Thursday, December 29, 2011

Spielberg's "War Horse" Handsomely Made, Beyond Sappy

War Horse (2011)
146 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +
"Remarkable" and "magnificent" get thrown around a lot to distinguish Joey, the majestic steed at center stage in Steven Spielberg's epic crowd-pleaser "War Horse." The same should be said of the impassioned filmmaker's own interpretation of the Tony-winning stage production, itself based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book. Unfortunately, like an A-level student handing in C-level work, "War Horse" is dutifully and shamelessly sentimental, unremarkable Spielberg. It's a nice "Black Beauty"-meets-"Saving Private Ryan" story, technically well-crafted and sumptuously mounted into a grand tribute to old-fashioned, melodramatic '50s Hollywood filmmaking. In addition to being nostalgic of John Ford's stylistic trademarks, "War Horse" is still distinctly classic Spielberg, from the sweeping crane shots, to the dramatic lighting, to the John Williams music score. 
English newcomer Jeremy Irvine, making his film debut, is overly earnest but timelessly handsome in a boyish Ethan Hawke-y way. He plays Albert Narracott, a Devon farm boy who devotes his time to a plough horse that his drunken, limping father, Ted (Peter Mullan), overpaid for to plow the family's field. His mother, Rose (Emily Watson), is not pleased, but Albert develops a warm kinship to the horse, which he calls Joey, and then trains the animal into a plough. After a rainstorm wipes out their turnip field and the family still can't afford their rent to the landlord (David Thewlis), Ted sells Joey to the military for World War I. The horse's new charge, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), promises Albert that he'll return Joey to his care after the war. But the war against Germany changes plans, as Joey gets handed off from two young German brothers that desert their front, to a sickly but brave French girl living with her protective grandfather. Will Joey make his way back home to Albert? Uh, do you want to cry?
Author Morpurgo tried adapting his book into a screenplay from the viewpoint of Joey (as it was in the source material), but surrendered and saw it as an unfilmable feat. Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot") and Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") ended up co-writing the screenplay, and the episodic structure just plods this overlong story along. It lacks the necessary emotional investment as Joey gallops between hands, leaving the only constant to be, of course, Joey. He can't talk, but Joey is certainly remarkable because everyone says so. 
For a play-based film shot on location in England and on studio soundstages, "War Horse" notably has a wide scope. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's go-to director of photography, opens with stunningly beautiful overhead shots of richly green land and later crane shots on the battlefield that belong in a museum. The first war scene, a cavalry charge in France, is suspensefully staged with a cloud of doom. Another scene, one of the best, is emotionally effective in its grim beauty: Joey gallops through the trenches of No Man's Land until becoming entangled in barbed wire and then freed by a British and German soldier who must shed their wartime tension to work together. But far too often, the flutes and brass instruments of Williams' needlessly overstated score drown out genuine emotion and pour on the high-fructose corn syrup when we didn't need the extra help. Truth be told, Spielberg has never been known for subtlety, and surely this isn't a small film going for subtlety, but it might have made the drama more stirring. Even the tearjerker-ready conclusion hammers home the crocodile tears with its overblown closing image: reuniting characters in the foreground of a burning, orange sunset, which feels like the "Gone With the Wind" set.
All fourteen equine actors playing Joey are stalwart and convey soul in their eyes, but "War Horse" is so laborious and overtly manipulative in its emotional response that only saps will truly be moved. It's watchable and full of postcard-pretty scenery, but those who cried puddles in the sublimely magical "E.T." might not necessarily give in to Spielberg's latest string-pulling. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"We Bought a Zoo" Simply Wins You Over

We Bought a Zoo (2011)
124 min., rated PG.
Grade: B +

Marketed as just another cute, generic Hollywood family film for the Christmas season, "We Bought a Zoo" is a sweet, generous surprise with quite the pedigree. This is writer-director Cameron Crowe's first feature film in six years and a recovery since his quirky 2005 misfire "Elizabethtown." It might not stick with you as much as the rest of Crowe's oeuvre (1989's great "Say Anything," 1996's "Jerry Maguire," and 2000's "Almost Famous," as well as 2001's severely underrated "Vanilla Sky"), but what makes it a shoo-in against most emotionally manipulative pre-Oscar offerings is its warm, sincere heart. Based on a true story, screenwriters Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") transplant this family's story from England to Southern California and alter a few of the details without drowning it in easy screenwriting clichés. Here, the humans and the animals both win you over. 

The "we" in question is led by Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), the "adventure addict" writer of the autobiographical source material, who has lost his wife to cancer and now takes on a lot raising their two kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Dylan has been acting out at home and in school, and soon expelled, so Benjamin decides the family needs to start over. Quitting his publication job and packing their house up (along with its memories), he settles on a spacious fixer-upper that comes with one minor complication: there's a zoo in the backyard. That's right, lions, tigers, bears, and 200 more wild animals! It's not exactly what they've been looking for, and Benjamin knows nothing about keeping animals, but Rosie's face lights up around all the animals and a zoo might make for a fresh start. So, using every last cent in his bank account, he takes the plunge and hopes Dylan will bounce back, too. Head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her optimistic zoo staff initially think the new man of the house is in over his head, but Benjamin begins to care for the animals and helps prepare the rundown Rosemoor Wildlife Park for its grand re-opening. 

