War Horse, through stunning visuals and a lot of manufactured emotion follows the military exploits of an English stallion into the war to end all wars. Fold in 1914 the colt is such a beauty he enchants Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), an agrarian tenant, to literally bet the farm he works with wife Rose (Emily Watson) on this horse rather than purchase a sturdier stud. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) names the thoroughbred Joey and manages to turn this metaphorical silk purse into the sow's ear that they need but it's all for naught. The only luck the family can muster is war breaking out and the army’s sudden willingness to pay dearly for fast mounts. Early on this adventure prove that yesterday's cavalry is no match for modern machine guns and all too soon a rider-less Joey ends up in German hands. While on the continent he shares the company of two doomed infantry deserters then a frail French farm girl and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) before being pressed into hard labour with the German army. Although we constantly wonder if Joey will ever be reunited with the now conscripted Albert who loves him the most memorable union isn't between this horse and that young man. It’s between two witty entrenched foot soldiers, one German the other British who risk certain death to meet in no man's land on a rescue mission of our four legged warrior. At almost 2 1/2 hours War Horse surely will beat by at least a furlong the length of the puppet play it is based on. Too bad in all that time it fails to make any legitimate emotional connection with its audience. Oh well, C'est la guerre.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on the first voluminous volume of the posthumously popular Millennium trilogy by Sweden’s Stieg Larsson. The last of the subtitled “Girl” films had barely left theatres when this English version hit the horizon so series fanatic might have expected to at least see the angular beauty of Noomi Rapace reprise the inked-up role of Lisbeth Salander. However for Rapace fans this year she’s the girl next door at the Cineplex working with Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. The well pierced super hacker is played here by Rooney Mara who is full of surprises. She actually manages to take the character to a more intense level and she’s about the only cast member that sounds Swedish. Daniel Craig doesn’t even try but the wandering accents attempted by can-do actors like Christopher Plummer and Robin Wright (Erika Berger) make one wonder if they were desperately trying to avoid sounding like an Ikea commercial. Okay, Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger gets it right too - but he was born in Sweden. There is a lot of cool mystery solving to do here as the Kodak Brownie meets the Adobe Photoshop so (without dragging at all) the film needs its 158 minutes to tell the tale. It’s actually two stories running in tandem until they converge when disgraced Millennium magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) needs an assistant for his research into the decades old disappearance of the niece of Henrik Vanger (Plummer) the patriarch of a Swedish corporate dynasty. Their investigation uncovers family Nazis and Vanger incest not to mention all of Lisbeth’s extensive body art. It’s often the case that English remakes of stellar foreign films have their grit extracted but not so here – even though Salanders brutal rape at the hands of her sadistic state guardian is shortened it’s every bit as graphic and shocking (ditto her retribution) as in the 2009 version. But will this Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also leave as indelible a mark? Well let’s just say you’ll probably leave the theatre anxious to see Mara’s interpretation of The Girl Who Played with Fire.
Immortals is filmed in 3D with all the intensity and ripped abdomens of 300. King Hyperion didn’t get much papyrus several centuries BC but here the terrible Titan is played with much relish by Mickey Rourke. He’s bent on revenge against the Olympians which he plans to get by declaring war on humanity. Problem is he needs the mighty Epirus Bow in order to release the rest of the Titans that Zeus (Luke Evans) and Athena (Isabel Lucas) entombed for eternity in Tartaros. That bow happens to come into the possession of outcast love child Thesius (Henry Cowell) who becomes the reluctant leader of humanity in the battle against Hyperion and his mutilated minions (including a very wiry Minotaur). Meantime Thesius’ mythological wife Phaedra (Slumdog hottie Freda Pinto) prior to their hook up has a heretofore career bump as the Oracle of Delphi. Her visions include Thesius and Hyperion as BFFs (Bow Friends Forever) which lets face it is not a good look, so to speak, for the future of humankind – especially since Olympus is forbidden from helping. Immortals plays fast and loose with the Greek mythology passed down from antiquity but then again didn’t Euripides? Anyway who cares it looks fantastic!
