movie reviews December 2011

The Swell SeasonLe HavreThe ArtistWar HorseWe Bought a ZooYoung Goethe in Love The Adventures of Tintin The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Young AdultMission Impossible - ghost protocolSherlock Holmes: a game of shadows Saint (Sint)New Year's Eve Everyday Sunshine: the Story of Fishbone Answers to Nothing

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Swell Season

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

Billed as a sequel of sorts to the 2007 indie hit Once, the black-and-white documentary The Swell Season might fare better as a bonus special feature on the DVD release of that film than as an independent theatrical release. Only die-hard fans of the musical drama starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová will have much interest in the contrived portrayal of the demise of the couple's real-life romance. A cynical viewer may even go so far as to think the entire film is a stunt staged specifically for promoting the duo's musical enterprise, also called “The Swell Season.”

 

 

In Once, Hansard plays Guy, a Dublin busker who falls for a married Czech immigrant called Girl, portrayed by Irglová. In the film, the two collaborate on the Guy's compositions and deal with their star-crossed love. During the promotional tour for the film, Hansard, then 37, and Irglová, then 19, began an off-screen romantic relationship. Co-directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, The Swell Season follows the musicians in the aftermath of the movie's success — including receiving Oscars for Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly" from the soundtrack — and as they tour together as the folk rock duo The Swell Season.

 

Although the filmmakers accompanied Hansard and Irglová on the road and at home for two years, there's a surprising lack of intimacy in the documentary. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes tour footage, such as obsessed fans, questions over a missing piano, and antics on the duded-out tour bus that makes the lone female Irglová an extremely sympathetic figure. But scenes portraying the actual relationship between the two leads are suspiciously skimpy (even despite their willingness to go gratuitously nude on a beach in one.) In place of footage that shows us their romance, we're given interviews from both explaining it. And they're not very convincing.

 

For the most part, Hansard, also the frontman in the rock group The Frames, seems in control of the subject matter and the general direction of the movie. He's much more interested in talking about himself and his newfound fame than the relationship, and this is unfortunate because in these interviews he comes off as pretentious and narcissistic. He exhibits navel-gazing at its self-involved worse. He even tries to censor what his own mother says about him and his fame.

 

In fact, Hansard's one-track egotism centered on his rookie celebrity makes the documentary seem more like fodder for a Christopher Guest mockumentary than a serious music documentary. Ironically, Hansard's exaggerated concern about being a flash in the pan or one-hit wonder may make him just that. The Swell Season will only stand the test of time if Hansard does.

 

There is one scene that rings truer than the rest. In it, Irglová, the one bright spot for most of the film, finally delivers an unwelcome home truth to Hansard. At an outdoor cafe in the Czech Republic city of Telc, she dares Hansard to stop complaining about achieving his dream of popularity and just enjoy it. That scene reveals more about the couple than any of the previous ones, on stage or off. And the real tragedy is that Hansard can't stop his whining long enough to see the logic in her comment. (Unrated) Rating: 0 (Posted 12/31/11)

 

Le Havre

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

Finnish screenwriter/director Aki Kaurismäki laboriously blends French New Wave styling and contemporary political issues to create a sort of modern-day fable in Le Havre. However, the amalgam of overt stylization and a labored plot leads to tedious scenes full of anachronistic affectation and unmerited sentimentality.

 

 

After his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is hospitalized for serious reasons she won't disclose to him, aging bohemian turned shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms) makes it his mission to help Gabonian immigrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Idrissa had escaped police detention when he and his fellow travelers, including Idrissa's grandfather, were discovered in a shipping containing at the docks. With the help of his neighbors Claire (Elina Salo) and Yvette (Evelyne Didi), Marx hides Idrissa, despite the boy's penchant for disobeying instructions and going out in public. Marx’s help comes until Idrissa can be returned to his mother, now residing illegally and working in a Chinese laundry in London.

 

Notwithstanding the tattling of a neighborhood informant, the grocer (Francois Monnie), and an unenthusiastic investigation by police officer Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Marx is finally able to charter Idrissa's passage to London on a fishing boat. But first he and fellow shoeshiner Chang (Nguyen Quoc Dung), also residing in Le Havre illegally, arrange a benefit concert to pay for the boy's passage headlined by local French rock star Little Bob a k a Roberto Piazza. On Idrissa's final day in Le Havre, he pays a visit to Marx's wife, where he may or may not perform a miracle.

 

Kaurismäki's efforts to evoke classic French New Wave and noir are highly successful. However, in tandem with the contemporary storyline — the portrayal of illegal immigration — the set design, costumes, and even the dialog come off as quirky, at best. At worst, the treatment seems forced and offers no particular insight into the narrative. As such, these choices are self-conscious and sometimes confusing. Without any follow through, the affectation is all style and no substance. Compared to other movies from this year that provide a touching homage to the classics but contain their own charming storylines, such as The Artist or My Week with Marilyn, Le Havre suggests a less complex, less thoughtful filmmaking process.

 

The acting in Le Havre is skillful. Both male leads — Wilms and Miguel — are likeable enough, but only when the script gives them a chance. Full of cornball moments, such as when Monet brings a pineapple into the bar, the film doesn't give any of its actors a chance to take much action or grow. It's as if all decisions are made on a whim, and then are therefore rarely taken seriously or followed to conclusion. They're given contradictions, distractions and quirks that do nothing to develop character or plot. And in the end, even Idrissa's final deed in Le Havre suggests a level of mawkishness not earned by the rest of the film. (Unrated). Rating: 2 (Posted 12/31/11)

 

The Artist

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

In order to justify making a silent movie in 2011, it’s important to not to simply recreate the look or the technique of the movies of the ‘20s but to demonstrate what we really have lost by adding sound to images.