Damon is the spine of this story, credible and heartfelt as a family man. Even if Ben's wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), is only seen in memories, the predictably solid actor brings emotional reality to his character's grief process and love for Katherine and his kids. Johansson, as the overworked Kelly, hasn't shown this much earthy charm and intelligence on screen in a while. There is chemistry between her and Damon, but the script never pushes a romance that takes over the film. As precocious daughter Rosie, the adorable Jones is a sparkling scene-stealer with a naturalism even for a seven-year-old performer. Ford, playing the moody, rebellious Dylan, is also a natural and holds his own against Damon in some tough, emotional scenes of outside-voice arguing. His quasi-romantic friendship with Elle Fanning as Kelly's eager cousin Lily is nice without becoming a huge focal point. Fanning's natural smile and ebullient presence makes her the sun to Ford's darkness. 

Thomas Haden Church, as Benjamin's older accountant brother Duncan, adds levity and gets away with some of the funniest lines. Even a throwaway quip in reference to the movie "Altered States" is funny (when Duncan drives with 200 pounds of haddock in his trunk for the grizzly bears), but that one might go over kids' heads. The rest of the supporting cast is good, mostly filling archetypal roles that don't always feel authentic. Patrick Fugit seems to exist here merely because he worked with Crowe and basically played Crowe in "Almost Famous." A burly Angus Macfadyen is completely unrecognizable under a grizzly beard, but he earns some laughs in his strong hatred toward zoo inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins). Higgins is more humorously deadpan than outright goofy as his presence usually suggests, but Ferris is still a cartoonish villain, using his electronic ruler to measure all the enclosures. 

With a self-explanatory title, "We Bought a Zoo" offers what we expect, kind of like when we go to the zoo. Though not a study in subtlety, the film never condescends its audience with a single poop joke or silly slapstick. Crowe has a light touch and keeps it right above formulaic schmaltz, as the emotions actually ring true. Most films tackling such issues as death and grief fail to engage and resort to maudlin, manipulative musical cues telling us how to feel. In "We Bought a Zoo," the story and characters already engage, and Crowe makes effective music selections by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, and Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi's score is never cloying. The film also looks beautiful, shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Babel"), with warm sunlight pouring into the frame at every turn. 

Obvious? Sometimes. Sentimental? Yes. But when a family film like this melts your heart into Nutella, why not? You'll be glad you bought into Mr. Damon falling for Spar, the zoo's 17-year-old tiger. 

Despite Glenn Close's hearty work, "Albert Nobbs" falls a bit flat

Albert Nobbs 
113 min., rated R.

"Albert Nobbs" probably wouldn't have been made had it not been for Glenn Close. Having played the title role 29 years ago in an Off Broadway production, based on Irish author George Moore's novella, Close worked hard bringing it to the screen as co-writer and producer. She even stars as Albert Nobbs, a woman posing as a man in order to make a living in 19th century Ireland. And because of this passion project being so dear to Close's heart, "Albert Nobbs" works as a fine showpiece for the criminally underrated thespian. The film itself, thematically about appearances, appears to be a gratingly sentimental Hallmark telepic or a period-piece version of "Tootsie." But although the film hasn't the rich emotional thrust that the filmmakers probably intended, director Rodrigo García (2009's "Mother and Child") handles this unusual, often stirring fable about gender, class, and identity with a gentle, sedate sensitivity.

For thirty years, Albert is a timidly shy but mannerly butler at the upscale Morrison's Hotel in Dublin for the privileged. Each night, Albert counts his (or her) life-savings under a loose floorboard in order to marry and open a little tobacco shop. Having to share the same room (and bed) with contract painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), Albert fumbles while undressing, exposing her breasts from a tight corset, only to wake up her bedmate. She pleads Hubert not to "out" her. But then to Albert's surprise and comfort, Hubert reveals himself to also be a woman, now married to a woman, and Albert dreams to have a similarly married life. Meanwhile, feisty maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and her new fella, the illiterate, newly hired boiler man Joe (Aaron Johnson), want to go to America, so Helen starts "walking out" with Albert to milk presents out of him. Inscrutably, Albert takes quite a shine to Helen, who doesn't love him back, but all the "kind little man" wants is to live a normal life and to be treated equally.

Nominated for five Oscars but never a legitimate winner, Close's performance is quietly moving, understated, and deserving of some sort of accolade. We know as much about Albert as Hubert finds out, but Close makes this woman's social oppression and courage utterly heartbreaking. She also pays tribute to Charlie Chaplin with her stiff movements and moments of stunned facial expressions. Remember when Close made that cameo as a bearded pirate in Steven Spielberg's "Hook"? Probably not, but she was most unrecognizable. Here, the prosthetics make her look waxy and androgynous that it's often incredulous how no one questions Nobbs just being a woman in drag, but it mostly works in the context of the time period and the naïveté of the hotel staff. Hey, at least Close is more convincing playing a man than Barbra Streisand was playing a Jewish boy in "Yentl." Wasikowska is reliably becoming the go-to girl for period pieces, but in the part of Helen, she only has a pert, sarcastic sense of humor. Once she meets Joe, she becomes his puppet with no real mind of her own. Looking like k.d. Lang, McTeer is terrific as the cocky and gruff but down-to-earth Hubert. In supporting roles, Pauline Collins, as the snooty hotel owner Mrs. Baker; Brendan Gleeson, as the hard-drinking Dr. Holloran; and Mark Williams, as fellow waiter Sean, add color.