Young Adults refers to a genre of fiction whose target audience is its moniker - can you say Twilight? Ironically Elizabeth Reaser, one of the lesser stars of that blockbuster franchise (where she’s Esme Cullen) is Beth Slade here, a principal character although not as the protagonist but very much so as the antagonist. The person she's antagonizing is Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) because Beth had the audacity to marry Mavis’ high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (gifted man Patrick Wilson). Curiously Mavis receives an email regarding Beth and Buddy’s first born right about that time her creativity and bourbon are hitting rock bottom. Deluded that she and Buddy are destined to be together she leaves Minneapolis with its incessant publisher pressure and heads back to her small hometown of Mercury to reclaim her man. Holed up in a motor hotel (one of the town’s ubiquitous franchises) along with her neglected dog and diet coke hangover medicine Mavis puts her plan into action. She thinks it’s going well despite the council of Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) her geeky high school locker neighbour who she never acknowledged as a teen but who turns out to be the only one in town with any real affection for her. And her parents Hedda and David (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins) still live there! How can this ever be resolved? Well thanks to the superb writing of Diablo Cody we walk away fairly satisfied, even though this amusing effort is no Juno (one of Cody’s previous triumphs). And thanks to the inspired work of Theron we’re also satisfied that the train wreck known as Mavis Gary has no business influencing the minds of young adults.
The Adventures of Tin Tin sees the classic Hergé outrageously cowlicked comic book character animated once again. The long running series ran for nearly 60 years prior to 1986 but here concentrates on the offerings from 1944 to 1945. The look not only displays the principals as artistically authentic but it also beautifully captures that European era (save for NAZI occupation) while staying true to the stories of The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure. Jamie Bell is Tin Tin, the intrepid newspaper reporter who inadvertently gets entwined in the family inheritance of Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). That treasure was originally the cargo of a three masted gunship called The Unicorn with one of Captain Haddock’s forefathers Sir Francis Haddock at the helm. Francis’ nemesis Red Rackham challenged The Unicorn to a battle at sea and its lost treasure has been a mystery ever since - but a coded clue to its whereabouts is hidden in a Unicorn model replica. Although in Tin Tin’s possession, this heirloom is also in the crosshairs of the evil Dr. Sakharine (Daniel Craig). To claim the fortune, Tin Tin and Captain Haddock must travel great distances over high seas and arid desert, at times aided (most inaptly) by inspectors Thomas and Thomas (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg). Steven Spielberg has salivated over making this adventure since the early eighties but was unable to get serious about it until 2004. Even though filming completed in 2009 it’s taken Spielberg this long to bring the movie to its current glory as he has been meticulous about the 3D filming of the performance captured technique. Animating this character has been attempted in the past but usually with disappointing results since such an international icon has to be brought to life just right. Spielberg has done it. The only thing missing is a “to be continued” graphic at the end - but you know there will be a follow-up, just as certain as there’s a Tin following Tin.
New Year’s Eve features lots of pretty faces in pretty unlikely circumstances – I mean come on, with a potential audience of a billion people worldwide there’s no contingency plan for every conceivable mechanical hitch that might plague the storied ball that drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Time Square? Yet it happens here and the fix falls on the shoulders of Claire Morgan (Hilary Swank) who also has to deal with a no show superstar performer named Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi) who has picked tonight to pine over Laura (rom-com staple Katherine Heigl) the only woman in the world not interested in jumping his bones. To the rescue after being rescued herself from an elevator incident with Randy (Ashton Kutcher) is a singer named Elise (Lea Michele who’s Glee carryover wannabe determined to make persona it is really getting old). While this is going on courier Paul (Zak Effron) is trying to help Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) speed through her impossible bucket list so that she will give him tickets to the big Apple’s hottest new year’s bash. Meantime while record company exec Sam (Josh Duhamel) tries to battle his way to that party for a keynote speech part of the throng impeding his progress is Hailey (Abigail Breslin) hoping to hook up with teen crush Seth (Jake T. Austin) for a midnight kiss despite the protest of her single mom Kim (a completely miscast Sarah Jessica Parker). The film tries to make a point about new beginnings but only seems to point out how Time Square is a glorious opportunity for product placement. One could go on and on checking off the long roster of A-list actors treading water in embarrassing roles but suffice it to say that New Year’s Eve sufferers the affliction of many star studded films – the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. Toss in Garry Marshall at the helm and it’s almost guarantee. So guess who is the driving force here? The initials are GM and don’t be thinking General Motors.
