December 2011 posts
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011/IN THEATERS) Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has certainly captured the grey tones of this John Le Carre classic in his new theatrical version of one of the all time great “takes a spy to catch a spy” stories. And the fact that he fits so much of the very complicated plot into a scant two hours is impressive. As everyone surely knows, the main character here is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), formerly the trusted assistant to Control (John Hurt), head of “the Circus” (M16). Control is very close to identifying a mole at the top of his group when everything goes awry in Budapest. Some months later, Percy Alliline (Tobey Jones) is the new head, with his cohorts Bill Hadon (Colin Firth), Tobey Esterhase (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) all aboard with a program identified as “Witchcraft.” Smiley is out and Control is dead from a heart attack. The plot thickens when AWOL agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) turns up at Smiley’s with evidence that the mole is still in tact. Working with young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley is tasked with finishing the job of outing the mole. And so he does. It’s a wonderful story and audience members in my theater applauded at the end. As for the film itself, I found the first half (or even two thirds) to be incredibly jumpy—with tiny and important bits of dialogue and outright clues being practically over-voiced between time periods, characters, locales, etc.—but it seemed to kick into gear toward the last third, once the narrative was allowed to continue more smoothly to the end. It helps greatly if you already know the story—which I’m sure most of my audience did. Ultimately, I found this new version made me want to 1) read the book again and 2) watch the classic 6-part BBC series (4 ½ hours in length) featuring Alec Guinness as Smiley. Not that Gary Oldman isn’t great—he is, but given the extra time, all the characters really are allowed to come alive and the excellent and very witty dialogue really shines. The BBC version could be a great option for your New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day movie calendar—just saying! Enjoy.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011/IN THEATERS) If you’ve either read the book or seen the 2009 Swedish version of the first in the super popular Stieg Larsson trilogy, you will not be surprised by much in David Fincher’s newly released U.S. interpretation. But that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t good—it is. Tight, well shot, suspenseful and with some very strong performances, it will hold you to the bitter end—and at 2 hours and 38 minutes, that’s important! Newcomer Rooney Mara definitely delivers in the key role of Lisbeth Salander—a challenge for any actress following in the footsteps of her excellent Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace (who ironically is now on U.S. screens opposite Jude Law and Robert Downey in the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure). Daniel Craig is the other lead—a Swedish investigative reporter named Mikael Blomqvist—who agrees to work for aging industry titan Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) ostensibly to write a biography, but in truth to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet some 40 years prior. Vanger introduces our hero to his family, which is quite a group and includes several former Nazis and some seriously anti-social types. The current head of the company is Harriet’s brother, Martin (a very strong Stellan Skarsgård) who lives in a Swedish home we would all like to have—it’s sleek and elegant in that Scandinavian way. Be ready for some brutality in the story (particularly if you’re unfamiliar with either the book or the earlier film) and plenty of suspense, as Mikael and his fabulous research assistant Lisbeth solve all the crimes. I think Fincher is the perfect director for this flick and it reminds me very much of his approach in “Zodiac,” which is one of my personal favorites of his. So count me in the plus column for this movie—even though I knew everything that was coming, I was still in for the ride.
BTW: I understand that the film distributor is worried that this film is not appealing enough to women, based on its early very dark marketing. But the theater I was in was full of women—some dressed in their “Lisbeth Salander” goth best!
YOUNG ADULT (2011/IN THEATERS) Charlize Theron won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2003 for her portrayal of a serial killer named Aileen Wuornos in the film “Monster.” For the role, Theron destroyed her beautiful face under layers of make-up and prosthetics, and Hollywood rewarded her, as it often does, for her efforts. In Young Adult, the second effort from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (after their collaboration on Juno), Theron again gives a bravura performance but this one brilliantly turns her beauty into one of her worst traits. Theron is Mavis Gary, a 30-something former Prom Queen who now writes a Young Adult fiction series. We meet Mavis in her native state, waking up fully dressed after a night of boozing, gulping down Diet Coke from a liter bottle, feeding her Pomeranian (often loved, more often ignored) and working on her next book. Idly checking email, she notices a birth announcement from her former sweetheart’s wife and becomes obsessed. She decides impulsively to return to her Minnesota hometown to win back her man– Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson)—despite the fact that he is now happily married and has that new baby. In the bar on her first night back in town, Mavis runs into Matt Freehauf (a fabulous Patton Oswalt), whose locker was next to hers in high school. Of course she barely remembers him but after more than a few drinks, Mavis reveals her “master plan” to Matt who advises her to “get some help” but who becomes her drinking partner (make that binging partner) and counselor for the rest of the movie. This film, which has been well received by both critics and audiences (81% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), is the definition of Black Comedy and Theron could not be better—she is up for a Best Actress Golden Globe in the Comedy/Musical category. Diablo Cody’s writing shines throughout and the film uses the very clever device of letting us listen to Mavis’ words as she is writing her YA version of events (while eavesdropping on teenagers at the local Burger King or KFC). Though you’ll find yourself often chuckling or laughing in the movie, I honestly found it hard to watch at times—Mavis is just such a bitch. Check it out…but only if you’re in the mood.