With exquisitely genteel production design, "Albert Nobbs" is also a very handsome looking film. It's the content of the characters that could have been refined. When the film centers on Albert and Hubert, it sings, but one wishes less time was spent with Helen and Joe since they're both conniving and shallow. The character of Albert also feels a bit truncated on the page. Who was she before Albert? After Hubert tells Albert her story and asks the other what her real name is, Albert responds with "Albert," as if she can no longer remember her real name. The woman has disappeared into the guise of Albert for so long that she's living a lie, losing sight of her true identity but not her soul. She seems to be more asexual than a lesbian, somewhat using Helen to complete her dream. In contrast to Albert, we gain a deeper understanding of Hubert, but Albert's story is still sad to watch. When Hubert assures Albert, "You don't have to be anything but who you are," your heart aches for her, or him. But Close and McTeer's lovely work notwithstanding, "Albert Nobbs" is too muted and drowsy to really resonate to its fullest potential.

Grade: B - 

Friday, December 23, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews of "Dolphin Tale" and "Warrior"

Dolphin Tale (2011) 
112 min., rated PG.
Grade: B -
"Free Willy." "Andre." "Black Beauty." "Lassie." "Flipper." "My Dog Skip." "Because of Winn-Dixie." Well, you get the idea. The world is not exactly lacking family films about a kid and an animal. Whether one will enjoy "Dolphin Tale" will probably be determined within 40 seconds of the opening sequence, where a pod of darling CG dolphins dive across the ocean surface and swim through rings made from their blow holes. But at the deep end of that screensaver, there's actually an inspiring true story about a marine animal amputee. In fact, the film feels less sugar-coated than "Soul Surfer," a film out earlier this year that "corned up" the otherwise remarkable true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton losing her arm in a shark attack and combating the odds.

Five years since he and his mom (Ashley Judd) were abandoned by his dad, 11-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) keeps to himself most of the time. While riding his bike to summer school on the same morning that his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) leaves to serve in the military, Sawyer helps rescue a dolphin ensnared in a crab trap along the Florida seashore. Then later, he visits the poor thing, now named Winter, in an aquarium at the Clearwater Marine Rescue Hospital, where Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), nurse her back to health. The more he visits Winter, the more he cares about the animal; she tweets like Tweety bird when Sawyer is around, and he comes out of his alienated shell and finally seems excited about something. Winter's tail is severely damaged, so she must have it amputated, but if Winter doesn't shape up and wear a prosthetic tail, she will die.

When a film is marketed as being "inspired by a true story," that just means, in this case, that there really was a dolphin named Winter with an injured tail and trained to swim with a prosthetic one. And the rest is fudged as formulaic fiction. For superfluous conflict, Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi's screenplay employ a damaging hurricane, cousin Kyle's military disability (mirroring Winter's), the broke marine hospital having to close down, and a land developer that wants to take it over. As it stands, "Dolphin Tale" has its corny trappings and runs too long, and why does everyone always come together as a do-good commune? But director Charles Martin Smith (who made the 1997 Golden Retriever/basketball movie "Air Bud," not inspired by a true story) makes sure the story doesn't dive into schmaltz and makes it easier to digest. 

With a built-up filmography already, typically blonde-haired Gamble (looking like a younger Josh Hutcherson) comes into his own with a sensitivity and reserved appeal as Sawyer. Newcomer Zuehlsdorff, gaining acting experience on stage, lands her first screen role as Hazel. The freckled young actress perhaps pushes on the live-wire chattiness a bit in the early going, but dials it down and shows a natural enthusiasm and likability. There's a nicely written scene where Sawyer and Hazel realize they both share the loss of a parent, but a slapsticky sequence involving them playing with a remote-control helicopter seems to arbitrarily exist for its optional 3D release. The adult cast doesn't get to explore that much depth, but Connick Jr. grounds the story as the marine biologist. Judd takes up the thankless mother role with a maternal warmth. Thankfully, no tacked-on romance develops between Hazel's widower father and Sawyer's single mother. Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman are merely workmanlike in their respective parts as Clay's sage seafaring father and Kyle's prosthetic doctor who ends up fabricating an artificial tail for a different kind of mammal. 

A movie called "Dolphin Tale" with a cute little boy, an injured porpoise, a silly pelican named Rufus, and Morgan Freeman might be considered sappy and manipulative in hopes of melting our hearts into jello. And you bet your dolphin tail there's a chirpy montage cued to the doo-wop tune "Sh-Boom" with Sawyer, Hazel, and Winter relaxing on inflatable rafts! Or that obligatory scene where everyone happens to be tuning in to the news at the same exact time to hear Winter's heartfelt story! Then again, one can't help but be won over by its sweet, earnest heart and good intentions. Try not to get choked up during the end credits' home-video footage showing Winter as an inspiration to human amputees.