Hugo is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) a boy who lives within the walls and clock tower mechanics of the Paris train station during the golden age of steam in 1930’s France. He was the ward of drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) since his father (Jude Law) died. Before abandoning Hugo, Uncle Clause taught him his trade as keeper of the station clocks - a job Hugo continued in his uncle’s absence to avoid the orphanage. For some time he manages to dodge the long arm and war wounded leg of the Station Inspector (a subdued Sacha Baron Cohen who still gets all the laughs) who keeps one eye out for delinquents and the other on flower shop proprietor Lisette (Emily Mortimer). Hugo ekes out an existence on the avails of the station commerce until he’s busted by toy store proprietor George (Ben Kingsley). Through George’s kind god daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) we discover George has a connection to the only remnant Hugo has of his parents - a magical automaton rescued from the museum fire that consumed his father. This gorgeously presented film while juxtaposing the industry’s earliest ingenuity against today’s most advanced 3D technology takes its time revealing its true purpose. This gloriously marvellous film is not so much a boy’s adventure as an homage to groundbreaking cinematographer Georges Méliès by one of today’s most prolific movie makers, Martin Scorsese.
The Muppets stars Jason Segel – additionally the co-writer of the screenplay which turns out to be not only amusing but, with characters constantly referencing to the film they are in, also stays true to the spirit and charm of their iconic TV series of the seventies and eighties. Ironically though the film is a throwback to that time, the motif is more fifties than the “Me” generation. Segel is Gary of no fixed last name from Smallville USA as is his adored brother Walter (Peter Linz). While Gary grows in the normal fashion Walter remains just under the height needed for midway rides. Close ties with Gary keep melancholy over this at bay from Wayne but when his brother introduces him to a VHS tape of The Muppets Show, Wayne finds true kindred spirits - he also being an animated composite of felt and foam rubber. Vying for Wayne’s brotherly love is Mary (Amy Adams), Gary’s girlfriend who has a romantic Las Angeles tenth anniversary planned at long last for just the two of them. Predictably that turns into a crowd when Wayne is invited – I mean how could Gary leave him behind when L.A. is the home of Muppet Studios? However Wayne’s euphoria is dashed when Muppet Studios turns out to be a dump, all primed for oil exploration by the oily Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). So how can Gary and Mary help Walter save the studio from Mr. drill baby drill? Of course, re-launch The Muppet Show for a telethon! Easier said than done since all of those cherished Henson characters are either in therapy or have moved on to other businesses – but a necessary show none the less because otherwise “this would be a very short movie” as they say in this movie. Also necessary is a host of celebrity cameos like a very unwilling Jack Black along with Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, Emily Blunt, James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris, Judd Hirsch, John Krasinski and Mickey Rooney. This movie may be a little long for its target audience but any fidgeting should be mitigated by lots of songs and a riot of colour.
Twilight Breaking Dawn Pt 1 caters well to its core audience of female teens as it lingers long on a fairy tale wedding and the shy honeymoon of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Unfortunately it’s kind of a slow set up for part two. Unlike previous films in the series the prickly sense of a peril is dramatically diminished. The unnerving Voltari is nonexistent, wolf/vampire relations are tense but under an uneasy truce and there’s no hot vengeful vampires like the recently dispatched Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) out to get Bella. Edward and Bella are committed so not only is the teen angst gone but switching to team Jacob is no longer an option. For anyone not a total Twi-hard the first 50 percent of the film is pretty tame. However once Bella becomes pregnant the delicately balanced peace starts to waver as Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) has to question his allegiance to the pack while everyone without a pulse tries to figure out how Bella can survive giving birth to the demon fetus rapidly consuming her from the inside. One pleasant surprise is Anna Kendrick back again as the self absorbed Jessica. She pretty much broke into the business with that role at the beginning of the series and since then she’s gone on to snag some key
The Descendants marks the end of a line for the 21st century Hawaiian progeny of King Kamehameha I in that their hereditary land trust is coming to the end of its shelf life and the heirs have to decide how a massive tract of untouched wilderness will be disposed of. At this time it’s also the end of the line for the wife of the descendant who doubles as the estate trust lawyer (with the ironic surname) Matt King (George Clooney). She is Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), on life support after a high speed boating mishap and her Life Will dictates that it is time to pull the plug. Matt and the rest of his dysfunctional family, the pre teen Scottie (Amara Miller) and teen problem child Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are duty bound to provide closure to the family and friends - and as it turns out people not really friends which Matt is shocked to find out when slapped in the face with the truth about Elizabeth’s unfaithful activity. This went on for some time before she was rendered comatose yet he is the last to know. Think living on Oahu full time would be paradise? Think again. Usually about this time of year George Clooney spring something interesting on us and this year is no exception. Backed up against the Oscar season this endearing film as Best Picture may not be in order but the music (which is lovely) may just make it for best original score. Oh yeah, speaking of scores, Clooney may score a best actor nod too.