 

 

French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is more than a simple stylistic experiment. Having to part with dialogue and synchronized sound for most of the film forces him and his collaborators to use their imaginations and come up with dozens of great sequences that wouldn’t make it to the screen if the actors stopped to talk.

 

Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, Hollywood’s most popular actor during the silent era. From watching the crowd from behind the screen at his latest premiere, Valentin knows that he has another hit on his hands. The crowd continually gasps as he and his trusty dog Jack (played by three brilliantly trained Jack Russell Terriers) slip in and out of danger with astonishing ease. With the way the crowd adores the film, how could his career be on anything but an upswing?

 

Actually, there are several signs of doom on the horizon. For one thing, Jack and just about every star in Tinseltown have put their fortunes in the hands of Wall Street. There’s also a new technology that enables movies to feature synchronized sound so that fans can actually hear what their favorite stars sound like. A consummate master of pantomime, Valentin thinks the new “talkies” will be a fad.

 

Actually, Valentin’s worst enemy is his own ego. His snobbish attitude toward sound doesn’t help, and hogging the spotlight at premieres has alienated his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). He has too much pride to adapt to the changes in movies and may be yet another casualty of the microphone.

 

While Valentin’s life and career are in a tailspin, a young starlet named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’ wife) is quickly conquering the business. Spotted by Valentin at a red carpet event, she rises from lowly extra to leading lady in a few short months. While Hazanavicius never lets us hear her voice, it’s obvious she’s a natural for talkies. The well-named Peppy (she has enough energy to light up New York for a year) pines for Valentin and wants to help the man who enabled her first break.

 

If the plot is similar to A Star Is Born, what makes The Artist special is that Hazanavicius embraces the possibilities of silent cinema and has a good deal of fun in the process. The prologue has some rousing action scenes, but the most charming sequences in The Artist involve the performers simply exploring how much they can convey without straining their vocal chords.

 

During a scene where Peppy discovers Valentin’s jacket and winds up imitating both partners in an embrace, it’s astonishing how Bejo can play both characters with simply her posture and her arms. Sound would mar a sequence like this one, although Ludovic Bource’s original score is fantastic and drives the mood of the film without detracting from the action on screen.

 

Dujardin has the unflappable confidence of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but he’s got enough range to play convincing pathos as well as merriment. It also doesn’t hurt that he has the sort of footwork that would make Gene Kelly proud. Dujardin and Bejo have both worked with Hazanavicius before in the OSS 117 movies, so they have a chemistry that’s even more remarkable when you consider that their voices are muted.

 

The rest of the cast includes familiar faces like John Goodman (as the opportunistic studio head), Malcolm McDowell, Ken Davitian and James Cromwell who can pull of the pantomime without exaggerating their expressions. Good silent movies didn’t feature actors flailing their limbs as if someone had electrocuted them. As good as the humans are, however, the dogs steal just about every scene they’re in. Whenever Valentin seems like a vain loser, it’s impossible not want him to come back because Jack pleads so earnestly for his recovery. It’s too bad that dogs don’t win Oscars. These three pooches certainly deserve a statuette or at least some better dog treats.

 

Not only does The Artist clearly demonstrate that something was lost when movies started talking, but it also proves that we haven’t begun to learn what can be done with images alone. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/23/11)

 

War Horse
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Steven Spielberg has made several fortunes with movies such as E.T. The Extraterrestrial that appeal to kids. He’s also earned countless awards for making terrific films for adults like Catch Me If You Can and Schindler’s List. His latest, War Horse attempts to reach both audiences and generally succeeds.

Set during the First World War, the film follows a horse as it experiences the conflict from Devon, England to France and to Germany, serving as a beast of burden for different factions during the conflict. In real life, nearly a million horses died during the first conflict on the British side alone, so it’s long overdue that a movie celebrate their contributions as well as their sacrifices and suffering.

The film actually begins before the conflict when the young colt Joey takes his first steps. The one human who seems to relate to the unruly animal is a lad named Albert Narracott (stage actor Jeremy Irvine). Albert admires Joey and even convinces the animal to bite on an apple, but he’ll never own the carefully bred horse. Or so he thinks.

His capricious father Ted (Peter Mullan) has other plans. Thinking that a racing horse would be able to plow his rocky hillside farm, Ted bids far more than his meager proceeds from farming. If the untrained horse doesn’t prove great at plowing, the landlord (David Thewlis) will evict Ted, his wife (Emily Watson) and Albert.

Despite the looming deadline, Albert makes remarkable progress with Joey, but World War I is looming, and Ted reluctantly sells Joey to a cavalry officer named Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Albert is too young to serve, so he has no choice but to say goodbye.

The captain thinks the horse is bound to take part in a grand gentleman’s conflict, but modern war machinery results in hellish confusion. At one point, Joey is taking part in a grand charge. In another, he’s on a French farm with a grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and a young girl (Celine Buckens). He pulls a cart for some German soldiers (David Kross from The Reader and Rainer Bock).

Spielberg and screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love, Actually) cover a lot of emotional territory in adapting Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel and Nick Stafford’s stage play. Having helmed everything from Saving Private Ryan to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg can effortlessly generate just about any mood he wants from an audience. It’s a given that he’s create the right sense of horror for trench warfare or the childlike wonder at Albert bonding with Joey.

The trick is to get all of those moments to come together as a whole. The emotional shifts that viewers experience during War Horse can be jarring despite the power of individual scenes. Without browbeating viewers, Spielberg registers the futility of cavalry charges and the emotional bonds humans and animals can have. Placing these moments into one package takes some getting used to, and trying to keep the film from being too scary for tots or too simplistic for adults is challenge for any filmmaker. Even somebody as redoubtable as Spielberg can have trouble pulling off this sort of balancing act.