Warrior (2011)
140 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

"Warrior" is one of those sports movies that takes its clichés and formula conventions as seriously as a heart attack. It should also be noted that although it's still hot on the heels of 2010's gritty, emotionally resonant "The Fighter" and packs less of a punch, director/co-writer Gavin O'Connor's film offers up some emotional guts. 

Returning home to his working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh from the Iraq War, Marine Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) pays a surprise drunk visit to his estranged father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic on the literal thousandth day of his sobriety. Though he adopted his late mother's maiden name and has been gone for fourteen years, the scornful Tommy forgives his own father's past mistakes, at least enough to seek Paddy's help in training for "Sparta," a mixed martial arts tournament. Meanwhile, his estranged brother, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), is a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia. He used to be an UFC fighter, until he married Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and had two daughters. Now, Brendan earns some cash on the side for local fights, while Tess thinks he's just moonlighting as a bouncer. After he's suspended from his teaching position for coming to work with a black eye from a fighting match held in a strip-club parking lot, Brendan becomes too financially strapped to afford their "upside down" mortgage. (They already owe huge medical bills from one of their daughters' operations.) If he doesn't act soon, the bank will take their home. Against the wishes of Tess, Brendan decides to train, sign up for Sparta, and heads to Atlantic City in hopes of winning the $5 million prize. Will the brothers face one another and finally make peace?

O'Connor shows his obvious craft for sports movies (2004's "Miracle") and family dynamics (1999's "Tumbleweeds"). His staging of the bouts in the fighting arena are so realistically brutal that we feel every punch and chokehold. The working-class milieus are shot with a hand-held, rough-around-the-edges sensibility that the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia neighborhoods feel gritty and real. Although a good chunk of the film centers on the MMA tournament (complete with some split-screen training montages), it's really about a broken family that we hope mend their rift. Even the climactic mano-e-mano between brothers exudes a rousing tension, as pent-up anger is taken out by each punch. 

Hardy is intense and volcanic as Tommy, and Edgerton is passionate but less showy as Brendan. And obviously, the English and Australian actors have both been to the gym. Nolte looks suitably puffy and acts the hell out of Paddy. Only until Tommy forces Paddy into an alcoholic relapse do we see why his sons estranged themselves from him. A would-be sappy moment comes when Paddy waits outside Brendan's house for his son come home. He wants to finally meet his two granddaughters, but no pushing of Paddy will change Brendan's mind. We can feel Paddy ready to implode from all of his guilt and regret. Morrison is also good as Tess, but her part is such a flyweight that she has three uninteresting modes: devoted wife, a nag, and finally, a ringside cheerleader! 

By the end, the brothers' respective reasons for fighting in the ring become mostly a means to an end. Tommy is a selfish, embittered jerk, but wants to give the money to the widow of his war pal. If Brendan takes home the money, then he and his family will overcome their financial strife and be able to keep the house. There's no real payoff for either of these plot points, but in retrospect, only a more conventional film would see these issues through to happy endings. The character drama could've been fleshed out even more, but "Warrior" is a solidly made, forcefully acted crowd-pleaser. It's emotionally manipulative, but effectively so, that you're bound to feel something.

Cold, Gripping "Dragon Tattoo" Leaves Bruises

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) 
158 min., rated R.

Americans aren't fond of reading subtitles when they attend movies, so it's more than likely that many missed 2009's intense and absorbing Swedish thriller, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first to be adapted from Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium trilogy. An English-language version probably wasn't needed, but once consistently exciting director David Fincher signed on, the mass anticipation kicked in. And as hoped, Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" kicks our ass. But first, the opening title credit sequence sets the dark, kinky, dangerous tone. Akin to Maurice Binder's James Bond title design crossed with a Gothic, fetishistic music video, liquid black is melded into a man and woman on a motorcycle, set to Karen O and Trent Reznor's cover of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song." It's jaw-droppingly awesome. 

Set in Sweden, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) for political magazine Millennium loses a libel case against industrialist Wennerström and shortly after meets with elderly millionaire Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Henrik invites him to his family island to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance and assumed murder of his then-teenage niece Harriet. She went missing on the same day as the community's parade. Anyone in the aristocratic Vanger family tree, "the most detestable collection of people you will ever meet," could be Harriet's murderer. After Mikael settles into the guest cabin on the estate, he calls on inked, pierced, asocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to assist him since she's the one who was assigned to do a comprehensive report on Mr. Blomkvist for a lawyer. Lisbeth is such a research whiz and already a victim of men that she doesn't even need help to find this killer of women. 

The super-heroine and victim of Larsson's stories, Lisbeth Salander is a brooding, scared little girl with a punk/goth-chick regalia on the outside. Having set her father on fire at a young age and been proclaimed insane, Lisbeth is a ward of the state and given a caregiver who's in critical condition. Thus, she's placed with a parole officer named Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a piggish cretin who controls her money unless she lets him have her. Lisbeth is also a sexual being, picking up a girl at a club and then having to boot her out when Mikael knocks on her door. Later, when on the Vanger island, she strips down and hops on top of a perplexed Mikael. 

