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Saturday, December 31, 2011

We Bought A Zoo



Based on a true story, Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo finds Matt Damon, a widower and father of two, so desperate to escape the memories of his late wife that he buys a run down zoo and moves his family in. The cadre of character actors like Angus MacFadyen from Braveheart and Patrick Fugit from Crowe's Almost Famous who work at the zoo, and Thomas Hayden Church as Damon's pragmatic older brother, have their doubts about the zoo's new owner. The one person who believes in Damon is Scarlett Johansson, because a movie star recognizes another movie star and instantly believes a movie star can do what he sets out to do. Despite numerous setbacks, financial and natural, they all pitch in and get that zoo open. To get there, Damon must mend fences with his surly son Colin Ford who's still mourning for his dead mother. Damon's precocious young daughter Maggie Elizabeth Jones settled into the zoo just fine. Johansson, sans makeup for the entire picture, is radiant, even when picking up snakes and shoveling bear shit, which takes Damon the length of the picture to finally pick up on.  Meanwhile, Ford picks up on all the obvious signals the pretty, giggly farm girl his age, Elle Fanning, sends out and finds a little teen romance in spite of himself. Like father, like son, macking on the zookeeper girls. Crowe, the director of Singles and Pearl Jam Twenty, couldn't resist working in some of his (and my) favorite rock tracks like Tom Petty "Don't Come Around Here No More" and Temple of the Dog "Hunger Strike", to his credit and my enjoyment. We Bought A Zoo, all about letting go and finding new adventure to heal from loss, is a sweet movie at heart but lacks teeth. Yet, the appeal of this zoo run by movie stars is undeniable. What a fun summer day it would be to visit a zoo run by Jason Bourne, The Black Widow, The Sandman, and the girl from Super 8.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo



"May I kill him?"

David Fincher's astonishing adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is, among many superlatives, the best James Bond movie in years, right down to the disturbing, eye-popping opening credits set to Academy Award-winning composer Trent Reznor and Karen O.'s cover of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song". The rocking sequence, eclipsing the fearsome opening credits of Fincher's 1995 serial killer yarn Se7en, immerses us in the oily, black thoughts of Lizbeth Salander (a revelatory Rooney Mara), the titular title character. Cutting right from the opening credits to Daniel Craig as 007 -- pardon me, as disgraced Swedish journalist Mikail Blomkvist -- only further invokes Dragon Tattoo as the Bond movie Fincher would never be hired to make, but made anyway.

The story of Dragon Tattoo is familiar to the millions who have devoured the novels by Steig Larsson and/or watched the popular Swedish film adaptations starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.  Reeling from bankruptcy and public disgrace, Blomkvist is hired by the patriarch of the Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to solve the murder of his niece ("Harriet Fucking Vanger," Lisbeth calls her) 40 years ago. Together with hacker and researcher extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander, who was hired by Vanger's lawyer to investigate Blomkvist's suitability to the task, they uncover the Vanger clan's sordid underbelly of Nazism, ritual murder, serial killing, anti-Semitism, torture porn, rape, and incest. The gruesome activities of the Vangers mirror the terrible circumstances Lisbeth herself, a ward of the state because of her own hellish past, finds herself in when she's tortured and brutally raped by her court-appointed overseer. Lisbeth's revenge takes 'an eye for an eye' to a new level. Like the novels and the Swedish films, Fincher's Dragon Tattoo delves deeply into the myriad woman-hating atrocities committed by the Swedes. One wonders if any of this has negatively affected tourism.

The blistering (sexual) chemistry between Craig and Mara is palpable. Craig is in top form, maintaining the gruff masculinity he brings to James Bond while outright eschewing 007's invincibility to violence. Mara is incredible; she emotes through the subtlest of her eyes and facial expressions, conveying not just Lisbeth's intensity and inner torment but her closely-guarded playfulness and hopefulness, especially in the final moments as she allows herself to fall for Blomkvist, the kindest, most honorable man she's ever known. (When Lisbeth enters a room, she likes to say "hey hey," like Krusty The Klown would.) Blomkvist and Salander are an unusual but well-matched pair, noted by everyone from Blomkvist's lover played by Robin Wright to Martin Vanger, the head of the Vanger Corporation, played by Stellan Skarsgard (guess who the real killer is?!).

When Blomkvist finally gets too close to the truth in his investigation, he's tortured and interrogated by Martin in a crackling twist on the Bond villain inviting 007 into his lair and trying to execute him in nearly every Bond movie. The conversation between the dominant Martin and the helpless Blomkvist manages to be simultaneously illuminating, frightening, and amusing (cue Enya). Blomkvist is placed in a terrifying death trap even worse than when James Bond had his balls whacked in Casino Royale. It's Salander who saves him and dispatches Martin in a fiery demise (which both calls back to and foreshadows the next chapter, The Girl Who Played With Fire). The iconography of Lisbeth Salander saving James Bond's life is irresistible.  