On a technical level, War Horse is remarkable. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński can pull off everything from gorgeous, sweeping vistas to hellish, claustrophobic battles to intimate close-ups. No shot in the film look dull or not engaging. The performances are universally solid, and Spielberg wisely uses an all-European cast. Having a name American star would have made the film feel silly and false.

War Horse might have been a great movie had it grown up or maybe if it hadn’t grown up at all. Thankfully, Spielberg’s artistic “adolescence” is more interesting than most filmmakers’ entire careers. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/23/11)

 

We Bought a Zoo
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Filmmakers are often advised to stay away from kids and animals because of their inherent unpredictability. If they become uncooperative, shooting schedules become meaningless.

On the other hand, watching them successfully perform is about the most interesting thing you can commit to video. If they’re on their game, they can save a film that would be unexceptional otherwise. Such is the case with We Bought a Zoo. While writer-director Cameron Crowe manages to take what could have been a maudlin disaster and turn it into a workable film, he owes quite a bit to the critters and the kids.

Matt Damon stars as journalist Benjamin Mee, whose book provides the basis for the film. Mee once had an exciting career chasing the eyes of hurricanes and having challenging discussions with heads of state. That comes to a crashing halt when the news business starts collapsing and when his beloved wife dies unexpectedly.

Benjamin’s teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) gets himself expelled from school for repeated behavioral problems, and the strain of taking care of Dylan and his eight-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is making it hard for him to concentrate on new writing projects.

Benjamin decides that moving from Los Angeles to rural California might do his family some good, but their dream house in the country has an additional consideration. It comes as part of an exotic animal park that has seen better days. While the zoo’s keeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) is still around, she’s working for far less than she’s worth simply to keep the animals alive. The other staffers (Angus Macfadyen, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit) are in the same boat.

Thinking a change of pace would do both his family and the animals some good; Benjamin takes over the park and discovers why the previous owners left. Giving the animals proper care is expensive, as Benjamin’s accountant brother (Thomas Haden Church) warns him. In addition, getting past a fastidious inspector (John Michael Higgins) is another obstacle.

By acknowledging how challenging it is to keep zoos going, Crowe makes the film more credible, and his loose episodic approach keeps the film from feeling obvious or telegraphed. After all, if Mee had failed, it’s a safe bet they wouldn’t have bothered with either a book or a film.

There are a few revelations that seem to have been pulled from a template instead of reality, but Crowe’s lively dialogue helps keep adults in audience from running to the exits. Damon is typically good as a fellow who has taken on seemingly more than he can handle, and Johansson projects just enough intelligence to make viewers believe she could run such a complex facility.

While having these two grownups involved keeps the film from feeling too phony or condescending, the real stars are the critters who are charming simply by being themselves. When you consider that they might find the cast or the audience delicious under the right circumstances, that’s saying something.

Similarly, young Jones is so adorable she can distract viewers when Crowe tries too hard to push their buttons. She’s so earnest and cute she can induce amnesia into the hardest of skeptics.

As usual, Crowe picks some terrific songs for the soundtrack, but he seems to know that the youngsters and the animals can make up for whatever shortages he experiences with his imagination. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 12/23/10)

 

Young Goethe in Love

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

Have you ever had a friend who was into obscure foreign art-house films? You know, the ones that drag you to an 11 am showing on a Sunday morning because that's the only time it’s screening? Most everybody has had a friend/boyfriend/girlfriend like that; so I ask you, dear reader: Did it seem like the film was almost calling you dumb for not liking it?

 

 

Young Goethe in Love is pretty much just that: a fictionalized (and overwrought) account of that famous German writer in his youth — before he was famous. Now, if that sounds like a pretty thin summation, sorry, it's all I got.

 

First of all, let me swear to the gods that I DID watch this movie — all the way through. In fact, it just ended minutes ago, and I am already forgetting what happened.

 

Goethe gets kicked out or flunks at being a lawyer or clerk or something and goes to some village. He has a friend who stutters, falls for a girl with a rich boyfriend (I know he was rich because he didn't have dirt rubbed on his face), gets in a duel ... at least I think it was him, writes a book, which the girl secretly publishes behind his back, and has a ponytail. That's it: actually, I'm a little proud of myself for remembering that much.

 

I'm not going to go into the various actors here, mostly because everybody gives an okay if bland performance, you wouldn't know any of them anyway and I've never figured out how to do umlauts, and man do Germans use a lot of them.

 

Strip away the pretension and pedigree, and this is just another "all famous writers must have had fascinating and dramatic lives" bits of tripe that seemed so favored by those looking for some "high-cinema". Well, that's fine but it's also far from true. Believe me: I'm a writer, and I'm pretty sure I've never been in any duels. There are a few writers out there that can fill the bill: Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and such, who had crazy lives while being fantastic writers, but here the whole thing seems more than a little over-scripted.

 

Don't get me wrong, I often prefer foreign films over Hollywood, like subtitles more than voice-overs, and enjoy the slower, more measured and thoughtful films, at least occasionally. The cinematography is excellent, the costumes are very nice, but this is just a boring movie stuffed with a predictable plot and stock characters.

 

So Merry Christmas, America: I hereby give you the gift a being able to NOT like long-winded, boring foreign films despite how "masterful" you artsy friend says they are. I also give you the right to pick the next 10 movies. (Unrated) Rating: 2 (Posted 12/23/11)

 

The Adventures of Tintin

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

Since 1929, the intrepid young reporter Tintin and his even smarter dog Snowy have been delighting readers with their journeys to the far corners of the earth. While Tintin and his world were created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, they’re beloved by millions, and the stories have been translated into several different languages. The impact of the cow-licked hero is tough to overestimate. The ‘80s pop band The Thompson Twins took their names from the bumbling lookalike detectives who try in vain to help the boy reporter unravel mysteries.

