big special effects and action sequences. Early on the screenwriters Josh Applebaum and André Nemec (both from producer J.J. Abrams’ “Alias” television series) play to the audience’s expectation in a big event picture by blowing up half of the Kremlin in a sequence right out to the disaster of the week catalogue. There’s Cruise’s big stunt sequence where he scales the outside of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. He careens about the outside of the spires’ highest floors inciting awe from the audience and cringes from the film’s insurance company. A stunning foot and car chase through a sand storm quickly follows this sequence. Bird’s direction here and Paul Hirsch’s editing is nothing short of brilliant as they somehow film in a brown out and keep the action understandable and riveting.

There is nothing profound to be found in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”. This is pure escapism. It is crafted at the highest standards of the action genre, however; and makes for one of the most exciting movie nights of the year. Bird began his career in the art department for “The Simpsons” and came up through the ranks of Pixar Animation Studios, producing some of their best stylized action along the way in “The Incredibles”. With his first live action film, he has proven himself a force with which to be reckoned. I can’t wait to see what Bird has in store for us next. This is easily the best of the “Mission: Impossible” movies.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / ***½ (R)

Mikael Blomkvist: Daniel Craig
Lisbeth Salander: Rooney Mara
Henrik Vanger: Christopher Plummer
Martin Vanger: Stellan Skarsgård
Frode: Steven Berkoff
Erika Berger: Robin Wright
Bjurman: Yorick van Wageningen
Anita Vanger: Joely Richardson
Cecilia: Geraldine James
Armansky: Goran Visnjic

Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures present a film directed by David Fincher. Written by Steven Zaillian. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson. Running time: 158 min. Rated R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language).

David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular novel from Sweden, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a dark, sometimes perverse, contemplative, yet quick-paced thriller. It matches up with some of Fincher’s earlier work, acting as a sort of cross between his superior thrillers, “Seven” and “Zodiac”. It bears little resemblance to the Swedish version of the film from 2009 beyond the fact that the stories are exactly the same.

It involves the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and the Goth hacker, Lisbeth Salander, from the immensely popular “Millenium” trilogy by author Steig Larsson. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the best of the series and our introduction to the maligned journalist and the far from conventional Salander. For much of the story, the two characters follow different paths, but those paths connect with Blomkvist’s investigation of a 40-year-old murder of a girl from one of Sweden’s most successful and most dysfunctional families. “I want you to help me catch a killer of women,” is all the appeal Blomkvist needs to entice the socially disconnected Salander to join him in the investigation.

Before they join forces, however, both protagonists’ lives are fraught with turmoil. At the outset the publisher of Millennium magazine, Blomkvist, has just been convicted of libel against a wealthy industrialist. He must pay a hefty fine in damages draining his life savings and leave his co-publisher, editor and sometimes lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright, “Moneyball”) in a tight spot with the magazine. Soon he is approached by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”) to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his niece 40 years earlier. He temporarily relocates to the Vanger family island, where he can escape his professional controversy and immerse himself in the Vanger family history. At the time of the disappearance, the island was cut off; leading Henrik to believe that one of the surviving family members is responsible for the crime.

Meanwhile, Salander is working as an investigator for a firm with dubious methods of obtaining information. Coincidentally, Salander did the investigation of Blomkvist ordered by Henrik Vanger. Salander is still a ward of the state at 23 because of some mysterious violence in her past. She must report to a state appointed guardian to have access to her income and to avoid institutionalization. Her guardian, Bjurman (Yorik van Wageningen, “The New World”), is a most detestable man who holds her money ransom for sexual favors and eventually escalates to rape. These are the most disturbing scenes of the movie, although the Vanger family secrets are just as steeped in human depravity.

Fincher manages to capture the dark underbelly nature of this material with his typically grimy looking camera work. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network”) photographs the cold Swedish land and cityscapes with a grey and sepia overlay that makes them all the more colder. If you were watching this movie outside in 10-degree weather, it would make you feel colder than you already were.

Writer Steve Zaillian (“Moneyball”) makes this morally reprehensible material palpable through his thorough fleshing out of the characters and plot. No detail is left for the viewer to figure out on his own. We’re immersed in a complex web woven by a killer that seems to have operated over two lifetimes and a family that has spent two generations building their walls up against each other. Blomkvist and Salander methodically gather and dissect clues that lead to a climax as surprising as it is inevitable. All this unfolds over the film’s two hour and forty minute running time at a pace that makes it seem no more than two hours flat. Fincher’s usual editing team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall craft the information and drama in such a way that not a second of film is wasted and the tension doesn’t so much build as it speeds us along through its thorough investigation of the facts.