Composing gorgeous cinema in every frame, Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian (delivering career-best work adapting a bestseller for the screen) hack and slash the excesses of the novel while still requiring nearly three hours to tell their version of Dragon Tattoo. The significant divergences include trimming Blomkvist's sexual dalliances with Cecelia Vanger, diving headlong into Lisbeth's corporate espionage to steal Blomkvist's enemy Weinnerstrom's funds and destroy him (Lisbeth asking Mikael for $50,000 for "a smart,  safe investment" and being flabbergasted when he cheerfully agrees is one of Dragon Tattoo's little delights), and their revised ending of how the true fate of Harriet Vanger is revealed, before Lisbeth finds herself heartbroken by Blomkvist's crime of being an oblivious man who lied to her face about resuming his relationship with Robin Wright. Alone again, Lisbeth rides off into the blackest night. All throughout, the pulsing score by Reznor fuels the never-ending dread of the hostile, bleak Swedish winter.

What is the Swedish word for 'sequel', David Fincher? 

Young Adult



In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays a real piece of sh-- work. A ghost writer for a failing series of young adult novels, Theron was the much-desired, much-admired queen bee of her high school but grew up to be a deeply unhappy 37 year old alcoholic who watches far too much Keeping Up With The Kardashians on E! Also, she's batshit crazy, as her long suffering nerd classmate Patton Oswalt discovers when he runs into Theron back in their hometown. She left what her high school peers believe to be her glamorous life as a writer living in a condo in the big city of Minneapolis to come home for "a land deal investment". But Theron is really back to steal her high school boyfriend Patrick Wilson from his simple, happy life with his wife Elizabeth Reaser and their newborn child, and she goes about her transparent, lunatic scheme with utterly shameless determination. Directed by Jason Reitman, Young Adult is a darker, not winningly crowd-pleasing, but disturbingly funny turnabout from his last picture Up In The Air. Diablo Cody pens her finest, boldest screenplay yet, eschewing her snarky dialogue in Juno and Jennifer's Body while delving into the disturbed mind of Theron's character and all the damage she causes in her wake. Cody and Reitman admirably refuse to let Theron off the hook and twist away from a Hollywood happy ending where Theron learns to better herself that ties everything together with a bow. They're remarkably nicer to Oswalt, who does his damnedest to be Theron's Jiminy Crickett and gets to fulfill a lifelong fantasy by bedding Theron. After which Oswalt's sister Collette Wolfe begs Theron to be her queen bee and let her accompany Theron back to Minneapolis. Startlingly beautiful even in her worst moments, her worst moments comprising the entirety of Young Adult, Theron shines as an entirely different kind of monster from the one she played in Monster

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows



In Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Dr. Watson's Insistence on Heterosexual Monogamy, re-titled (one presumes) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows for marketing suitability, the Great Detective is hot on the trail of his greatest nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The only thing distracting Holmes from uncovering Moriarty's dastardly plot to instigate a war via an assassination at a peace summit in Switzerland is his sidekick Watson's insistence on getting married and going on his honeymoon with his wife. In the first of two supercharged confrontations, Moriarty helpfully combines Holmes' two agendas by threatening the well being of Watson and his bride. This sparks Holmes' fabled powers of deduction, fighting prowess, derring-do, and propensity for cross-dressing like Bugs Bunny to go on a Europe-wide manhunt to stop Moriarty from carrying out his nefarious scheme. As Holmes, the cleverest man alive, Robert Downey Jr. once again chews his non-existent deerstalker hat, while Jude Law as Watson again attempts some reasonable form of restraint while failing to restrain Holmes. Their bromance - hold the B - continues with aplomb. In a shocking but welcome twist, the weakest aspect of the prior Sherlock Holmes, Rachel McAdams, is bumped off -- she's replaced as The Woman in the Movie by Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, who plays a wide-eyed gypsy regularly confounded by Holmes and seemingly out of her depth in a Guy Richie film. Also - ahem - cheekily along for the ride is Stephen Fry as Sherlock's fey brother Mycroft Holmes. Holmes and Watson's bludgeoningly madcap adventures eventually give way to a crackling third act where Holmes and Moriarty mentally and physically match wits in Switzerland, with a terrific conclusion invoking the demise of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel. The Holmes vs. Moriarty battle is worth the wait. Jared Harris, most famously of Mad Men, makes for a splendidly sinister Moriarty, every bit the equal of Downey's formidable Holmes. The only thing that could have improved upon Moriarty's game of shadows with Holmes would be if he'd taken Holmes to the Playboy Club to meet his chocolate bunny.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn



"Great Snakes!"