 

           

Producers Steven Spielberg (who’s credited with directing) and Peter Jackson could have run roughshod over the material and still made a quick buck simply selling this motion capture animated film on their names alone. Fortunately, the two are rabid Tintin fans, and it shows. While Tintin isn’t as well known on this side of the Atlantic, The Adventures of Tintin may change that.

           

Incorporating components of Hergé’s The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, The Adventures of Tintin features Tintin (Jamie Bell) buying a model ship at an outdoor flea market only to discover that at least two people want the seemingly worthless replica. The most persistent is a creepy bespectacled nobleman Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Sakharine is so determined that he kidnaps Tintin and holds him captive on a ship nominally helmed by the inebriated Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Tintin and Snowy manage to rescue the captain from house arrest and join him in a quest to find an ancient treasure associated with the captain’s long departed ancestor Sir Francis Haddock (also played by Serkis).

           

It would be overly simple to say the trio escape from the ship and begin an adventure, but that would like saying you’d read the Bible if you’d only stopped reading after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden.

 

Spielberg and Jackson load the film with exotic make believe locales. Before viewers have a chance to catch their breaths, Spielberg has moved on to the next thrill. There are duels, high-speed vehicle chases and even a pirate raid. Screenwriters Steven Moffat (Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) come up with enough plot twists and snappy banter to fill a miniseries. They also include several of Hergé’s most beloved characters like the overconfident but clueless Thompson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Shawn of the Dead) and the eerily proficient opera singer Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel). The three manage fit all these folks in without making viewers feel as if the characters had been placed there in an obligatory manner.

           

It’s a given that Jackson and Spielberg can create convincing fantasy environments. Nonetheless, it’s a pleasant surprise that Spielberg enthusiastically embraces the possibilities of working in 3D and uses it with remarkable finesse. He’s not content to merely make the audience feel that objects are headed toward them. Instead, the 3D enables viewers to take in how ornate and lavish Tintin’s world is.

           

Motion capture technology is still a type of filmmaking I haven’t gotten used to. In many cases, gifted performers like Tom Hanks, Robin Wright or Gary Oldman are turned into eerie, lifeless mannequin through the black sorcery of digital technology. That said, Jackson’s Weta special effects house does a far better job of making digital performances that are moving and empathetic. Spielberg has opted for a stylized look for the digitally generated people, which prevent them from looking like something out of a boutique window. This also enables actors like Craig and Serkis to more convincing record their expressions in their CGI avatars. Curiously, Tintin himself looks more like a real person, so conversely, he looks a bit out of place in the fantasy world that Jackson and Spielberg have created. Snowy has been rendered using traditional animation, and he winds up stealing the show. It’s too bad they don’t sell dogs like him in the pet store.

           

Still, it’s obvious that The Adventures of Tintin has been made with love, and it’s easy to return the affection. Spielberg and Jackson have made a fortune hunt that’s a treasure in itself. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/21/11)

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As a fan of the original Swedish language movie adaptation Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it was difficult to get excited by the new version hitting theaters today. Because the original can be viewed with both subtitles and an English-language dub, it seems pointless to retell the story from scratch with name actors and a Hollywood budget. Noomi Rapace leaves an indelible impression as the title character, regardless of whether you speak Swedish or not.

Having seen dozens of horrible American re-workings of good European films like Open Your Eyes, I approached The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with great trepidation. Thankfully, director David Fincher (The Social Network) and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) have made a sincere and generally successful attempt at capturing the late Larsson’s grim but engrossing story. If you really must see moonlighting James Bond Daniel Craig play Mikael Blomkvist or have an aversion to subtitles, this film makes a credible introduction to Larsson’s world. That said, if you’re already familiar with the story, it does lose some impact in the retelling.

As with the first movie, Blomkvist is a once successful muckraking journalist whose career is now in a shambles after losing a libel suit. Thanks to a dubious lead, he’s lost his life savings and has few options. Curious retired industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires an investigator to discover if Blomkvist was on to something or was merely careless. When his secretive investigator Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, The Social Network) discovers that Blomkvist’s conclusions were right even though his data was lacking, Henrik asks Blomkvist to help him locate the niece who disappeared over 40 years before. The family estate is on an island, and the bridge to the mainland was blocked on the day she vanished. There’s no body, but Henrik’s family is loaded with Nazi collaborators, alcoholics and other fiends. No wonder the old man thinks his relatives are the prime suspects.

Blomkvist discover some previously missing clues and being a gifted investigator himself finds Lisbeth and recruits her as an assistant. While he is an old school gumshoe in his digging, she can do remarkable things with a keyboard and has a photographic memory. She can process entire pages of data with a single glance. Having endured painful child abuse as a youngster, Lisbeth is sympathetic to Henrik’s niece and uncovers a grisly series of murders that matches the timeline of the heiress’ disappearance. Lisbeth is also a rebel with few close friends. She’s bisexual but rarely spends more than a one-night-stand with her partners. Her small size and her gray hoodie enable her to slip through the streets of Stockholm undetected. Underneath her jacket, she wears distinctive punk-Goth regalia and takes grief from no one. When her probation officer (Yorick van Wageningen, The Way) abuses his financial power over her and demands sexual favors, her revenge is like a nuclear counterstrike to a suicide bombing.

Lisbeth and Blomkvist uncover a sordid history that Henrik’s filial disgust only hints at. Plummer, who’s Canadian, projects an old world gentility while carrying a hint of menace that leaves viewers wondering if he’s like the rest of his evil clan. His effortless turn is one of several things that actually work better in this version of the tale. Because Zaillian is a native English speaker, his dialogue is snappier and more fluid than the subtitles or the dub. The low key score by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross creates a sense of dread without advertising that viewers are supposed to be scared. The violence and the sordid villains who occupy the film creep-out viewers without any help.