Rooney Mara is just as fiercely committed and lived-in as the first film's Noomi Rapace, but less intimidating and tinged with a deadpan wit. (Comparing their very different performances would be pointless because both girls are note-perfect as Lisbeth.) Decked out in the black mohawk, everywhere piercings, blonde eyebrows, and tattoos, she communicates a damaged toughness, inner rage, and hunched-over standoffishness. It's a brave, star-making performance from Miss Mara, who makes the role her own. Craig is convincing as Mikael, retaining his lean, rugged sex appeal as James Bond but more scruffy and not always assured, with his reading glasses hanging off his head, no less. The supporting cast is reliably solid. Robin Wright does a fine job with a Swedish accent as Mikael's magazine colleague Erika, although their affair holds less weight this time around. Sweden-born Stellan Skarsgård is great suspect casting as Henrik's business-running nephew Martin, and Geraldine James and Joely Richardson are also well-cast as Cecilia and Anita, two of the Vanger relatives. 

The technical crew of Fincher's "The Social Network" is called to work again, and work they do. Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography exudes a crisp atmosphere in the Sweden locations, punctuated by dark colors that pop rather than drown themselves in murk. Percolating in every scene, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's music score adds an electric edge and lingering dread. The use of Enya's "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)" as background music for the later-revealed murderer's torture games also lends a creepy aural wit. 

David Fincher not only has the nerve to bring another set of eyes to Larsson's lurid, sensational pulp, but he goes into grim, ugly corners big-studio films typically don't dare. The rape scene that was just as brutally unpleasant when it was filmed overseas is staged as it ought to be; the more uncomfortable it is, the more we care to see Lisbeth seek vengeance with a blackmail video and a tattoo gun. And yet it doesn't feel exploitative. Steven Zaillian's ("Moneyball") adapted screenplay improves upon the Swedish version and falters in others, but Fincher seems to pull it all off with slick ease. Before, the murder-mystery whodunit was less compelling than Lisbeth herself, but here, it's an involving, meticulously crafted sleuth-procedural (à la 1995's "Se7en" and 2007's "Zodiac"). Fincher beautifully levels pieces of narrated exposition with memories set on the Vanger island, and the pacing is tighter even at two hours and nearly forty minutes. The suspense is still there, the labyrinthine Vanger family tree is more coherent, and deviations from the story still come as surprising. But Salander's early investigation of Wennerström feels distracting and could've been done away with altogether as narrative fat. 

For a long time, the film cross-cuts between Mikael and Lisbeth's respective storylines until intersecting an hour later. They make an intriguing team when it comes to playing Sherlock and Watson. As lovers, they don't make the most plausible of bed partners, which Zaillian really plays up, but that's not really the point. "Girl" doesn't retain the same resolution of this film's Swedish counterpart, but rather than feeling anticlimactic, it's dramatically purposeful. In fact, the very last coda gives Lisbeth a soul. Until the soft-pedaling of our girl, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is cold, propulsive, and confidently made. It leaves bruises, but you'll covet more if Fincher brings us "The Girl Who Played with Fire." 

Grade: A - 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" a fast, fun blast

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) 
133 min., rated PG-13.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to agree that animator Brad Bird has done the impossible and engineered the best movie in the spread-out "Mission: Impossible" canon. Brian De Palma started out the TV series-inspired franchise on a narratively convoluted but often exciting note with 1996's "Mission: Impossible." In 2000, John Woo's "Mission: Impossible II" brought a cartoony, Hong Kong-style that made for a lively entertainment. And most recently, until now, was 2006's "Mission: Impossible III," where J.J. Abrams cranked up the concept into higher gear. While all of them had some wildly exciting stunts and plot twists from a distinctly different filmmaker, the fourth, "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," moves the quickest on its feet between the breathtaking set pieces.

The first time in five years since he was married, we find Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) being held in a Moscow prison, but obviously not for long. His Impossible Missions Force operatives, communications specialist Benji (Simon Pegg) and new agent Jane (Paula Patton), engineer an exit strategy to transport Ethan out. Once out, Ethan and his team must steal a file full of nuclear launch codes inside the Kremlin, but on his way out, someone blows up the Kremlin, framing Ethan for the bombing and the government disavowing his team. Then, according to the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), the President has shut them down and initiated "ghost protocol," so Ethan and company gain an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and go rogue to stop Soviet madman Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from starting World War III. 