Despite all the technological wizardry he employs, Fincher keeps the story firmly a character study. Daniel Craig (“Casino Royale”) anchors the film with his performance as Blomkvist, who needs all the anchoring he can get in his situation. But, it is really the character study of Salander that carries the movie. Rooney Mara makes her mark in this film after years of minor roles in movies, like “The Social Network”, and leading work in horror franchises, like “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. She graduates to full-fledged dramatic leading actress with her work here. She surpasses the stunning work of Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original with her strikingly unique portrayal of a damaged yet fully functional heroine.

The Swedish version—along with the book as I understand it—has an 80s pulp fiction feel to it. Fincher has done away with the trashy novel atmosphere inherent in the plot to produce a dramatic thriller with the weight of significant entertainment. I almost miss the sort of trashy feeling of the Swedish version, but I have a feeling it’s Fincher’s version that will withstand the test of time. Like many of Fincher’s films, this one gets better the more you think about it. It’s a slow burn into the memory. While “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t as noteworthy a subject as in his masterworks “The Social Network” or “Zodiac”, it is heady entertainment.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 16-22

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) ***½
Director: Henry Selick
Writers: Tim Burton (story and characters), Michael McDowell (adaptation), Caroline Thompson (screenplay), Danny Elfman (music & lyrics)
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page

When I’ve watched “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in the past, it has always been for Halloween. This is the first time I’ve added it to the Christmas watch list, and I like it there. The kids did too. They’ve been begging to see it since Halloween.

Unlike all those Rankin & Bass stop motion Christmas specials, director Henry Selick really makes an effort to create some beautiful imagery with his camera. The character designs alone are works of beauty. Jack Skellington’s lanky figure allows him to morph from a scarecrow to a spider in just the way he holds his limbs. Even Santa’s traditional red and white coat is a thing of beauty here. Only the sack that is the Oogie Boogie Man lacks a certain flair, but that makes the reveal of his true form all the more shocking.

Besides looking great, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has a wonderful spirit to it. It combines two of kids’ favorite holidays, and its depiction of the Halloween characters is not malicious. The Halloweentown residents have a childlike wonder. They aren’t evil. Scaring people is just the only thing they know. It’s fun for them, just the way it is for children.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011) ***
Director: Hark Tsui
Writers: Jailu Zhang, Lin Qianyu, Kuo-fu Chen
Starring: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Chao Deng, Tony Leung Ka Fai

“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” is a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie style mystery in the form of a Chinese martial arts spectacle, ala “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.  It’s not as weighty as the recent trend in Chinese wire work action. There’s a sense that the filmmakers don’t really expect the audience to take this as seriously as they do most of their period films.

Set in 690 A.D., the story tells of the coronation of the only female Emperor in Chinese history. Many oppose the ascension of Empress Wu Zetian to the throne, and days before her coronation some of her senior officials are murdered under mysterious circumstances. They spontaneously burst into flame, hence the “Phantom Flame”. It’s surprising how literal much of the material in this movie is. To solve the murders the Empress brings Detective Dee out of imprisonment, where she had placed him.

In the tradition of most of these types of movies, the production design is quite beautiful. Costumes, sets and even the action act as a dance of combat and stunning images. It isn’t the best of its kind, but it will easily please fans of the genre.

35 Up (1991) ****
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker

This documentary was not in my plan for movies to watch this week. It was the only one of Michael Apted’s excellent “Up” series that was not available for instant streaming until just recently. Once I saw it was streaming, I had to watch it immediately. That’s how good this film series is.

In 1964, a British television network started an experiment based on the notion that by the time a child is seven, you can see the person they will be for the rest of their lives. It was originally intended simply to give people an idea of Britain’s future by looking at the personalities of several children of varying social status when they were seven years of age. Filmmaker Michael Apted decided to return to these same subjects every seven years, and so the series does at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and hopefully will continue hereafter. The films are interesting early on. As we revisit these people every 7 years, they become fascinating. Each episode is more intriguing than the last.

One detail I found particularly fascinating about this episode is how many of these individuals had lost either one or both of the parents by the time they were 35 years of age. That seems young on average to me. I just lost my father this year and I’m forty. Many of these people were losing their parents by 32 or 34. Is that a difference between America and Britain? I don’t know.

It’s also interesting that for the most part the social class each subject was born into has had much to do with defining their lives, but most of them dismiss the notion that class has had much effect on their lives at this point. It seemed more important to some of them in earlier episodes, but by the beginning of middle age they’ve all dismissed the effects of the class system on the quality of their lives. Certainly, the rich stayed rich and the middle class stayed in their societal positions, for the most part. There are two exceptions.