Mara doesn’t have the same command of the role that Rapace did, but her less distinctive features make it easier to believe she could wander through Stockholm unobserved. She doesn’t have the same charisma that Rapace had, but she’s convincing as someone whose small frame belies her iron will.

Zaillian also spells out more of the details of the story, making it easier to grasp Larsson’s complicated storyline. At times, however, it might have been better if he had left viewers to piece together the clues with Lisbeth and Blomkvist. Some of the shock value is lost when the details are spelled out. He also sets up a closer relationship between the two investigators that isn’t all that convincing. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but Larsson’s stories are more involving with her being a free spirit instead of having her carry an unrequited crush.

While there are some terrific and familiar actors in the supporting roles (Stellan Skarsgård, Steven Berkoff and Robin Wright), they don’t bring anything new to the roles that the performers in the first film haven’t done already. By shooting in Sweden, Fincher invites comparisons between his film and the previous one.

Further, knowing who the culprits are in advance (for those who have read the book or seen the original) lessens the impact of their exposure. With movies like Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac in his résumé, Fincher is a specialist at setting dark moods. The problem is that even he can’t renew the impact of Larsson’s original twists, unless you have an aversion to long books or subtitles. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 12/20/11)

 

Young Adult
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Much of the charm of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s (the team behind Juno) latest film together is that the protagonist for Young Adult is neither young nor much of a grownup.

Mavis Gary (Oscar-winner Charlize Theron) is a thirty something woman who makes her living ghostwriting a series of romance novels aimed at teens. If she has any skill at her craft, it’s because she’s never really left high school. Emotionally, she’s still 16. When she does get out of her fantastically cluttered apartment, she’s listening to what teen girls say to each other and putting their words in the mouths of her characters.

Unfortunately, when the younger women gush about romances that could never happen outside of a teen’s imagination, Mavis hasn’t figured out that these sorts of relationships simply don’t happen in the real world. Perhaps believing in this sort of love is what keeps her going. She’s divorced, alcoholic and far behind schedule on the last novel in the soon-to-be defunct series. Her only close friend in her new hometown of Minneapolis is a small dog, who’s more patient with her bad behavior than most humans would be.

She’s also on the verge of a deeply painful lesson. When her high school flame from Mercury, MN sends her a photo of new newborn daughter, Mavis flies into a rage and heads back to Mercury in the hopes of wooing Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) back. Only someone as delusional as Mavis can see that her attempt at home wrecking is doomed to failure. His wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) is a kind, charming woman and a capable mother. While Mavis may have left Mercury, everyone still living in the town has left their adolescence long behind. One glance at Buddy, whose life is dominated by his new family, would send more prudent adulteresses packing, but Mavis’ persistence leads her into more embarrassing calamities. Because the boozing and the junk food have had little impact on her physique, most of the men in Mercury ignore her, except for an old classmate named Matt (Patton Oswalt), who attempts to talk her out of her futile quest.

Watching Mavis slip further into a moral abyss could get old, but Theron and the filmmakers have some sympathy for her. Watch Theron’s body language closely, and you’ll see some fascinating moments that casual viewers might miss. When Buddy shows off the infant to Mavis, she looks at the adorable child as if the tyke was some sort of diseased vermin. When Matt shows off the homemade whiskey he’s been distilling, he savors it as she gulps it down.

While it is funny watching Mavis brush off serious moral obligations as if they were casual annoyances, Cody and Theron give us plenty of indications that Mavis simply doesn’t know how to behave like an adult and has only a fleeting sense how profoundly life has changed since she got out of high school. Cody provides several hints at where Mavis has gone astray, but she doesn’t explicitly say what’s made her such a self-centered train wreck. As a result, the scenes where a viewer is asked to sympathize with Mavis don’t seem phony because the solutions to Mavis’ problems could have already been reached if they were simple. Mavis may be a fascinating curiosity, but she’s not a freak. Similarly, Oswalt’s Matt has a vulnerability that’s more visible than Mavis’. He was beaten up because some classmates mistakenly thought he was gay. Now he has to walk with crutches and can’t get over the indignity he’s suffered. Because he walks a fine line between being a realist and a moper, he not just a Cassandra.

Fans of neat conclusions may want to stay away from Young Adult, but the film’s messiness is a virtue. Mavis’ contemptible behavior would be less scary if her desires were those of a monster instead of a human. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/16/11)

 

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In order for a Mission: Impossible film to work, it helps to embrace the “impossible” part of the title and to settle for nothing less than outlandish.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the fourth film in the series and is the least grounded in reality. Because it’s Mission: Impossible instead of, oh, “Mission: Plausible” or “Mission: Likely,” director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) can get away with action sequences that might have looked silly in the cartoons he has made.

With Ghost Protocol, Bird manages a fairly delicate balancing act for movie loaded with relentless explosions. He acknowledges that the film’s plot, stunts and setup can’t be duplicated at home (there are plenty of wisecracks throughout), but he still manages to inspire enough awe in how the laws of physics and thermodynamics have been overruled.

Yes, Tom Cruise is back as the undersized super agent Ethan Hunt, but as with the third Mission, he’s part of an ensemble instead of being merely a good-looking acrobat with high-tech toys. His partners include an analyst named William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who fights surprisingly well for a desk jockey, a hard kicking beauty named Jane Carter (Paula Patton, Precious) and a computer expert named Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who’s a little too happy to be out in the field.

The four have chosen to accept a mission that’s even more challenging than usual. In fact, the Impossible Mission Force has been abandoned because they’ve been framed for blowing up a little complex in Moscow that’s called the Kremlin. Understandably, the Russians are furious, and the U.S. government has disowned IMF altogether.

