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Column Fri Dec 23 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, We Bought A Zoo, The Artist & Miss Minoes

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

There was a time when it would have seemed absurd that a two-year-old Swedish film was getting an American remake simply because the perception was that hardly anyone in America actually saw the version with those pesky subtitles. But let us not forget that it was only last year when Let Me In was released only two years after the Swedish Let the Right One In freaked many of us out in new and exquisite ways. Some, including myself, saw the remake as a slightly better version of the film because the story was better told, while the atmosphere was left largely intact. Enjoying a remake takes nothing away from the original film or the source material. That's an important thing to remember.

So here we are, a year later, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a film that most Americans didn't see until 2010, has been remade by no one less than David Fincher, the recent Oscar nominated director of last year's The Social Network. Without making any radical adjustments from director Niels Arden Oplev's original film or, from what I'm told by those who have read it, from the book by Stieg Larsson, adapted here by the great Steven Zaillian, Fincher has managed to create a largely faithful, dense mystery peppered with wonderfully realized characters (in most cases) and location shooting in wind-swept Sweden that will have your reaching for your scarf and wool cap for fear of frostbite.

Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a discredited magazine writer sued for an exposé on a corporation CEO that is likely true, but he couldn't prove it, and the result was his losing his life savings. Rather than go back to his job and his relationship with the magazine's editor (Robin Wright) Mikael decides to take a private investigative job for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), whose largely loathsome family lives on what is essentially a private island filled with homes they live in. Henrik is convinced that years earlier, someone in his family killed his beloved niece, and he wants Blomkvist to interview the family and others in the town, under the guise of writing a biography of Vanger and his company, to find out who did this.

In the process of doing a background check on Blomkvist, a private security team hires Lisbeth Salander (a shape-shifting departure for the relative unknown Rooney Mara of The Social Network and the recent remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street), a computer hacker with a photographic memory and extraordinary powers of deduction. She's also got great swooping punk-rock hair that seems alive and able to adjust to suit her mood.

And Mara's face is endlessly fascinating to observe, from the eyebrows dyed so light they appear to be absent to the strangely positioned facial piercings to her sociopathic range of emotions — cold and detached makes way toward pure rage when she is cornered or attacked, with very little in between. Make no mistake, Noomi Rapace owns the role of Lisbeth like she will never own another character she plays (she certainly doesn't own the gypsy fortune teller character she plays in the new Sherlock Holmes movie), but I'm a huge admirer of the choices that Mara makes in playing this woman whose survival instincts and gift for retaliation are unparalleled. She's not better or worse or the same; she's just different than Rapace, and that's a good place to be.

During the course of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we meet the sordid members of the Vanger family, including one of the few seemingly reasonable ones, Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), the long-absent Anita (nicely played by Joely Richardson), a rather jovial former Nazi, and other folks who are just plain cruel because they always have been. Let's face it, hiring Skarsgard to be in this movie is a bit of a tell, since we know the guy can get a bit freaky when he needs to, but I never get tired of seeing him work.

But what this film boils down to is getting Mikael and Lisbeth in the same room together (which does take some time), because something about their combined brain power is explosive. It's also perversely fun to watch his hidden desire emerge for something a little less vanilla in his love life, as well as see her need for a hint of kindness in her life begin to balance the pain. To call what Craig and Mara have "chemistry" isn't quite right; it's a deeper bond. They draw power from each other, and in turn feed us.

Director Fincher is known for his visual sonics and intense pushing of actors until they are so immersed in the material that they aren't even acting. I can't imagine what many of the performers in this film had to go through to emerge in this place, but I do feel like Fincher isn't leaning on the visuals as heavily is he often does. I think that works best for this story, which has so many characters, you feel like you need a guide book. What he relies on an impressive amount is his moody, tense score from Social Network collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the pair won the Oscar last year, and rightfully so).

So what's missing from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? You'll likely leave the film wanting to know more about Lisbeth's history, and for that, you'll have to be patient; the sequels fill in many of those awful details. Fincher leaves the film on an emotional cliffhanger, and I think for him to say he's not sold on doing sequels that we know he'll do is disingenuous. What's going to be interesting about his approach to the next two films will be that it strays from the serial killer genre he helped redefine with Seven, and as he always does, Fincher will find elements of the story to latch onto and build upon. Dragon Tattoo is a hell of a platform to start that building. This film and this world are sometimes ugly, always interesting, and will feed you something you'll want more of. And if you're lucky, you'll come out of this film slightly more damaged than when you went in. That's not a promise, but it's my holiday wish for you.

