Sunday, January 1, 2012

Holiday Movie Releases Round-up - Mini-Reviews

The holiday season is always a hectic time to be alive.  At any given moment there are a million different things to do and see, from family events to the panic of last-minute shopping.  As a film critic, things tend to get even more crazy.  Studios are always looking to get families into the theaters to make some serious holiday money.

This year that mantra seems to have gone too far.  Studios have seen fit to release not only all of their holiday film material, but also all of their films that are hoping to be award-winners and what we, as an audience, are left with is an incredibly large number of new films in theaters. 

Seeing all of these films has been a herculean task and coupled with the craze of the holidays I haven't had time to fully review them.  Tomorrow I will be posting my Top 10 Films of 2011 and I felt that it would be unfair if I didn't give a brief review (some will be returned to later with a full review) of all of the films I saw this holiday.  I apologize if some of these mini-reviews are incredibly informal, but its all I'm capable of at this time.  So, for better or worse, here they are:


As a fan of the Tintin graphic novels as a kid, I have to admit that I have been waiting to see the material adapted into a film for over 15 years.  To hear that Spielberg would be bringing the project to life was more than just exciting, it was the perfect match to the source material.  That being said, I loved The Adventures of Tintin more than it probably deserves.

What really stands out in the film is Spielberg's command over the camera and the action taking place before it.  Spielberg really understands the freedom that animation and motion capture technology can provide, making it especially apparent during the numerous set pieces.  It wasn't long before I had completely forgotten about the animation and was fully invested in the tactility of Tintin's world.

I could complain that the quest is pretty standard and the characters are underdeveloped, but it hardly seems to matter.  Tintin has always been a rather one-note character whose only motivation is his simple need for adventure and a good story.  I found it refreshing that a character could be motivated by a concept so simple.  It reminded me of the instincts of the titular character from Captain America: The First Avenger, whose simple motivations I never questioned.

This is a movie called The Adventures of Tintin not Tintin: The Man, The Legend and the filmmakers know exactly that.  The film moves from one fantastic set-piece to the next with hardly a breath.  Worlds fuse together as scenes transition in fantastic ways from one to the next.  In what is one of the most jaw-dropping pieces of cinema this year, Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) drunkenly describes the tale of his ancestor's pirate battle, which comes to life in a dazzling display that proves that no one knows how to move a camera like Spielberg.

As if to silence all of his imitators, Spielberg then depicts the flooding destruction of a city coupled with an incredible motorbike, hawk, tank, high-wire chase sequence all in one continuous 5-minute plus shot.  It is like watching a beautifully constructed dominoes set fall, as one chaotic element creates a chain reaction culminating in some of the most beautifully captured chaos on-screen this year.

3.5 / 4 Reels


Director David Fincher has been responsible for some of the greatest serial killer mysteries of  all time, really making himself known with the beloved Se7en.  For me, he topped all of his other works with his take on the Zodiac killer murders in the film ZodiacZodiac is an impeccably crafted film that takes a first-hand look at the procedure involved in attempting to solve a true murder mystery.  It was long, and purposefully so.  Clues were in abundance and would often resurface only to lead nowhere.

I was curious what Fincher would use the popular novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" to say about serial killers, a topic that he keeps on returning to.  The book series is notable for its rather unconventional protagonist, Lisbeth Salander.  An interesting trip into the mind of a woman like Lisbeth could make for an interesting film, especially partnered up with Fincher's visuals.

In the end, I think The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a stylish mystery thriller with some really strong performances from Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.  Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander is the perfect balance between tormented power and vulnerable femininity.  It is an interesting performance that really allows the character to leap far beyond the written page.  Where it falters is in its attempts to be more than just a simple piece of pulp fiction.

The first half of the film features our two protagonists on two very different quests, with almost no connection between the two.  Their relationship at best feels disjointed and when they are forced together we are meant to believe that they establish a romantic connection.  None of this is earned, especially for the character of Lisbeth who has only recently been subject to a horrible sexual assault at the hands of a man.

This head-over-heels reaction by Lisbeth might be the result of her emotional immaturity, as a result of the abuse she has been subjected to or mild autism, but as an audience we are never really let in on these ideas.  So when the final half an hour focuses on Lisbeth's relationship to Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomkvist it can't help but ring false and bring the film to a screeching halt.  This becomes most obvious in the final couple of shots of the film where the film abruptly ends, as if trying to make a point.

Taken on its surface, the mystery of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is interesting enough to sustain the movie length and Fincher's style is hypnotizing.  Like Zodiac he makes the art of research and the hunt for clues engaging and exciting.

2.5 / 4 Reels


Director Steve McQueen is a genius.  That much is clear from the opening shot of Shame where we see Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) lying in bed with a pained expression on his face.  Brandon Sullivan is a sex-addict and for him sex isn't a release more than it is a necessity.  He feels no joy in the act and has become quite shameful of how much he has allowed it to take over his life.