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn opens with a marvelous animated credits sequence that both honors the beloved (worldwide, not so much in America) comic strips by Herge while outdoing the memorable opening credits to Spielberg's own Catch Me If You Can. Jackson's WETA animation beautifully and smoothly brings the characters of Tintin (voice of Jamie Bell), Captain Haddock (voice of Andy Serkis), bumbling bobbies Thomson and Thompson (voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), and Tintin's lovable dog Snowy to CGI life, with fully believable emotions and facial expressions. Tintin's adventure-packed world of 1950s Belgium and points beyond are also splendidly and lushly rendered. In The Secret of the Unicorn boy reporter Tintin uncovers a mystery involving a model pirate ship that sends him across the sea and into the deserts of Morocco chasing after fabled pirate treasure. Along the way, Tintin meets drunken sea man Captain Haddock and runs afoul of the villainous Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig in a terrific performance where you'd never know James Bond is the villain of the story). Invoking the spirit of his Indiana Jones-anything goes adventures, Spielberg's Tintin is a wild, non-stop, roller coaster of blistering action set pieces and death-defying thrills. Despite combining three of Herge's Tintin comics to round out the story, Tintin's action is absolutely relentless and all but overloads on its manic pace by the third act. Tintin himself turns out to be a very serious boy reporter indeed, though he is understandably angry that modern day descendants of pirates keep trying to murder him. Haddock is a lovable foil for Tintin, though more apologetic about his alcoholism than he ever is in the comic strips. Snowy steals every scene he's in, as he's wont to do. Though Tintin himself would probably have appreciated his first Hollywood film slowing down the constant life-threatening predicaments he's placed in and playing up the whimsy of the comic strips, overall the combination of Steven Spielberg's direction and Peter Jackson's WETA animation do Tintin justice.

War Horse



In Steven Spielberg's splendid horse opera War Horse, everyone (who isn't an evil German) War Horse meets falls in love with him. How can you not? War Horse is a wonderful war horse. Literally born into the movie, War Horse is named "Joey" by his first owner, good-hearted farm boy Jeremy Irvine. When Irvine's alcoholic war hero father Peter Mullan sells Joey to British army leftenant Tom Hiddleston (Loki from Thor and The Avengers) in order to pay off his debt to his seedy landlord David Thewlis, Joey's relatively idyllic life as a plow horse and galloping around the verdant hills of merry olde England ends and his troubles begin. Indoctrinated as a mounted steed for service in World War I, Joey is transformed into War Horse (and even named such - Joey is actually more "War Horse" than William Wallace was "Braveheart"), surviving a disastrous charge at the German army by Hiddleston and his battalion. Soon, War Horse escapes with two doomed young German deserters and finds himself under the care of a charming but sickly young French girl, Celine Buckens, and her kindly grandfather Niels Arestrup. Alas, the Germans come calling and take ownership of War Horse once more, turning him into a beast of burden until he frantically escapes and gets himself tangled in the barbed wire of the no man's land between the British and German encampments. This Passion of the War Horse is among the very best film sequences of the year, as a compassionate British and German soldier from each side agree to a temporary, respectful detente so they can use wire cutters to free War Horse from his predicament. War Horse contains a lot of horse play, rough housing, and even horse housing. Though he indulges in a curious penchant for getting reaction shots, complete with hints of a smile, from War Horse, Spielberg is at the peak of his epic filmmaking powers. War Horse endures the brutality man heaps upon man first hand but embodies the determination of the equine spirit. And the human spirit too, one supposes. When War Horse is finally reunited with Irvine, who joined the war never dreaming he'd see Joey again, it's a touching reward for a brutal, nerve racking few years of war one wouldn't wish on any man or horse. I love you, War Horse!

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol



It seemed impossible to enjoy another Mission: Impossible movie after the miserable experience of Mission: Impossible III. Leave it to Tom Cruise and director Brad Bird to accomplish the impossible against all odds. After directing some of the finest animation of the past two decades with The Simpsons, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is Bird's doozy of a live-action coming out party. Bird injects new vitality into Mission: Impossible, delivering a rollicking, eye-popping joyride and the best sheer movie experience of the Mission: Impossible franchise. They didn't make 'em like this before!

After breaking out of a Russian prison, Cruise's unstoppable agent Ethan Hunt is once again hunted by friendly forces, as the Impossible Missions Force is dismantled, with the President instituting "Ghost Protocol" (so says Tom Wilkinson, the latest in the parade of old men in suits Ethan Hunt takes marching orders from). Hunt, Simon Pegg's comic relief hacker Benji, and new additions Paula Patton and mystery man Jeremy Renner are all that's left of the IMF. Rocketing from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai in the best 007 tradition, Ghost Protocol is thankfully devoid of the previous Missions' inane spy double talk (no mention of a rabbit's foot!), bewildering character betrayals, over-heated plots, and those stupid masks that fool everyone (to Pegg's chagrin). Ghost Protocol is leaner and meaner but so much bigger and badder.