Bird, making his foray into live-action after a memorable stint with 1999's "The Iron Giant," 2004's "The Incredibles," and 2007's "Ratatouille," will make Michael Bay cry in his sleep. Compare "M: I - GP" to any headache Bay has helmed, and you'll notice the difference between gripping us at the edge of our seats versus pummeling us into submission. From the very first shot, the camerawork is fluid, the action thrilling, and the effects seamlessly integrated. Of the film's many enjoyable stunts, the one in Dubai really makes the palms sweat and forces vertigo to set in. Mr. Cruise scaling the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, to the 130th floor with a pair of thermo gloves. When most action movies attempt a dangerous stunt, it feels as fake as someone flying in front of a green-screen, but Bird seems to actually be dangling his movie star just for our own visceral pleasure. You know safety wires were probably erased in post, and that Mr. Cruise will not go splat! to the cement, but one can practically feel the wind whipping in your ears. It's a fantastically hairy showstopper. There's also a giddily tense scheme to swipe the codes from the Kremlin's archival room using a hallway illusion gadget; an awesome chase through a sandstorm in Dubai; and a goofily over-the-top countdown-until-annihilation climax set in an automated parking garage. Even based on Bird's animation background, the opening credits—with Michael Giacchino's music score mixed with the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme—feel right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Reminding us in last year's "Knight and Day" that he's not going anywhere, Cruise proves again he's still a movie star and stuntman. Just shy of fifty, he has such a magnetic presence and charisma, and tops all of the stunts he's done before. Also a bonus, none of Cruise's vain celebrity or bizarre Scientology persona gets in the way of his Ethan Hunt character. Pegg returns from the last "Mission" as Benji, the very welcome comic relief. Two new additions to the team are Patton, sexy and athletic with inner conflict as the lone female agent (who gets to kick ass with a pouty female French assassin), and the good-looking Renner, adding more magnetism as Brandt. Playing villain Cobalt, Nyqvist (who played Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") isn't the most interesting villain, but he functions just fine. 
Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec don't really link any reason to why Ethan's team must globetrot from Russia to Dubai to Mumbai, but when it comes down to Bird's spectacular staging and sense of pacing, narrative holes don't really matter. Moments of exposition and character-building give the film some substance but never let the pacing droop or lag. And the 133 minutes just fly by. Big and a whole lot of fun, "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is an exhilarating rush, and far and away the most consistently paced. 

Grade: A - 

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Sherlock Holmes" Sequel is an Elementary Blur

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
129 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Audiences that were alternately amused, thrilled, and exhausted by Guy Ritchie's revisionist take on Arthur Conan Doyle's forensic sleuth in 2009's empty but slickly enjoyable "Sherlock Holmes" will flock to see the sequel regardless. One reason might be that it's a Guy Ritchie movie. Others will despise it for the same reason: it's a Guy Ritchie movie. His hyperkinetic, look-at-me directorial style (whooshing quick-cuts, slo-mo, etc.) has become his trademark, but it's just flash overkill in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." 

Set in 1891, Victorian England, France and Germany has been experiencing a series of bombings and assassinations. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has his suspicions that University professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is the culprit behind the attacks. While Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is celebrating his own stag party before tying the knot with Mary (Kelly Reilly), Holmes comes across a gypsy fortune-teller named Simza (Noomi Rapace), who's targeted by Moriarty and his extreme anarchists, one of whom is her brother.

Downey's playing of Holmes as an idiosyncratic scamp is still very amusing, and his wisecrack exchanging with Law's Watson has that same playfulness. Their quasi-homoerotic bromance is held over from the first movie; this time, they share a ballroom dance in one scene. A nice addition is Stephen Fry, a daffy delight as Holmes' daffy brother Mycroft. But maybe next time, he can do more than walk around naked. Noomi Rapace, star of the Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and its sequels, is such an interesting presence that it's baffling why she's given nothing interesting to do or say. Since Rachel McAdams (as Holmes' duplicitous former flame Irene) is dispensed with early on, Rapace is brought on to be the new heroine, but she's mostly directed to react and clomp about with Holmes and Watson.

Director Ritchie gives us more of Holmes' cerebral strategy of logically reasoning out his fisticuffs bit by bit before they actually happen. The clever gimmick worked in the first movie and it works a few of the times here, but after that, it's used ad nauseam to the point of putting a wrench in the pacing and narrative. It's as if Ritchie emptied his bag of tricks and resorted to just showing off. The few standout sequences include a shootout on a train and a chase in a forest, stylized like a slo-mo painting rather than an action scene; it's nifty but the novelty wears off fast. The best moment comes early and in quiet volume, when Irene (McAdams) has a clandestine meeting with Moriarty over tea, and it's crafted with more care and tension than the proceedings.

Though the screenplay here is only constructed by spousal writing team Michele and Kieran Mulroney (as opposed to the first's design-by-committee hodgepodge), the cloak-and-dagger plot that supposedly prompts the subtitle, "A Game of Shadows," isn't worth solving. It's too convoluted and filled with more incidents than suspense. Holmes (read: the screenwriters) pulls so many clues out of nowhere that some deductive reasoning might've actually helped. Moriarty had potential to be an interesting villain, but he's just a garden-variety anarchist with greed issues.

On a purely technical level, "Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows" is another fine showcase of impeccable period decor and production design that impresses with its London-cobblestone detail. Philippe Rousselot's atmospheric cinematography and Hans Zimmer's Holmes-y instrumental score are professionally done. It's just a shame money can't buy a less mechanical screenplay because this second "Sherlock Holmes" is an airless, bombastic blur.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Well-cast "Carnage" has bite but stage-play roots hold it back

Carnage (2011) 
79 min., rated R.

Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage—about two sets of parents stirring up argument in an apartment—does not sound like it would translate well to film. Auteur director Roman Polanski takes it to the screen and mostly succeeds by the skin of his teeth from the participation of three Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee. "Carnage," a four-headed, real-time chamber piece and satire of bourgeois values and manners, is forcefully acted and scathingly written. But as a film, it's never as cinematic as it could be to warrant the film medium, and as a black comedy, it never quite reaches its potential boiling point. Perhaps that's the fault of the source material, but if it's up there on the screen, Polanski and his actors should be more capable of a satisfying feast than a slightly malnourished amuse-bouche. 

Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play the liberal Penelope and Michael Longstreet, a high-strung writer and a dim houseware supplier whose 11-year-old son was injured in a schoolyard brawl. They advise a cordial meeting in their Brooklyn apartment with the bully's conservative parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), an uptight investment broker and work-obsessed attorney. The Longstreets request an apology and hope to work things out, but after a mature discussion of child rearing, all civility is lost for both parties. Apple-pear cobbler is served, then eaten and puked on Penelope's coffee table, staining her priceless book of Oskar Kokoschka paintings. Alan keeps conducting business over his ringing phone. Over the course of one afternoon, as the Cowans keep trying to leave, both couples' self-righteous true colors emerge. Then once an 18-year-old single-malt Scotch is added to the mix, it will either put them all at ease or worsen the carnage. 

Aside from bookending shots in Brooklyn Bridge Park where the fight breaks out and then the boys ironically make amends, writer-director Polanski keeps the action stringently hermetic and stagey in its theatrical roots. These characters are kept so rigidly contained within the walls of the Longstreets' apartment that when the Cowans repeatedly make attempts to go out the door, even making it to the elevator at one point, they fail. 1966's "Repulsion" and 1968's "Rosemary's Baby," two of Polanski's masterpieces, were disorienting in their claustrophobic settings inside drab apartments and justified. In the case of "Carnage," the entrapment feels contrived on occasion. Near the very end, before the shit might actually hit the fan, Nancy drunkenly and irritably asks, "What are we still doing in this house?!" Good question. 

Credit is due, however, to Polanski for the blocking and use of space without it feeling overly cramped or tedious. (There's always that feeling of unrealized potential for opening up a stage play in a film medium, but Hitchcock did it with flying colors in 1948's "Rope.") For better or worse, we definitely feel like we're trapped in with these crazies. Only the pet hamster (that Michael confesses to have relieved from the apartment) emerges unscathed. Drum strains of Alexandre Desplat's score open and send out the film, with the only "music" in between being the stylized banter. That banter might sound stilted and play-like, but in the context of these uppity, prideful characters, it rings true. Considering it's a satire, the material doesn't really ask us to like these people either. The couples' situation becomes such a pressure cooker that their spats and misgivings feel on the verge of exploding into chaos. Pettiness gets the best of them, and they each feel the need to get the final word. 

Foster approaches shrillness, her Penelope coming off sanctimonious and unlikable, and constantly blaming the Cowans' son for "disfiguring" theirs. But there's some kind of thrill to see the typically buttoned-up actress just lose it when Penelope finally cracks in her most heated, over-the-top performance to date. Reilly mostly plays mediator as Michael, but his reactions and lines of dialogue are priceless. As passive-aggressive Nancy, Winslet goes whole hog, feeling guilty and vulnerable and then becoming loosey goosey and straight-shooting once the booze soaks up her inhibitions. Waltz easily rides away with the glory, his sardonic delivery and underplayed channeling of a superiority complex (which he established so well in "Inglourious Basterds") earning the most laughs. 

"Carnage" is lean, snappy, and acid-tongued, but only occasionally funny. It's not often that a Polanski film ends and you're left with a "that's it?" feeling, but it's still a hoot watching this quartet of top-tier actors ripping into the childish, short-tempered barbarianism of these abrasive yuppies. Is it more of an actorly exercise than a flesh-and-blood film, seeing what four expert performers can do in one confined space? Yes, but as it turns out, these thespians can do quite a bit actually. A confined space is an actor's playground. 

Grade: B -

Tart "Young Adult" gets its legs from Theron's shrewd work

Young Adult (2011)
94 min., rated R.

Feel-good message movies are such a dime a dozen in the mass market that you just beg filmmakers to cut the bull. So when an acridly funny, unforgiving studio comedy like "Young Adult" comes along, it's like a breath of fresh, bracingly bitter air without the warm and fuzzies. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, in their second joint effort (the first being 2007's winning "Juno"), take a conspicuously subversive and daring risk in making it easy to hate Charlize Theron. Well, not Theron herself, but her train wreck of a character, Mavis Gary. A lead character, like the one Cody has created, mustn't always be perfectly likable and charming as all get-out as long as we understand what makes her tick. In an easy, less tricky movie, Mavis would apologize for her actions, and so would the filmmakers. Even by the time the film is over and you're walking to your car, when Mavis will lose her young-adult mentality still remains to be seen. However, like in real life, people don't always change in a course of ninety minutes, or at all. So why even have your nasty protagonist learn Important Life Lessons 101? Redemption is so high school.

