Wednesday, December 28, 2011
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando reviews the latest holiday releases.
You're done with the baking and the wrapping, and finally have time to relax. Your mission, if you choose to accept it is to find the best entertainment value for your hard earned dollars.
The most fun to be had in theaters right now is "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (opened December 21 throughout San Diego and in IMAX). Animation director Brad Bird has made a live action cartoon with the most breathtaking stunts of the year. What's great is that although the film defies reality, the stunts have a realistic edge. So when Tom Cruise makes an unbelievable jump he lands with painful body crunching hits. The film feeds an action junkie's need for death defying stunts but reminds us how dangerous it all really is so we feel the tension of the scene. "MI4" gets my vote for most improved franchise. Accept this mission.
With "The Adventures of Tintin" (opened December 21 throughout San Diego and in 3D), director Steven Spielberg essentially delivers a cartoon version of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Based on the famed French comic, the film serves up some stunning 3-D animation action. But don't look into the characters' eyes or you'll enter the uncanny valley. That's the term coined for the discomfort of watching human replicas -- in this case animated ones -- that look and act almost but not exactly like real human beings. Ironically, the film opens with some lovely 2D hand drawn-looking animation that is much better at capturing the charm of the original comic.
The film brings together an odd array of talent: Spielberg is at the helm but Kiwi Peter Jackson produces while Brits Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish adapt from the French source material. Spielberg's hand is the heaviest here as the film blends the action of Indiana Jones with the youthful protagonists of an "E.T." But now and again you can find the light clever touch of Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") and Cornish ("Attack the Block"). In one scene, the drunk captain thinks Tintin's dog snowy is "a giant rat from Sumatra." Only someone like Edgar Wright would make a sly reference to Jackson's "Dead Alive," in which a zombie-like infection is spread by Sumatran rat monkeys. But Spielberg prefers chases to dialogue and character development.
End result: fast-paced but hollow.
The antithesis of fast-paced is Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (opened December 23 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters). In a quiet conference room where a clock steadily ticks away the seconds, a group of gentlemen spies note, "There's going to be changes. We need to decide if we are going to be part of the past or part of the future."
Mainstream audiences may view this as very much a part of the past, a relic of the Cold War spy genre. This is not a film about action but rather about cold calculation and meticulous investigation. The emphasis here is on the intelligence and not gunplay and gadgets. So fans of LeCarre's novels may see it as the refreshing anti-Bourne film they've been waiting for. Unlike the Bourne franchise, this film is all about paperwork, politics, clandestine meetings, and long steady shots of people talking. Plus there's an embarrassment of acting riches starting with Gary Oldman, John Hurt, and Colin Firth. The novel had previously been made into a PBS mini-series in 1979 with Alec Guiness in the Gary Oldman role of Smiley.
The Weinstein Company
There's no talking -- or almost none -- in the French film "The Artist" (opened December 21 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas), a black and white near silent film about a actor who refuses to make the transition to sound in 1929. The film overflows with cinematic cleverness. It opens with the main character George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in a scene from one of his silent films in which he is being tortured. In a title card he loudly proclaims he will not speak, he will never speak. That becomes his mantra for the entire film. Director Michel Hazanavicius eschews dialogue but relies heavily on music and occasional sound effects as in a nightmare sequence in which the silent star suddenly finds everything around him making sounds.
Director Hazanavicius and actor Dujardin reteam after a pair of successful spy spoofs based on the "OSS 117" French books. Dujardin has the perfect face and physicality to act in a film that refrains from dialogue. He has a grin that seems to naturally sparkle like in a toothpaste commercial. The film is a beautiful and sometimes poignant valentine to filmmaking itself, a pure delight.
Constance Marks Production
Cleverness and delight are also at the heart of Constance Marks' "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" (opened December 23 at Landmark's Ken Cinema for a one week run ending Thursday). The documentary highlights the ingenuity of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash and his idol Jim Henson. Colleague Fran Brill sums up their magic: "It looks easy but it's very difficult to make a piece of fabric and a foam head react like a human being would."
Clash has a true gift for bringing Muppets like Elmo to life.
Sony Pictures Classics
David Cronenberg tries but fails to breath life into a pair of famous figures in "A Dangerous Method" (opened December 23 at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Theaters). Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung.
Jung: I think of you more as Galileo and your opponents as those who condemned him while refusing to even put their eye to the telescope.
Freud: I have merely opened a door.
Cronenberg's clinical approach works best when it contrasts with more horrific material as in "Dead Ringers" or "A History of Violence." But here -- where there's a lot of analytical debate -- it's like cool on cool with the result being, well, chilly.
And finally, there's David Fincher's remake of the two-year old Swedish film "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Although Fincher's film could more accurately be called "The Man Who Ends Up In Bed With the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" because it focuses more on its male character and biggest star Daniel Craig.
Fincher tries to do more by following the book more closely but ends up doing less, and delivering it with less of his signature dark style. Rooney Mara takes significant ownership of the character of Lisbeth Salander but doesn't surpass her Swedish original.
As with the American remake "Let Me In," Fincher's film is not necessarily a bad film but it is another unnecessary Hollywood remake of a foreign art house success. Fincher doesn't bring anything new to the story or make it his own. Some scenes are almost frame by frame recreations of the original, and that's what disappointed me. I expected more from Fincher, and more that was unique. Fincher has a penchant for darkness and discomfort, and I thought he might push the envelope more than his Swedish counterpart. But in many ways his film is less edgy and less disturbing. Surprisingly, the Swedish film felt darker, more ominous, and more intensely involving. He also starts the film with a James Bond-like opening credit sequence -- featuring Rooney Mara dipped in a black oil-like substance -- cut to a cover of "The Immigrant Song." These opening images made me think the story had been changed and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was now involved in some kind of story involving oil.
I also felt that we got to know Lisbeth Salander better in the original film where she was played by Noomi Rapace. Mara, while good, tends to look like she walked off a Vogue photo spread where anorexic models are given a chic Goth look -- even the baggy pants seem too carefully picked to feel lived in. Mara, along with many in the cast, is also stuck between no accent at all and a vague attempt at one. The lack of consistency across the cast makes it awkward.
And I want to add one comment about the sexual violence in the film. Salander is forced to perform sexual acts in order to get money from Bjurman, the man assigned by the court to administer her trust fund. In her first encounter with Bjurman, Fincher conveys the abuse with an appropriate sense of menace and revulsion. A close shot of Bjurman's meaty hand pulling the back Salander's head to his crotch is disturbingly effective as is the camera ominously pulling back from the closed door. But a later scene depicting rape and assault, Fincher is less effective in conveying Salander's perspective. Male director's often emphasize the physical violence involved in a rape as if they don't understand that the non-consensual sexual act is violence enough.
If you haven't seen the original "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" then you'll probably like this remake, but I suggest checking out the original as well. I'm interested to see if Fincher follows through with the two sequels. The Swedish films started strong but then started to lose steam. So Fincher still has an opportunity to improve on what his predecessor did.
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