J. Edgar ping pongs between the career dawning and twilight of the legendary J. Edgar Hoover, bookends distinguishable by the rolling hairline and jowls sported by Leonardo Dicaprio (excelling as usual in the lead role). Interim details are filled in by the dictates of Hoover to his hand picked biographer to flesh out a career that lasted through a litany of 20th century presidents most of whom wanted him gone but backed down when they realized they were embarrassingly caught up in the thorough scope of Hoover’s not always legal investigations –all of which stayed safeguarded for decades with his trusted personal Secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Paradoxical peccadilloes abound – this macho top cop was a cross dressing mama’s boy who lived in denial of his homosexuality but could not deny his attraction to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) the man he hired to be his second in command despite a complete lack of qualifications save for a fabulous fashion sense. Also undenied is Hoover’s contribution to law enforcement investigation pathology which was nonexistent when he took over the bureau but became a juggernaut under his administration, initiated by the Lindbergh kidnapping but getting most of its traction due to Hoover’s paranoia about communism. J. Edgar is an expansive expansion by director Clint Eastwood of what we know by hearsay and history of the freaky guy who headed the FBI for some fifty years – yet not in an unsympathetic way.
My Week with Marilyn is about a short window in the career of the immortal Marilyn Monroe just prior to Some Like it Hot when she went to England to work with the greatest actor of his time, Sir Laurence Olivier. She hoped that some of his style would massage her career and as we find out Olivier hoped that her vivaciousness would result in some career and personal rejuvenation. However the chemistry could not have been worse on the set of their comedy The Prince and the Showgirl. No one may have ever been aware of this friction were it not for a third AD on the production named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who, though a constant disappointment to his aristocratic family headed by Sir Kenneth Clark (Pip Torrens), was a person that Marilyn took a shine to. His diary of that time is the basis for the bestsellers "My Week with Marilyn" and "The Prince, the Showgirl and Me" upon which this surprisingly charming film is based. That charm is due in no small part to the a-list cast that includes Dame Judi Dench who makes the most of her small part as the aplomb Dame Sybil Thorndike and Richard Branagh who does a pretty good Olivier (then again, what Shakespearean actor doesn’t?) but the most satisfying treat is Michelle Williams in the lead role. She coaxes the camera to love her just like Norma Jean did and just like Joe De Maggio, one of the real Marilyn’s ex’s, Williams consistently knocks it out of the park.
Melancholia actually references disastrous malaise spawned from two worlds. First and foremost is that of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) a somewhat manic depressive bride who comes by her mental disability honestly being the daughter of Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) a jaded and overbearing mother and Dexter (John Hurt) her father who has a penchant for carrying on with a multitude of other women at once as long as there name is Betty. Mom and dad send Justine spiralling into despondency at her wedding reception much to the consternation of John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is footing the bill for this rather large celebration on his rural estate. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is Justine’s infinitely saner sister who tries desperately to keep the party from running off the rails. Meantime the other Melancholia is a rogue planet hurtling towards the earth. Huh? Yeah it was pulled into orbit by the sun before being hurled back into space through our solar system where it’s been labelled Melancholia. Along with being a captain of industry John is also a scientist and astronomer who assures his family in the days after the catastrophic wedding that a planetary collision is impossible. The blogosphere however has its dissenters and as terrestrial hysteria starts to mount the fragile Justine begins to strengthen while themes from the Incredible Lightness of Being meld with those of the Canadian production Last Night to enlighten us about the stark and startling but none the less gorgeously artistic images that director Lars von Trier has opened the film with. Unexplained and perhaps never to be known is how distributors perfectly planned the release of Melancholia right after that asteroid had a close brush with our mother earth!