Essentially, Ethan and his crew, without outside help, have to intercept the Russian nuclear terrorist Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) before he acquires the ability to use the nuclear launch codes he stole from the Kremlin. The explosion was a really showy way to cover his tracks and blame others. It might not be the most cost effective way to purloin secrets, but nobody wants to watch slow psychological games on an IMAX screen.

To Cobalt, nuclear war is a great idea. He is a mad terrorist, after all. So the deaths of billions don’t make Cobalt lose too much sleep, even if several of the potential dead currently live in his native Russia. Hunt and the IMF agents have to chase him across Europe and Asia from Budapest, to Mumbai to the Burj Tower in Dubai. They also have to clear their names of the Kremlin plot because an unforgiving Russian agent (Vladimir Mashkov) is on their trail. Oh, and there’s an impeccably dressed French assassin (Léa Seydoux) who’s already killed an IMF operative. She only takes diamonds for payments.

If your head is beginning to hurt from trying to make sense of the plot, the best thing to do is leave the analysis to Benji and Brandt, and gaze at the relentless action Bird has assembled. Before a viewer’s “yeah, right” instincts are aroused, Bird has already moved to another jaw dropping set piece. He uses the IMAX format effectively, making the stunt-work even more stylish and impressive. Having Cruise climbing on the Burj Tower (the world’s tallest building) is impressive in itself, but Bird puts in just enough real world danger to make the possibility of Ethan falling to his death believable. You can see the strain on the glass as Cruise climbs.

Bird and screenwriters André Nemec (Alias) and Josh Appelbaum give the actors more to do than simply punch or kick this time, and with Pegg and Renner, that’s a plus. They also have spy gadgets that malfunction like a first generation Microsoft product, so the team’s mission isn’t guaranteed success. This generates some much-needed tension because the action can get by on size alone for only so long.

While Bird proves that his success in animation was no fluke, one hopes he doesn’t leave his previous art form. Ghost Protocol, which refers to the IMF team working in the cold, is the first movie where he hasn’t had a writing credit. Listen to the extras on The Incredibles, and you’ll realize that he spent more time thinking through his story and characters than most other live action filmmakers do.

Ghost Protocol isn’t as cerebral as his cartoons, and that’s sad because this guy used to be a guiding force on The Simpsons and King of the Hill. The new film could have benefitted from even more of the wit and skill for character he demonstrated in his previous movies and TV work.

Nonetheless, Bird does make the impossible seem credible without also making it look mundane a well. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/16/11)

 

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

I don’t object to Snatch director Guy Ritchie retooling Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. Canadian Bob Clark had the fictional Sherlock Holmes solving the real life Jack the Ripper killings in Murder by Decree, and so many filmmakers have taken their shot at the now public domain property that it’s silly to chide any of them for deviating from the original source material. That said, I wish that Ritchie and star Robert Downey, Jr. had made the master of deductive crime solving just a little bit smarter.



 

As with their previous take on Holmes and his trusty sidekick Watson, Ritchie and Downey add frantic pacing and a steam punk sensibility and don’t bother with putting the deerstalker hat on Holmes’ head. They also treat Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) with a little more dignity than he’s received in past films.

 

Conan Doyle was a physician himself, and occasionally had Holmes holding back information from his partner because he knew the sharp-eyed Dr. Watson would easily be able to tell Holmes was faking illness to trick a crook. Watson’s also a veteran of Britain’s war in Afghanistan, so he’s a good man to have in a fight.

 

This time around Watson actually marries his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly), but the real sparks fly when he’s with his frustratingly eccentric mentor. Holmes doesn’t take well to idleness, and he expects the otherwise committed Watson to be at his beck and call.

 

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to worry about down time. His old nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is using the unrest fomenting at the end of the 19th century in Europe to build demand for the weapons he hopes to make a fortune from. Naturally, Holmes feels obligated to stop him.

 

How Moriarty will achieve this goal is fuzzy, but it somehow manages to involve Holmes’ old enemy Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and gypsy fortuneteller (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). It also introduces Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), who is both proud of and annoyed with his younger sibling. Fry seems to be enjoying himself, and his glee helps keep the film from seeing obligatory.

 

While the bickering between Holmes and Watson is still fun (they’re like a couple who’ve been married too long to remember how they ever got together), it would have been preferable if we could have shared in Holmes’ ability to crack the case. Simply taking for granted that he’s a genius seems like a cheat. Mysteries are a lot more fun if viewers can solve the case with the detective.

 

Ritchie’s hyperactive style, which seemed fresh in the first movie, gets old here. During the fights, the quick cutting makes the punches and kicks seem less realistic. In addition, the elaborate sets get all too brief a chance to shine before Ritchie has moved on. As a result, everything seems preordained. The outcomes are often as unconvincing as the comic disguises that Downey wears throughout the film. It’s also a shame that Rapace is given relatively little to do. While she can still perform action scenes with flair, it’s a shame that all she’s asked to do is look exotic. Roles like Lisbeth Salander don’t come around very often, and anything she does from now on will unfortunately invite unflattering comparisons.

 

Downey won’t be killing the franchise any time soon because anybody who wants to can make a Sherlock Holmes movie of their own. Perhaps it’s time someone as bright as the detective himself should do so. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/16/11)

 

Saint (Sint)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Dutch writer-director Dick Maas, the mind behind The Elevator and Amsterdamned, is probably going to get some pretty cruddy presents for Christmas. Actually, the residents of Amsterdam are more likely to exchange presents on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, which is December 5. That means that by the time of this writing, Sinterklaas, as the Dutch call him, has already caught up with the filmmaker. As his movie Saint (or Sint) indicates, St. Nicholas can indeed be generous, but you don’t want to get on his bad side.