Shame is an incredible glimpse into the life of a sex addict and the effect his addiction has on those around him.  Brandon's life is quickly thrown out of sync when his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), forces her way into his apartment and decides to live with him.

It is obvious that the two of them have both lived through some rather traumatizing situations that have shaped them into the people that they are today.  Sissy remarkes, "We aren't bad people.  We just come from a bad place."

McQueen chose to shoot Shame with a series of spectacular long shots that range from transcendently brilliant to questionably unnecessary.  The scenes that McQueen gets right (Sissy singing "New York, New York", a date at a restaurant, a run through New York City) display the work of a director who understands the emotional heft of his work and how it effects his characters and audience.  The long shots allow the scenes to play out in real time and they help flesh out the characters' actions.

However, Shame is missing any sense of resolution with its characters, a problem that could have been fixed with one shot.  In films like Young Adult, Up In the Air, and Martha Marcy May Marlene we aren't necessarily given a clear ending but we are given enough clues that allow us to determine how we think the lives of their characters will play out.  Shame poses a question and gives no clues to what the answer might be, thereby ending any and all conversation about Brandon's progression in dealing with his addiction.

Listen to my discussion of Shame on Dear Film's Outside the Envelope podcast here.

3 / 4 Reels


There isn't much to say about The Artist that hasn't already been said.  What makes it unique is how rare it is to find a film that regresses in form in the way that it does.  If you didn't already know, The Artist is a silent film that is shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio and in black and white.  It is a true callback to the films of the late 20s and like Singing in the Rain depicts the effect that sound had on the industry at the time.

The story is pretty typical; a silent film star has to deal with his sudden loss of a job when "talkies" demand different actors.  The story is told with a light nature that provides ton of laughs that aren't at the expense of the medium, but rather an embrace of its format. 

However, the film doesn't really move beyond just being a feel good time at the movies.  There is no real historical context provided by the film to make the advent of sound seem like the monumental moment that it was.  The Artist doesn't seem to be trying to say much of anything, which is fine, but it also halts it from being as powerful as it could have been.

In the end, the only thing that The Artist has over the films that it is emulating is that it has utilized modern cameras and camerawork, which can sometimes break the spell the film attempts to cast.  When held up to the films from the late 20s, The Artist would be considered a good film, but nothing extraordinary.  So while it is a ton of fun to see a film like this in a modern cinema, it isn't as powerful or progressive as something like Hugo.

3 / 4 Reels


I'm of two minds when it comes to my interpretation of Steven Spielberg's War Horse.  When I think about films that I enjoyed I tend to think about how the film affected me and how invisible the filmmaking was.  On one hand, War Horse is an incredibly powerful film about the futility of war and its effect on the innocent lives caught up in it.  On the other hand, it is a manipulative film that acts as almost a parody of all the cliches of Steven Spielberg's work.

Even the title is an immediate slam dunk of melodrama.  What could be more heartbreaking and emotionally powerful as seeing a majestic creature like a horse getting unwittingly involved in a war?

However, it is hard to fault the film for having touching subject matter, something Spielberg has never shied away from in the past.  So, in the end I have to go with how my emotions reacted to War Horse, and to do so is to admit that the film acts like emotional pornography, akin to something like Toy Story 3.

That's not to say that everything works wonderfully in this film, which feels more like a series of vignettes rather than one overarching story.  As Joey the horse, a great name for a Italian mob enforcer, transfers from owner to owner we are given a glimpse at the horrors of war and at some crucial moments in the lives of his owners.  Some of the stories work better than others and I wonder if the film wouldn't have been stronger as a television mini-series.

However, with the help of John Williams's score, his best in years, War Horse is able to rise above this disjointedness and really display how broken the bond between man and beast has become.  Until, a pivotal scene with Joey stuck in barbed-wire proves that there is always hope for mankind to prevail.

The scene portrays a German and British officer working together to free Joey from the barbed wire.   The scene would work as a wonderful short film and is amongst the best scenes in a film this year.  The dialogue is light, despite the perilous situation, and appropriately paced.  If there is a reason to see War Horse it is for this stirring scene that brings humanity to no-man's land.

3 / 4 Reels


  1. What are your thoughts on the two different "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movies? I haven't seen either and I'm wondering if one better than the other.

  2. I would say that both are flawed but enjoyable films. It is hard for me to say which I enjoyed more and would recommend as a first viewing, as I saw the Swedish one first. Both films are worth seeing for their depiction of Lisbeth Salander who is handled differently in each.

    At the end of the day, I would recommend seeing Fincher's film. It's sense of style is stronger and it works as a stand-alone film better than the Swedish film does. Then if you really enjoyed that you can't go wrong with the Swedish interpretation, especially Noomi Rapace's performance.

    However, stay as far away from the sequels as possible.