Thirty-seven and divorced, Mavis Gary is still that prom-queen mean girl everyone hated in high school. Now, she's ghostwriting the last installment of her once-popular YA book series called "Waverley Prep." Each morning in her Minneapolis apartment, she schleps out of bed hung over to chug a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke and get started on her writing. When she receives a forwarded email that announces the newborn baby girl between her high-school beau, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and his wife, fellow classmate Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), Mavis packs up her accessory Pomeranian named Dolce, and returns to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to rekindle the fire. She's convinced Buddy must be miserable in the married-with-children life, so she makes it her mission to wrench him away from his family. Once she gets to town, Mavis runs into Matt Freehauf (well played by Patton Oswalt) at a bar. They never hung out in the same social circle, but Matt shared a locker next to hers. She only remembers Matt as "the hate-crime guy" because he was gay-bashed, even though he was straight, and since then suffers physical disabilities from a cruel bullying accident. As Mavis tries throwing herself at Buddy, Matt becomes her shoulder to drink on, as dwelling in the past makes her come off delusional and manipulative. Everyone else in Mercury pities Mavis when she expected to get envy from being a big fish in a small pond. Even the ex-prom queen learns that you can't go back home.

Tart and bittersweet, "Young Adult" is like watching a reality TV show, albeit with more substance, where characters say exactly what they're thinking and their honesty gets layered with awkward, cringe-inducing discomfort that makes us chuckle. With her two previous scripts, "Juno" and 2009's unfairly maligned "Jennifer's Body," being set in high school, it wouldn't be a delusion to say screenwriter Diablo Cody must still be stuck in high school. So are some of her characters, but in a way, this is a step forward. Putting her stylized "teenspeak" lingo on hold (aside from Mavis' coined term "Ken-Taco-Hut"), the wicked snark in "Young Adult" is still all Cody. You always know you're in capable hands when a writer sheds insight into her subject with a quick, spiky wit and no sweetened chaser. Consistently proving his strengths as a director with his three great previous features, Reitman's grounded direction is a nimble counterbalance with Cody's dark writing. 

While Juno MacGuff was the smartest girl in the room, Mavis Gary is the meanest. An inherently unlikable person, she is callous, selfish, self-absorbed, self-loathing, pathetic, and in complete denial. She thinks babies are boring, neglects Dolche in her hotel room for most of her visit, and hates Beth Slade. In other words, she's completely human with a fair share of personal issues. Mavis is also a depressed drunk with a "whatever" attitude. She won "Best Hair" back in the day, but now rips clumps of it out of her scalp and wears hair extensions. In one moment, where Mavis preps her face with foundation and lipstick, Cody admirers won't help but be reminded of a similar scene with Megan Fox's Jennifer in "Jennifer's Body." Both characters see their own sadness in the mirror but hide their inner monster behind a make-up veneer. Not since her fearlessly raw and powerful turn in 2003's "Monster" as real-life serial killer Aileen Wournos has Theron really registered and owned such a juicy part. Though not having to de-glam herself with weight gain and make-up, the former model-turned-Oscar winner still disappears and sinks her teeth into another unsentimental, challenging character role. Not a trace of the actress' beauty is removed, but this is a shrewd, gutsy, hilarious performance, as Theron finds what makes Mavis such a piece of work and gives her shades of sympathy without sweetening her. When she finally expresses to Buddy that they should run away together to "the mini apple" and Buddy reminds her that he's a married man, it's clear how deluded Mavis really is when she responds with "We can beat this thing." Without being a cartoon, Theron is That Girl.

Matt is the audience and the voice of reason, calling Mavis out on her insanity. Having voiced the mousey voice in 2007's "Ratatouille" and showcasing his dramatic chops in 2009's "Big Fan," the doughy Patton Oswalt is given a real, meaty role. He's subtle, heartbreaking, and often despicable himself. And Theron and Oswalt complement each other so well that their relationship becomes the most interesting. Wilson, as Buddy, is fine, but he's relegated to playing the bland, settled husband and father past his "football player" glory days. Reaser is more surprising as Beth, a woman so nice and selfless that she teaches special-education kids, but her performance is never cloying and a complete contrast with Mavis. She's even the drummer in a dorky-cool rock band called Nipple Confusion, made up of the fellow moms that went to school with Mavis and think she's still a "psycho prom queen bitch." A '90s song, "The Concept," by the alt rock band Teenage Fanclub (covered by Nipple Confusion) reveals her arrested development and also figures into Mavis's obsession with Buddy, as she plays the cassette tape on a loop.

Outside of Mavis and Matt, Cody's handling of supporting characters is less well-drawn. Most of them just feel like boxed-in decent types of Small-Town America that don't always react realistically to The Mean Girl's behavior, but the film belongs to Mavis and Matt. By the end, there is an eye-opening moment for Mavis with Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), the only one in town to actually idolize her. One thinks it shall tenderize or even punish Mavis for her wicked ways, but she still goes back to being herself. "Young Adult" might move in a straight line without any arc or turnaround for its anti-heroine, but you do feel sorry enough for her that you'd like to see her finally grow up from a young adult in her next chapter. While it is a refreshing angle for a character study, Cody and Reitman renege on any real catharsis that it's hard to take away anything more than a sour aftertaste. It's just salt on a wound. Perhaps, at 94 minutes, the film is too short for its own good. Still, honest to blog, Theron's impressive performance makes this dark comedy of non-growing pains delicious going down.

Grade: B +