War Horse

First off, I never read the Michael Morpurgo novel or saw the theatrical, puppet-enhanced version of War Horse, so I won't waste your time comparing these three versions of this story. What I can tell you with some authority is that the Steven Spielberg-directed version of War Horse is richly moving experience that tells the story of a horse named Joey and his epic, often-brutal journey as he is dragged through the horrors of World War I at the hands of different caretakers. Is it a story that plunges into the realm of the sentimental? You bet. But few directors are as gifted at handling heartfelt material the way Spielberg is, and the resulting film feels like it could have been made 50 or 60 years ago, in an era where emotions and heartstrings were worn on the outside.

As a younger horse, Joey is purchased at auction by a drunken farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), in an attempt to keep it out of the hands of another bidder. Ted isn't the brightest man, and he ends up not only buying Joey for far too much money, but the horse isn't even a proper work horse (one needed to pull a plow, for example). But rather than get rid of the horse, Ted's son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) decided he will take it upon himself to train the horse to plow the family's rocky fields, lest the nasty landlord (David Thewlis) take the farm away from Narracotts, a family whose numbers also include the sainted mother, played by Emily Watson, essentially reprising her role from Angela's Ashes.

Naturally after Albert and Joey form an unbreakable bond, the world steps in to separate them as Britain's involvement in the Great War intensifies, and all horse owners are asked to sell their best horses to the cavalry, represented by a kindly soldier played by Tom Hiddleston (Thor's Loki) and his commanding officer (Benedict Cumberbatch, recently seen in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). From their Joey is passed from owner to owner, treated well by some and like a beast of burden to be run until he dies by others. Settings include both sides of the battle lines (at one point Joey is in the hands of the Germans), a farm in the French countryside, and the hell that was No Man's Land (location of one of the famed Christmas truces of 1914).

After a long absence from the screen, Albert's journey since Joey leaving is picked up and it turns out that he too has been pulled into the fighting, and the question is whether the boy and his beloved animal will ever be reunited. As adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (as well as some exquisite lens work by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski), War Horse makes each chapter in Joey's life feel like its own short film, complete with a unique look and tone for each segment. The cumulative effect is quite effective and lends an epic scope (and length, at nearly 2.5 hours) to what is in reality a small-scale, personal journey for Joey.

War Horse is by no means Spielberg's definitive statement on World War I, although the section of the movie staged in No Man's Land nearly as horrific as anything he's presented us in Saving Private Ryan or "Band of Brothers." That being said, Spielberg clearly intended this to be a family film as well, so the war scenes are largely bloodless to secure the PG-13. I'll be honest, I thought this might bother me, but it never did.

Outside of his tales of adventure and science-fiction wonderment, this is the kind of storytelling I've always enjoyed from Spielberg. He latches onto an interesting story that he clearly finds fascinating and spends the length of the film exploring the reasons he loves it so much. And in the process, we either agree with him or not; in this case, he won me over almost instantly.

There's a sequence in the film where Joey attempts to jump across a man-made trench where soldiers are dug in, but the rainy conditions have softened the bank, and the horse slides into the trench, gets up, and then runs the length of the trench as soldiers move as fast as they can to get out of his way. I'm sure special effects were involved in creating that scenes, but they are invisible, and it's a moment I will never be able to forget because it speaks to the heart of what kind of creature Joey is. There's another one where Joey literally goes head to head with a tank, and again, I was left speechless by the power of the moment, which is now burned in the "Spielberg Iconic Moments Pantheon" of my brain forever.

Like few other filmmakers, Spielberg has this ability to creative endemic moments like this in his movies that sum them up perfectly. And I think we take it for granted that he can always come up with scenes like this; he actually can't. But when he does, as with War Horse, I'm always impressed. I'm far from a Spielberg apologist (as you may notice from my Tintin review), but at the risk of being redundant, I will sing his praises when it's appropriate. I get that you might not be interested in the subject in the first place, but if you are or if you simply are someone who takes a chance seeing a film that you're not convinced will be your cup of tea, I think you're going to walk out of War Horse remembering what stirring, heartfelt filmmaking can do for the soul. Call me crazy, but see the film before you do.

The Adventures of Tintin

Disappointment is a funny thing. I hesitate to ever use the word in my reviews, but there's an implication that just because a film didn't meet my expectation, there's something wrong with it. I'm a firm believer that if you walk into a film expecting A and you get B, that doesn't mean the film is bad; it just means it's not what you expected. Just because a trailer for Young Adult, for example, makes you think you're walking into a riotous comedy, and what you get is a sometimes-disturbing, dark story about an insane woman stalking her ex-boyfriend, does that make the move bad or just unexpected. Some people can't tell the difference, including me occasionally.

But the level of disappointment I felt at the Steven Spielberg-directed, Peter Jackson-produced The Adventures of Tintin wasn't solely about expectations not being met; it was about missed opportunities and taking the animated format and squandering it on paint-by-numbers action sequences and flat, dull production design. Consider this: Tintin (based on the comic books by Hergé) is an animated feature, one that in certain respects looks nearly photorealistic; you can literally imagine and execute any idea in the animated world. The limits are your imagination and nothing else. So why does the movie struggle so hard to do anything truly imaginative?