I’m not sure if the series does prove its own notion that the child at seven is the person they will be their whole lives, but it’s simply fascinating to see the lives of these individuals revisited every seven years. In “35 Up” almost all of them are happy with where they are in their lives. Will they remain that way? What about some of the assumptions they had earlier on? What about their outlook at this point will change in the future? Never has a documentary series left me with such anticipation for what is to come next. Thankfully, I haven’t caught up yet, so I don’t have to wait seven years to see the next installment.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) ***
Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Steven E. de Souza, Doug Richardson, Walter Wager (novel “58 Minutes”)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero, Willaim Sadler, John Amos, Dennis Franz, Art Evans, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tom Bower, Shiela McCarthy

You see everyone writing about how “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie and is cherished as a holiday classic just like “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Well, what about “Die Hard 2”? It takes place on Christmas Eve too. Where’s the holiday love for Willis’s second outing as John McClane? He says right in the movie, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” It’s a Christmas miracle I tell you.

Sure, under the direction of Renny Harlin, there’s a lot more goofiness in this “Die Hard”. You’ve got the villain lamely shooting the television off with the remote in his introduction scene. There’s the ejection seat flying into the camera with Willis obviously green screened into the shot. There the Washington D.C. snowmobile chase that takes place in an area looking suspiciously like Vail Pass, Colorado. But, at least he doesn’t have his most famous catch phrase censored by a dubiously placed gun shot sound effect.

Batman Returns (1992) **
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm, Bob Kane (characters)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Andrew Bryniarski, Pat Hingle

I think “Batman Returns” gets worse every time I watch it. It’s hard to believe that I once claimed this was an improvement on the already perfect first “Batman”. How many things are wrong with that thought?

I really don’t know what happened here. You have an incredible cast, two competent screenwriters, and Tim Burton, the man who made the comic book adaptation marketable. But, this movie stinks. It’s full of cliché one-liners. I don’t know how Michael Keaton could even justify cashing his paycheck. Not only does he phone in his performance, but also Batman is really just a supporting role in this movie with his name in the title.

Take a look at the new "The Dark Knight Rises" trailer. It will make you feel better and help you forget the earlier series.

Scrooged (1988) ***
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Mitch Glazer, Michael O’Donoghue, Charles Dickens (novel “A Christmas Carol”)
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, Michael J. Pollard, Mabel King, John Murray, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, John Houseman, Pat McCormick, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mary Lou Retton

“The bitch hit me with a toaster!”

Christmas Vacation (1989) ****
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Writer: John Hughes
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Mae Questel, Sam McMurray, Brian Doyle Murray, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Nicolette Scrosese, Natalie Nogulich

“Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.”

Some movies just speak for themselves.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) ****
Director: George Seaton
Writers: George Seaton, Valentine Davies
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge

This one, along with “A Christmas Story”, is just incredible in the way it balances the kids’ notions of Santa Claus with the adult reality of the holiday. It incorporates the childhood myth of Santa with the adult reality that the parents really bear the burden of providing gifts for their children. Somehow it keeps Santa plausible for the kids.

The adults can relate to the stress the parents must go through in order to find the toys their kids want, yet Santa provides the magic to make it all possible. I’ve always loved how the D.A. says once he losses his case against Santa that he still has to get that football helmet his son testified he asked Santa for on the stand. Of course, the final scene where little Natalie Wood sees the house the she asked Santa for plays to the mythology as well. But, Santa hasn’t just given her the house. It’s for sale and her mom is going to have to buy it.

Somehow these realities make the holiday (and these movies) work better for me now that I’m an adult. The movies that don’t explain how the adults reconcile their disbelief in Santa with the fact that their kids somehow end up with the presents Santa brings are much harder for me to accept.

30 Minutes or Less (2011) *½
Director: Ruben Fleisher
Writers: Michael Diliberti, Matthew Sullivan
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, Michael Peña, Dilshad Vadsaria, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward

The makers of this comedy are operating under the delusion that a funny situation is enough to make a movie funny. Their first mistake is the idea that the situation they’ve presented is funny. It’s not. It’s not inherently funny. It’s not even remotely funny. And yet they’ve hung every notion of comedy in their story on it.

Is it funny to have your hero kidnapped by a couple of losers and forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to him so the head loser can hire a hitman to kill his father to gain his inheritance of the millions his father won in the lottery? Hardly. The only way to make such a situation funny is in the way these people deal with this situation. Here they only deal with it by yelling at each other and threatening to kill each other when nobody can actually do that because everyone needs everybody else in order to obtain their goals. Why does the hitman talk with a lisp? Does that make him funny? Not unless the lisp is used to create misunderstandings. It isn’t.