Like Crazy is about the malleable Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and the take charge Anna (Felicity Jones), two L.A. college students who fall in love during their graduation year. Too bad at least one of them wasn’t studying molecular biology that final year of school because at least then there would be a little chemistry on screen. Anyway their passion has Anna foolishly violating her visitor’s visa. It’s hard to believe kids who did so well in school could consistently act so dumb post graduation but their folly leads to numerous years of an annoying on again off again long distance relationship between England and American. In deference to the title, early on Anna states emphatically that she’s not crazy so it must be him simulating insanity, and there’s actually definite proof of that. Jacob has a shot at Sam (Jennifer Lawrence) – TWICE - but keeps getting reeled back in by the cloying Brit. Like Crazy is kind of a heterosexual Brokeback Mountain with the USA immigration policy standing in for social intolerance.
Shame does not appear to be a factor for the principles of this dark and erotic drama since most of them spend significant time on screen without benefit of clothing. The film stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, a stellar New York executive who seems to be totally together. His lifestyle gets a little cramped however when his suicidal sister Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay and things don’t improve when she sleeps with David Fisher (James Badge Dale) Brandon’s married boss. By the way Brandon’s lifestyle is not really as together as his coworkers believe. In private a mutually attractive woman can’t arouse him but porn, prostitutes and casual gay sex always seem to work pretty well. In this his sophomore offering, director Steve McQueen heightens the story’s ubiquitous anxiety with a stylish pace which his terrific cast deliver perfectly. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch though. At one point Sissy pleads with Brandon that “we’re not bad people we just come from a bad place”. Trouble is about all we know regarding where they came from is Ireland by way of New Jersey. Perhaps a little more flesh there would explain all the flesh on screen, but there isn’t. Maybe that is the real shame.
The Artist has nothing to do with any of the aliases adopted by Rogers Nelson (sometimes a.k.a. Prince). It’s a French financed film with a lot of Hollywood faces. There are also a lot of subtitles but not because of no English dialogue –this is a silent film that apes the black and white method acting that died when talkies changed the face of cinema overnight. Much like the legendary Valentino (even in name) George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the 1927 Hollywood A-lister who has the clout to rescue the career of the fetching young hopeful Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) as it is about to be nipped in the bud by Al Zimmer (John Goodman), the stogy-chomping studio head honcho. The sparks that fly between George and Peppy are quenched by Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) George’s dowdy hateful wife, but they never really die out. Meantime as Peppy’s name edges up the star system in the new age of sound, George’s popularity plummeted just like his fortune on the stock market until he’s left with nothing but his faithful dog and manservant Clifton (James Cromwell). There are many delightful moments as Peppy and George work towards their inevitable happy ending but the retro idea does start to wear thin. This should have been a sweet little two-reeler but it goes on about one reel too long.
The Eye of the Storm is a blow back to 1972 in the environs of Sydney Australia where dowager Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) is at death’s door in her rural mansion attended by two nurses and her Cabaret performing housekeeper. She anxiously awaits the arrival of her princess daughter Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis) from France and knighted actor son Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) from England. They do show up but not exactly on time and not really out of love so much as due to a lack of funds - he being between acting gigs and she being royalty in name only. Through flashbacks we not only find out the irony of the movie’s title but also that Basil and Dorothy may have come by their mercenary affections honestly. Some of the cast fare better than others flashing through time – Rush and Davis not so much but Rampling is convincing as the current mother of Basil even though in real life she’s just five years Rush’s senior and again as long ago competitor for Col (Dustin Clare) one of Dorothy’s younger day suitors yet the Rampling and Davis are actually only nine years apart in age. The Eye of the Storm was partly responsible for author Patrick White winning a Nobel Prize. Although well done I’m not seeing a lot of awards upcoming for the movie.