Homicidal Santas are nothing new. There’s the long Silent Night, Deadly Night series, but Maas has fun reworking the Dutch myths about the fourth century bishop who lived in what’s now Turkey. In Saint, Nicholas was not a nice guy at all during his life. In a prologue set in Amsterdam in 1492, the future Sinterklaas is a marauding, corrupt bishop who gets his comeuppance when the residents of the city kill him and his henchman in retaliation for his raids. For centuries to follow, if there’s a full moon on Dec. 5, which only happens every 32 years or so, Amsterdam becomes a killing field. Being long dead doesn’t stop him or his subordinates from terrorizing the city.

The only person who fully understands the danger of a full moon on Dec. 5 is a burned out cop named Goert (Bert Luppes). Understandably, nobody in the city takes him seriously or even thinks of cancelling St. Nicholas Eve festivities. Goert, however, knows the myths are more than stories to scare kids. He’s the sole survivor of a rampage that killed everyone else in his family. It’s no wonder he’s the only resident of Amsterdam who looks morose. He knows the tales about Sinterklaas and his assistant Black Peter stealing bad kids away to Spain are nothing to worry about because what he’ll really do is far worse.

The Dutch perspective on St. Nicholas gives Saint a fresher approach to the Santa slasher genre. For one thing, the film implies the residents of the city sure like to give each other dildos. But the film quickly devolves into a garden variety teens in trauma horror movie. Egbert Jan Weeber stars as Frank, a hard partying student who makes the mistake of dressing up as Sinterklaas and gets framed for the dead saint’s murders. Blood and severed body parts ensue, but there’s no suspense as Frank desperately tries to stay alive and prove that he’s not the one spoiling the entire city’s holiday.

The subtitles don’t make Saint any more sophisticated than domestic horror films. After a while the carnage loses its shock value. If all the holiday, or as Bill O’Reilly would demand I say, “Christmas,” cheer that’s thrust up on us is starting to annoy you, Saint is clearly intended for you. There are only so many times a person can watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer before going mad, but after a while, pointless gore isn’t much fun either. (N/R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 12/09/11)

New Year’s Eve
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Something tells me the contracts for New Year’s Eve are probably more interesting to read than Katherine Fugate’s script. In order to land a cast of dozens of stars, the producers have demonstrated creativity and initiative that are nowhere to be found in the screenplay. What perks would have to be provided to induce Robert De Niro to spend a couple of days lying on a bed reciting tired clichés that scream “Oscar-bate?” How many star-specific makeup artists had to be hired to ensure the actors looked good as they went through the motions, waiting for more substantial gigs.

Sadly, viewers are forced to settle for what was actually filmed. Director Garry Marshall (who teamed up with Fugate on Valentine’s Day) has pulled off a nifty little technical trick. Having filmed the movie the previous winter in the Big Apple, there are all sorts of digital tricks to get all the signs rigged so that they read “2012.” In addition, he’s managed to raise the amount of product placement by having movie theaters advertising a different Warner Bros. movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. When the filmmakers go to absurd lengths to make sure actors are holding Coke cans or that the billboards plug merchandise conveniently available for the Christmas rush, there’s no room for the movie itself.

As with Valentine’s Day, there are several interlocking storylines, none of which are remotely entertaining or even mildly interesting. Hilary Swank stars as the person in charge of making sure the Times Square ball drops as scheduled at midnight. Naturally, the sucker, like a first generation Apple product, malfunctions in front of billions. If this is Marshall’s or Fugate’s idea of a crisis, I wonder how they’d act during an earthquake or a tornado.

De Niro plays a dying Vietnam-era combat photographer by reciting long monologues. These seem really polished for a guy at death’s door. Maybe I’d become suddenly eloquent if Halle Berry was my nurse.

Meanwhile, Abigail Breslin plays a teen who wants to spend time in Times Square with her boyfriend despite the disapproval of her overprotective mother (Sarah Jessica Parker), and a young courier (Zac Efron) gives a mousy secretary a chance to meet all of her new year’s resolutions in a single day. The latter subplot is ripped straight from The Bucket List and is even less inspired than the original.

Perhaps there’s some joy to spotting a star walking on and delivering a quip before heading back to his or her day job on a sitcom. Marshall and Fugate make little effort to develop any of the situations they thrust their performers into and as a result waste their potential. There’s room for debate about whether placing Ashton Kutcher and moonlighting Glee star Lea Michele in a malfunctioning elevator was a good idea. The two predictably become an item even though there’s no chemistry to speak of between them. Because of ersatz lift is built like a cage, it might have been funny to watch the two try to figure out how to climb through it. There’s actually some potential for some physical comedy. Instead, Fugate seems to think that having the two whine during their captivity is more fun.

Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel almost score some laughs, as a couple trying to have their baby be the first child born in NYC during the new year. Meyers has a way with a sarcastic quip, but it’s so much more rewarding to hear him reading comic headlines on Saturday Night Live than it is witnessing him try to make Fugate’s material fun.

The one positive aspect of New Year’s Eve is that Marshall and Fugate are running out of Hallmark holidays to exploit. Thankfully, Groundhog Day is already taken. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 12/09/11)

 

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s been said that The Velvet Underground and Nico sold only one thousand copies in its initial release, but we remember the album because every person who bought it formed a band. The same could probably be said of the veteran Los Angeles ensemble Fishbone. Members of The Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt readily acknowledge how much they admire and have been influenced by the band. Chili Pepper bassist Flea bluntly acknowledges copying his approach to his instrument from Fishbone co-founder Norwood Fisher. Curiously, Flea and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani are tycoons and household names, whereas Fisher and singer-saxophone player Angelo Moore are adored by critics and fellow musicians but are sadly not getting rich and are still unknown to most of the public.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone may help remedy that. Lev Anderson and KC-native Chris Metzler persuasively argue that the band members’ lives and music are worthy of wider recognition. The filmmakers do a terrific job of explaining why Fishbone matters and how their music explains and enriches our culture as a whole. Formed in late 1970s Los Angeles, the African American musicians met when they were bused to high schools outside of their native South Central. The scrappy but charismatic Fisher and the nerdy Moore had an almost instant chemistry, and their friends, through the influence of having to live in different neighborhoods, developed an unusual approach to music. In a typical Fishbone song, ska, heavy metal, funk, punk and silky harmonies all come together in one package. Like fellow Angelinos Los Lobos, Fishbone aren’t bound to a single genre, but Fishbone can effortlessly switch styles in the middle of a song.