There are a couple of funny moments, like when the hero thinks he can pull a typical getaway move during the car chase and miscalculates his driving abilities. But, these moments are few and far between. This movie needed a professional screenwriter. Unfortunately, it employed amateurs, just like it’s bank robbers, who pulled off their score when the writers couldn’t.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Descendants / **** (R)

Matt King: George Clooney
Alexandra King: Shailene Woodley
Scottie King: Amara Miller
Sid: Nick Krause
Elizabeth King: Patricia Hastie
Brian Speer: Matthew Lillard
Julie Speer: Judy Greer
Scott Thorson: Robert Forster
Alice ‘Tutu’ Thorson: Barbara L. Southern
Cousin Hugh: Beau Bridges

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Running time: 115 min. Rated R (for language including some sexual references).

I lost my father this year. I know I’m not alone in losing loved ones, but it’s a very isolating experience. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, and not at all what you expect if you’ve never been through it before. Worst of all, life doesn’t stop for it. You have to sift through all this baggage you never realized you had. You have to put on a copasetic face for the people wishing you well. And, you have to keep on trudging through everything else. Not all serious illnesses and deaths are necessarily as fraught with turmoil as the King family’s in Alexander Payne’s new movie “The Descendants”. Some may even have more. Never has a film come so close to accurately presenting the surreal quality of such a family experience, though.

At the outset of the film, we meet Matt King, a lawyer and descendant of a long time Hawaiian family. We discover his wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a head injury in a boating accident. Matt tells us in voice over that he hasn’t watched over their youngest daughter, Scottie, since she was three. She’s ten now and he hasn’t the slightest idea where to even begin with her. He’s the “back-up” parent, and she’s starting to test him. Kids are like the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” that way; they’re always testing the fences for weaknesses.

Matt learns pretty early on that Elizabeth isn’t going to make it, so that’s no spoiler. It is a wake up for him, however, that his life will never be the same again. He goes to the Big Island to get his oldest daughter, Alexandra, to say goodbye to her mother and help him figure out how to break the news to Scottie. When he arrives at her private school in the middle of the night, she’s been drinking. This gives us the impression that Alex’s character is going in one direction; when in fact, it leads to our first realization that expectations are not what this movie is about.

Alex may be acting out, but it’s not out of typical teenage angst. When she informs her father that her mother was cheating on him, it shifts Matt’s perspective on things and changes the direction of Alex’s role in the film to one of support rather than resistance. That’s not to say she isn’t a teenager. She insists on including her friend Sid in just about everything from that point on. Sid, as played by Nick Krause (“How To Eat Fried Worms”), seems a few fuses short of a circuit at first, but like most other elements of this story, is more than he seems by its end.

Throughout all of this Matt is dealing with being the head of a large family land trust that is being dissolved within the next seven years. The extended family is pushing him to sign a deal to sell the land to a Kaua’i local. We meet several cousins throughout the movie who are politely aware of Matt’s situation with his wife, but more focused on what’s going to be done with the land. Meanwhile, Matt learns that his wife’s lover was a Realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, “Scooby-Doo”). Matt decides to follow Speer to Kaua’i to invite him to come say goodbye to his wife before they remove her from life support.

I’m sure this description makes this movie sound like a depressing slog through realities we’d all rather escape when watching movies. A few of my friends have even bucked the critical praise of the film to call it “boring.” I don’t know what they were expecting, but “The Descendants” is far from a bore. Instead of giving us action and thrills, it gives us the mysteries of human emotion. Empathy from where you least expect it. Angst from someone who you expect to have compassion. The denseness of others in their attempts to show sympathy. How so much of what we express comes out wrong and why. These are the hooks of this tale, and they’re told with the poetry of everyday life and the humor that allows us to cope.

George Clooney (“The Ides of March”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Secret Life of Teenagers”) anchor the film with their honest performances as father and daughter. Clooney shows shades of several of his screen personalities. His Matt King is a little bit of the stable leader in movies like the “Ocean’s” trilogy and a little bit of the unstable goof seen in the movies he’s done with the Coen Brothers. He never takes the character very far in either direction, which gives him more of an everyman feel despite his good looks. Woodley does a balancing act as a girl who is in every way a teenager and a daughter who steps up in a time of need.