BTW: Some have said the ending is too abrupt, but I think it felt totally “in character.”
Ebert may say it best: After I left the screening of “Young Adult,” my thoughts were mixed. With “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman has an incredible track record. Those films were all so rewarding. The character of Mavis makes “Young Adult” tricky to process. As I absorbed it, I realized what a fearless character study it is. That sometimes it’s funny doesn’t hurt.
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011/IN THEATERS) Looking for a fun afternoon or evening outing suitable for the whole family this break season? Look no further than “Arthur Christmas,” a clever animated feature with a decidedly British accent. The film is a classic in the making. It offers tongue-in-cheek dialog and funny mash-ups of familiar films to create a movie that works for adults and children alike. Featured are several familiar voices: James McAvoy as Arthur, the youngest son of Santa; Hugh Laurie as Steve, his older brother who runs “Christmas Operations” as a high-tech enterprise these days; Jim Broadbent as the current Santa, just a place-holder really; and Bill Nighy as “Grand Santa” who remembers how it used to be. The story opens with a little girl posting her note to Santa and wondering if he really exists. Cut to the North Pole where we find Arthur replying carefully to every “Dear Santa” letter, while thousands of Elves are loading up “S-1”—the newest Star Ship Enterprise style sleigh commandeered by Steve and run in a “Mission Impossible” style on Christmas Eve. A computer voice (Laura Linney’s in fact) keeps all the various pieces “on mission” but during this particular night, one present is left out—meaning one child has been missed. And so Grand Santa and Arthur, along with their helpful wrapping Elf Bryony, take it upon themselves to deliver that last package. Plenty of fun ensues, along with some sweet “real meaning of Christmas” corny dialog, but IMHO, it all works. The film has very high production values and will remind you of “The Incredibles,” though it is a Sony Production and has no relation to Pixar. I saw it in 2D, which was just fine, but it’s easy to see that it would be spectacular in 3D. Nothing too heavy, mind you, and just enough smaltz to bring the “Christmas spirit” to every viewer. Do keep it in mind when you’re ready to get the kids out of the house!
P.S. Keep your ears sharp for some other famous voices including Eva Longoria, Andy Serkis, Dominic West, Jane Horrocks, Rhys Darby (as the “Lead Elf”), Joan Cusack, and Michael Palin (as elderly Ernie Clicker), not to mention Imelda Staunton as “Mrs. Santa.”