Ethan and the Ghost Protocoled IMF must hunt down a terrorist (Michael Nyqvist, the star of the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films) who wants to launch a nuclear missile to destroy San Francisco. That's awesome: an actual, tangible threat for Ethan Hunt to stop instead of a computer disc or a deadly virus. In addition to some pleasing character work from Renner, Patton, and Pegg, and a terrific turn as a deadly assassin by Lea SeydouxGhost Protocol pays nice homage to the best aspects of its franchise predecessors: Ving Rhames cameos, not too upset that he's not risking his life this time around, while the fate of Ethan's wife Michelle Monaghan is deftly dealt with.

Bird utilizes IMAX to the nth degree, showcasing astounding action set pieces, such as the centerpiece nail-biter of Cruise climbing the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai with just magnetic gloves. The noticeably older, weathered Hunt, who never met a building he didn't want to jump off of in the three prior films, was actually terrified at the prospect of this latest insane stunt. Ethan Hunt must be growing as a person. Finally. Ghost Protocol indeed proves nothing is impossible.




With Hugo, Martin Scorsese tackles 3D, an adaptation of a beloved children's book by Brian Selznick, and his own deep love of and desire to preserve cinema, and weaves them together to create pure movie magic. Set in a wintry 1930s Paris of dreams, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield as the title character, Hugo Cabret. Orphaned by the death of his father Jude Law, Hugo lives illegally in the Paris train station, keeping the clocks running while avoiding being caught and sent to the orphanage by the Station Inspector, played with a cunning blend of humor and pathos by Sacha Baron Cohen. Hugo's father left behind a curious invention, an automaton which writes but needs a key to activate it. In order to unlock the automaton's secrets, Hugo befriends Isabelle, (Chloe Grace Moretz, neither a vampire nor a foul-mouthed, homicidal superhero this time around), the niece of the tragic George Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. Though one becomes trained by years of Ben Kingsley as the villain in his films to expect Kingsley to be the villain of Hugo, Kingsley's gruff, haunted George Méliès is actually the great filmmaker, who directed hundreds of films at the turn of the century, most of which were lost or destroyed during World War I. His most famous work, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, was homaged in the 1990s by the Smashing Pumpkins for their music video "Tonight, Tonight". Scorsese's real message in Hugo is how important it is to honor and preserve the important cinema of the past for posterity, but he simultaneously directs a moving friendship between Hugo and Isabelle while even giving Cohen's Station Agent a sweet subplot of unrequited love with the station's flower girl Emily Mortimer.  As a master of cinema honoring another master of cinema, Scorsese gives Méliès his just due while delivering a wondrous, timeless classic, utilizing the power of 3D better than most of his contemporaries. In Tracy Jordan's vernacular, I want to take Hugo behind the Paris train station and get it pregnant.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

You Can Feel Good About Red Hood and the Outlaws

Red Hood and the Outlaws sneaked up on me in the last 4 months to become one of my favorite titles of DC Comics' The New 52. I dig it. The uproar about hyper-sexualizing Starfire didn't bother me. Actually, that only made her more appealing. But seriously, the best way I can describe Red Hood and the Outlaws is that it feels like the rollicking comic book version of 2006 Rated R Superstar Edge. Like his shirt: Sex and Violence.

In 4 issues, Red Hood quickly turned into a fun series. For one thing, I think the characterizations are very strong. For the first time ever, I like Jason Todd. He's actually interesting and formidable. To illustrate how much I loathed Jason Todd: I am one of his executioners. I was one of the people who called DC Comics in 1988 and voted: Robin Must Die. Joker beating him with the crowbar and exploding him was something I asked for, and enjoyed. I hated Jason Todd. I hated the story of his comeback by Judd Winick (though I liked the movie of it.) 
But now, I like Jason. I get Jason. He's become more interesting to me than any other ex-Robin. The series has also done a very good job, better than lots of the other New 52 series, in quickly building a mythology and giving a ton of backstory to Jason Todd.

Roy Harper still hasn't grown on me, but Starfire is much more than meets the eye. Especially in issue 4 where she faces a new enemy and we get to see half the issue from her point of view. She has surprising depth of character to go with the gratuitous blow up sex doll eye candy.

As a reader projecting himself into the comics he reads, I wouldn't want to hang out with the simpletons in Justice League or Suicide Squad, for instance, but I would certainly hang out with Red Hood, Arsenal, and Starfire. Blaze around the world, get into trouble, have some sex, fight some evil. They're a swell bunch, those three. They're a couple of bad ass skilled humans hanging out with the single hottest woman in the universe who flies and has superpowers, and she's both an alien princess and a former slave girl, and they fight evil together. What a concept! What's not to like?