Amara Miller also does a good job as Scottie, balancing the confusion she has about what has happened to her mom and just being a ten-year-old kid. There is an emotional scene early on where her dad talks with another man about the accident. Her reaction is visceral and accurate in depicting a kid’s feelings for something she doesn’t understand. The rest of the cast stays in their supportive roles, never stealing the spotlight from the nuclear family dilemma, but adding color and depth to what this family is experiencing.

I haven’t read the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who makes it a habit to write about father/daughter relationships. I imagine there must be something autobiographical about her work to capture so well the awkward nature of humans and their relationships with each other. Payne makes a great director for such subject matter, having made his own career out of exploring the eccentricities of human relationships in such films as “About Schmidt” and “Sideways”. “The Descendants” is his best work to date.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows / *** (PG-13)

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey, Jr.
Dr. John Watson: Jude Law
Madam Simza Heron: Noomi Rapace
Prof. James Moriarty: Jared Harris
Mycroft Holmes: Stephen Fry
Colonel Sebastian Moran: Paul Anderson
Mary Watson: Kelly Reilly
Mrs. Hudson: Geraldine James
Irene Adler: Rachel McAdams

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Running time: 129 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material).

Purists complained that the Sherlock Holmes depicted by Robert Downey Jr. and company in the 2009 movie “Sherlock Homes” was not the character that lived at 221B Baker Street in four novels and many short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. They said Downey’s eccentric, reclusive, and borderline insane interpretation of an early champion of forensic science, while entertaining, did not match Doyle’s description of his great detective. They also complained that this character, known for his ability to think through problems, had been turned into some sort of period action hero by filmmaker Guy Ritchie. These complaints notwithstanding, the first “Sherlock Holmes” was a romp of a movie that was witty and thrilling, and with “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”, Downey and company haven’t missed a beat.

Picking up where the last one left off, “A Game of Shadows” is bookended by Dr. Watson (Jude Law, “Contagion”) writing a book based on their “final adventure” together. Holmes is still dancing with his previous romantic interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams “Midnight in Paris”). She is still in the employ of her mysterious benefactor, the elusive and as sharp-witted as Holmes, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). London and the whole of Europe have been subject to a series of bombings that have been attributed to terrorists. Holmes has a different theory involving Moriarty, a weapons manufacturer, and the intent to send the continent into its First World War.

Dampening Holmes’s plans to gambol through Europe, chasing the clues with his trusty companion, Watson is the imminent wedding of his anchor to Mary (Kelly Reilly, “Me and Orson Welles”). Holmes sidelines Mary easily enough when Moriarty tries to preempt Holmes’s investigation by sabotaging the Watson’s honeymoon. This occurs in one of the film’s visually impressive action sequences on a train that left me wondering just what happened to all the other passengers aboard. There’s hardly time to ponder such details, though, with the non-stop pace and editing wizardry employed by director Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”).

The clues lead to a Gypsy named Madam Simza, played by the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” star, Noomi Rapace. Since Simza herself isn’t directly involved in Moriarty’s plot—rather her brother is—her presence really only seems necessary for the costume department to have another beautiful woman to dress exotically. I was disappointed that the screenwriting team of Michele and Kieran Mulroney couldn’t come up with more for her to do. This inauspicious U.S. debut for Rapace has me even more interested to see what she does in next summer’s “Alien” prequel, “Prometheus”.

Nevertheless, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is a thrilling and brainy entry into the period action genre. It plays like some of the best James Bond plots, with the fate of the world ready to be snatched by a megalomaniac criminal mastermind who is as cool as his plot is diabolical. Harris makes for the perfect villain, plausibly staying one step ahead of Holmes. Ritchie continues his Holmes signature of showing Holmes’s predictive analysis for combat in slow motion before actually engaging in combat in real time. The finale gives aficionados Holmes and Moriarty’s famous confrontation at the Reichbach Falls from the story “The Adventure of the Final Problem”.

This outing runs slightly more serious than the previous adventure, simply because the stakes are much higher than they were the first time around. Holmes and Watson still engage in their bromantellectual—yes, I just invented that word—bickering that made the first film so entertaining. Stephen Fry (“V for Vendetta”) comes on board as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes for the biggest bout of comic relief. The screenwriters and Ritchie structure the comic timing with the action very well.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” won’t be changing the face of action movies to come nor win any artistic awards of merit, but it is a sly actioner that will satisfy the fans of the previous film and please those who may have missed that one. There have been some improvements to the plotting elements from the first film, and a few setbacks in other areas. The absence of a strong female lead leaves Holmes and Watson without a fulcrum to balance their bickering. Again, such details are hard to notice, however, in a film that hardly stops to take a breath during it’s over two hour running time.