THE HELP (2011/DVD) If you missed one of this summer’s biggest hits when it was in theaters, now is a great time to rent the movie and get that popcorn going. Or better yet, enjoy a chocolate pie! We at SeriousMovieLover, for some reason, never got around to reviewing this terrific ensemble picture. Perhaps we were nervous–as you may recall, when The Help first appeared, it was beset by a barrage of negative press, primarily from those in the black community who resented both the book and the movie for being a “simplified white version” of the painful daily racism endured by black help in the South during the 60s. Mind you, the fault was not being found with the film, but rather with the story-line. Nonetheless, viewers rewarded the movie at the box office with an opening weekend of $26 million (the film cost $25 million) which just kept growing, taking the top spot for weeks on end— to a total of almost $170 million right now (just in the U.S.) with the DVD only now appearing. Obviously the film works and it is both serious and amusing at the same time, all the while dealing with a truly sad topic with a decidedly light touch. Already a bestseller when filming began, the author Kathryn Stockett chose her friend Tate Taylor to direct, even though he had directed only one other feature film. Taylor rewarded her faith by creating a well-shot movie which features plenty of “good to great” performances, among the best from Viola Davis as Aibileen (a sure Best Picture Oscar nom) and her sidekick Octavia Spencer as Minny (also a sure best for a Supporting nom). Jessica Chastain turned in another amazing performance as Celia Foote, the “poor white trash” wife who married well, while Bryce Dallas Howard is perfect as the villain of the piece, socialite Hilly Holbrook. Emma Stone is solid but nothing special as the budding liberal writer of the piece, Skeeter Phelan. Alison Janney is wonderful as her mother, while Sissy Spacek is equally great as Hilly’s mom. And watch for a short spot for none other than Cicely Tyson–wow! Altogether, well worth an evening of your time….be sure to check it out. And enjoy that pie
THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011/IN THEATERS) In this latest work from Spanish master filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, Antonio Banderas turns in a top rate performance as a seriously handsome but obsessively creepy doctor. He plays Robert Ledgard, a talented plastic surgeon who lives in a villa located near Toledo, Spain, which also serves as his private clinic. As the movie opens, we are introduced to a beautiful young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) who we can quickly see is essentially being held as a prisoner by Robert in a large but empty room adjacent to his bedroom. Assisting Robert in caring for Vera is an older woman, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who will, over the course of the movie, fill in loads of missing plot details. As is typical of an Almodovar movie, nothing that meets the eye can be taken at face value and the complicated soap opera of Robert’s life comes out bit by bit. I am reluctant to offer any more comments on the plot—it is important to stay with the film and let the various facts unwind themselves for you. But what I will say is that this is, IMHO, one of the director’s least likeable films. There are no comic moments like the ones you might have enjoyed in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” — which incidentally featured a young and very handsome Banderas; likewise, no sweet moments like those in “All About My Mother,” for example, or the more recent “Volver,” (which I absolutely loved.) I think of this particular work as being more in the spirit of 2004’s “Bad Education,” Almodovar’s wild movie that featured Gael Garcia Bernal as the trans-gendered object of a Catholic priest. In fact, I might recommend pairing that film with “The Skin I Live In” if you’re in the mood for an extravaganza of weirdness. My take: this film is not for everyone, but definitely should be seen by Almodovar fans.
I was unsure about “Hugo” when I first saw the previews–what on earth was Martin Scorsese doing making a children’s movie, in 3D no less! And while the critics have been almost universally in love with the picture (it just won the National Board of Review Best Picture for 2011), some online users have complained that it is slow and boring and not worth the extra 3D cost. Well, I’m here to say….it is completely absorbing, utterly charming and will sweep you up and keep you to the end. My advice is simple: head right out to the best 3D theater in your area, bring along your older kids (the ones who are not impatient and can sit still), and pay the money for those glasses—you are in for a BIG TREAT. Set in 1931 and based on the Caldecott-winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (cousin of David O. Selznick), the story revolves around young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, known best for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). Hugo is the orphaned son of a talented master clockmaker (Jude Law, in a brief but effective appearance) who lives in the back rooms and stairways of a Paris train station where he continues the work of his father and uncle by keeping all the clocks in the station working. Despite constant fear of capture by the station’s guard (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his ferocious Doberman, Hugo survives by stealing food from the various vendors inside the station. He also steals toys and mechanical parts from a small toy stand owned by none other than Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), an old man who seems rather cranky. Hugo’s most precious possession is an antique automaton which he and his father were repairing at the time of his father’s death and which needs a heart-shaped key to operate. Caught stealing by Méliès early in the film, Hugh loses the book of notes that his father had made concerning the automaton and seeks out the help of Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the young adopted daughter of “Papa Georges,” to get it back. The two young characters set out on a series of adventures which lead to a wonderful re-discovery of just who “Papa Georges” is and a history lesson for all of us on the earliest days of the movies, including the amazing works of the real-life Georges Méliès. The film also gives us a pitch for one of Scorsese’s personal passions—film preservation. Many critics have called this film a “love letter” from Scorsese to the movies. The sets and art direction are spectacular; the attention to detail—particularly all the mechanical parts of the clocks and the automaton—are worthy of awards; and even the use of 3D is remarkable, not because it causes the screen to jump out at you (though it does at times), but rather because it is so quietly utilized. I suspect the movie will be just fine in 2D also. Either way, be sure to catch it on the big screen. It’s definitely one to see.