This helps explain why they didn’t catch on quickly in the ‘80s even though they were a fixture in the L.A. punk scene. In the documentary, admirer Ice-T recalls how Fishbone played the type of tunes that made other black listeners switch the dial. Columbia Records actually had to market the band to white listeners to get them on MTV or radio. Another problem is that while the band sounded great in the studio and wrote songs that examined the horrors that lead to the L.A. riots of the ‘90s, their best moments were live.

On stage, the band plays with the precision of a Swiss watch and the fervor of rabid dogs. There is no focal point during a Fishbone show. While Moore sings lead, the entire band harmonizes with him and engages in a kind of call and response. They jump across the stage just as the fans do in the mosh pit below, and a music video can’t capture the excitement of Moore diving into the crowd and the band becoming part of it. Recordings can reach a lot more people than auditoriums, but the latter is really the only place to see the band properly.

While Everyday Sunshine argues that the band hasn’t gotten a fair shake, it also reveals that their personal stories are infinitely more fascinating that a typical VH1 Behind the Music episode. While substance abuse and musicians seem to be an unavoidable pairing, Fishbone’s situation is more intriguing because on the cusp of stardom, guitarist Kendall Jones had a nervous breakdown and then joined a cult. When his band mates tried to rescue him, they wound up charged with kidnapping. Moore also drove out “Dirty Walt” Kibby because he became obsessed with playing a Theremin. The electronic instrument annoyed other members as well.

Anderson and Metzler collect dozens of great bits of rehearsal and performance footage as well as intimate footage between Moore and his family. During the making of the film, Moore had to move in with his mother to cut down on expenses after a well-reviewed album flopped. Moore and Fisher are also fascinating guys to follow. The former personifies quirkiness whereas the latter’s calm masks a confident toughness that explains his longevity in such a rough business. There are also animated segments that fill in where footage is missing and help set the mood of the era. It doesn’t hurt that the film is narrated by golden-throated actor Laurence Fishburne who does more than simply play on the pun surrounding his last name.

A good music documentary can help fans get a better understanding of a band they already enjoy. An exceptional one helps non-fans appreciate a combo’s legacy and even wins the group new admirers. Everyday Sunshine is clearly in the second category. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/02/11)

Note: Filmmaker Chris Metzler will be doing Q&As after the screenings this weekend at the Screenland Crossroads on 17th and Washington. Go to www.screenland.com for more information.

 

Answers to Nothing
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

With his latest effort Answers to Nothing, co-writer-director Matthew Leutwyler appears to have confused glum with profound. For over two hours, he treats us to miserable people whining about their place in Los Angeles, which according to the film must be the most depressing city on the planet. All those palm trees must get everyone down. Even when a crisis resolves itself favorably, you get the feeling these folks will simply whine more quietly as a result.

The problem with Answers to Nothing is that it’s just about impossible to share in any of the characters’ miseries. These folks appear to be demanding their lachrymose states or may be some of the dumbest college educated characters in screen history. They’re almost as dumb as the knife bait teenagers in slasher films.

Moonlighting standup comic Dane Cook stars as Ryan, a therapist who has some issues of his own. After a tryst with a younger singer (Aja Volkman, a vocalist in the band Nico Vega), he rushes to a fertility doctor where his wife Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell) is waiting to see if the two are good candidates for in vitro fertilization. It’s best not to know how he manages both encounters immediately after each other.

In films like Dan in Real Life, Cook has demonstrated that he has decent acting chops and can play straight roles easily. Unfortunately, a little levity would have helped here. Ryan’s kinky philandering comes off as morose and unsympathetic. He’s obviously upset about his runaway father, but aping his dad seems like a pretty foolish way to deal with the issue. It certainly makes things difficult for Ryan’s long-suffering mother (Barbara Hershey).

If Ryan’s plight is unsympathetic so are the other interlocking tales. There’s a hard bitten cop (Julie Benz) trying to get a sketchy neighbor (Greg Germann) to confess to the abduction of a missing grade schooler, an African American writer (Kali Hawk) who feels conflicted about her own ethnicity, an alcoholic woman (Miranda Bailey) who wants to take care of her paralyzed brother and a uniformed cop (Erik Palladino), fresh from the academy. These stories and the others that accompany them are not that interesting, and Leutwyler, who’s credited with editing the film, paces the film so slowly that it has trouble keeping up with viewers, who are well ahead of it. The cast is generally solid, but their attempts to make their characters’ struggles engaging are futile.

Leutwyler and co-screenwriter Gillian Vigman follow in the well-worn footsteps of Robert Altman, John Sayles (Lone Star) and Paul Haggis (Crash) but can’t find any new or involving angles on what their predecessors have done already. In better ensemble vehicles, viewers wait for a character to learn and grow, pay the price for folly or serve as a warning to others. Any change that happens to these folks seems phony and telegraphed. In some ways, Answers to Nothing is smaller than life, instead of larger. Staring out any window for two hours is more edifying and entertaining than what’s on the big screen now. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 12/02/11)

 

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Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.


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