The story concerns Tintin, a young reporter (voiced by Jamie Bell) trying to uncover the mystery of three scrolls hidden inside model ships that seem to lead to the location of a long-lost hidden... something. Along his journey (with his trusted dog Snowy), he befriends a drunken sea captain (Andy Serkis), is aided by a pair of Interpol agents (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), and is pursued by the evil Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig). I don't have any complaints about the voice talents on hand, especially Craig, who really gets a shot at cutting loose as the villain of the piece.





Yes, Tintin is after a good story, but really he's an adventure junkie. That's fine, but that basically makes the movie an episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," a show I certainly liked but there was rarely anything creative done with the action sequences. With one or two exceptions, the action is reduced to shooting, car chases, blowing things up, and a tall ship battle with cannons and wood splintering and bodies going down in the sea.

I'm sure you've already heard about the seven-minute, single-cut action chase sequence through a town that is being flooded by a burst dam. That's by far the best sequence in the film and the only one that really takes advantage of its animated format. There's another interesting bit of action near the end of the film involving dueling port-side cranes, but even that seems rather clunky.

I've sat through The Adventures of Tintin twice now, once with a group of critics and another time at Butt Numb-a-Thon, and my reaction was the same at both screenings: Blah! I was never engaged by these loosely realized characters that looked interesting but never did anything I care about. One other thing, I'm pretty certain Tintin is supposed to be a kid, probably in his late teens. If you can put a kid in that much peril and never really get me to care if he lives or dies or is gravely injured, there's something fundamentally wrong with your film.

I'd guess, younger audience members may not concern themselves with such issues and will probably get a great big kick out of this movie, but I was left high and dry, despite all the scenes set on the water. Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Adventures of Tintin (and one of the primary reasons for my level of disappointment) is the strength of the writing team behind it — regular "Doctor Who" writer and creator of the new "Sherlock" television show Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright (who did such a remarkable job adapting Scott Pilgrim) and his frequent writing partner Joe Cornish (writer and director of Attack the Block and co-writer with Wright of the hopefully upcoming Ant-Man movie).

That's quite a pedigree, and if you thought about it, it might boggle your mind that these three talented chaps are the ones that came up with standard-issue action screenplay. Throw in Spielberg and Jackson's names and, on paper at least, The Adventures of Tintin should have the greatest action movie every made. But the plot seems more interesting in blowing shit up than telling a story and giving us some sense of who these characters are and what helps them through a life that had known a great deal of pain. I wish I could report better news — actually I can. Spielberg has another film out now, and that film did not disappoint in the slightest.

We Bought A Zoo

I see too many movies to not know when a filmmaker is being manipulative — reaching right into your chest cavity and playing your heart like a damn 12-string guitar. But there are some filmmakers that can get away with it because you trust them, because you know they have your best interests in mind and won't make you feel embarrassed for falling for something so obvious and blatantly sentimental that you make excuses for tearing up or making you care about or be inspired by something you likely never would in the real world. Cameron Crowe is just such a filmmaker, and We Bought A Zoo is just such a film.

Loosely based on a true story, this is the bizarre tale of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a now-single father whose wife was taken by cancer from him and his two kids, and he's still having a tough time getting past the loss because everywhere he goes in his town reminds him of her. After consulting with his eccentric brother (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin decides to purchase a home located smack dab in the middle of a small zoo. His young daughter loves the idea, while his older emo son loathes the idea, even after meeting the cute girl (Elle Fanning) who is one of caretakers of the zoo.

The zoo is in dire need of some repairs and upgrades, and Benjamin has some money to fix the place up, but a ruthless inspector (John Michael Higgins, whose very cartoonish presence almost kept me from liking this movie) piles on several more items that need to be dealt with, which they simply don't have the funds to complete. So with the help of his skeptical staff (including Scarlett Johansson, Angus Macfadyen, and Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit), Ben races to get the place up to code while not destroying his family in the process.

On the surface, the film is mostly a fun romp about Mee and his family getting used to a completely new way of life and dozens of species of animals, but the elements I found most compelling had to do with Mee continuing to deal with the loss of his wife and the daily struggle of raising his children, he feels, unsuccessfully. At times, the scenes that deal most directly with these more dramatic moments felt like slightly watered down versions of what George Clooney is coming to grips with in The Descendants. And Matt Damon has a couple of truly heartbreaking scenes where he melts down to his children that don't feel nearly as out of place as you might believe.

There's an absolutely unnecessary and distracting romance angle to We Bought A Zoo featuring Damon and Johansson that I could have easily lived without, and I think it damages the film a great deal. And I think the big mystery about whether the inspector will allow the zoo to open on schedule isn't really that mysterious (and Crowe spends way too much time pretending it is). But overall, I liked this PG-rated story about a man trying to connect and grow with his kids by forcing his life to move forward against some powerful and painful obstacles. No, the animals don't talk or do funny tricks; it's actually weird (and a relief) to see animals in a family film act like animals. Almost as strange as it is to see a director show some restraint in the face of a plot that offers so many places to hit so many wrong notes. But Crowe wouldn't want to watch a film like that, so it's unlikely he'd want to direct one either. And if you don't like We Bought A Zoo, I'm sure right next door to it you can still catch a screening of Chipwrecked. You enjoy that.

The Artist

It's unfathomable to me that there are people on this earth that don't like The Artist, the magical film from the talented French director-actor team of Michel Hazanavicius (who also wrote it) and actor Jean Dujardin. The pair made two very funny, slightly naughty spy parodies — OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost In Rio (2009) — but neither of those films quite prepares you for the near-silent, black-and-white majesty of The Artist, a tragic-comedy that begins in Hollywood in 1927 at the dawn of talking pictures.

Silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin, who possesses the perfect expressive face of a silent film star) is celebrating another smash opening of his latest film when he runs into a beautiful fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who just happens to be a talented dancer and hidden beauty. The two strike up a friendship that turns into something more series, but the real movement in their lives happens with their careers. As the talkies begin to take hold, George's career begins to fade, while her versatile skills as an actress, dancer and singer propel her to stardom. She never treats George poorly or reject him as a lesser person for being less famous, but his pride takes hold and he refuses to let himself be seen as a kept man or less a star. She struggles to keep him from giving up all hope, and it is in that story that The Artist draws its greatest power.

Although this is largely a French production, it was shot in Hollywood and features some fun cameos from the likes of John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle. But what really impresses is the fun visual style and humor that Hazanavicius employs to tell his bittersweet story. The black-and-white cinematography is lovely, sometimes smoldering, and the performances by the leads are devastatingly good, so much so that I don't want to ever see Dujardin play a character of the modern age. With his classic features and wide smile, he excels at playing men of another era with utter conviction, even when he's being ridiculous.

And much like Hugo, The Artist is also a celebration and homage to a great, lost era in filmmaking. I have always loved silent film, even the ones that many consider average, simply because they reveal so much about a style of movie making and acting that is long gone and not considered nearly enough. The film reveals Hazanavicius' deep admiration for this bygone era and his attempt to remind us that those silent film actors were not lesser performers simply because we never heard their voices. Talking about The Artist almost ruins it; just go see the damn thing and don't be scared of the black and white or the silence. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Miss Minoes

From Holland, a country whose film industry I know virtually nothing about, comes this very silly and feather-light kids' story based on the novel by Annie M.G. Schmidt, who I'm told is Holland's most beloved children's writer, and starring Carice van Houten (who became famous from this role and went on to perform in the international hits Black Book and Valkyrie) in the title role of an adorable woman who used to be a cat. Miss Minoes began her human life after the feline version of herself drank some chemicals being smuggled out of a perfume plant. She is still recognized as a cat by the other cats in the neighborhood, and all the feline community forms an interesting underground network of information, which is then fed to her friend Tibbe (Theo Maassen), a reporter for the local newspaper whose skills as a journalist are somewhat lacking. But assisted by the neighborhood cats, he begins to get scoops and is soon recognized as a great investigative reporter, even though all of his information comes from cats.

But when he writes a negative-slanting piece on a local big-shot business owner, the town turns against him since he offered no proof of the man's bad behavior. You can kind of see where this is all going. Miss Minoes is actually a 10-year-old film, which won the best film prize at the 2002 Chicago International Children's Film Festival and has been available on DVD (under the name Undercover Kitty) for many years; the film also won several awards in Holland. But this version of the film has been dubbed in English (rather than having subtitles) so that younger viewers might appreciate it a bit more in what is essentially its theatrical debut in the U.S., distributed by Music Box Films.

The film is certainly colorful and energetic, but in the end I find it difficult to watch what should be smart people do really dumb things for an entire movie. I loved the way quite pretty Van Houten maintains a few of her feline traits, such as eating fish, scratching people, and purring in an innocently sexy manner, but once I realized Miss Minoes wasn't going to be Holland's answer to Cat People, my interest level declined severely. I can see slightly more sophisticated kids getting into this, but the idea of children getting into an anti-corporation film seems like a bit of a stretch. I would have seen the film just because I'm a Van Houten fan, but beyond that, there's not much to recommend here. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

j_in_chi / December 18, 2012 11:59 PM

Review of "War Horse" at the Cadillac Palace, Chicago, Dec 2012

Overall excellent with some distracting staging and venue problems.
Review contains no spoilers

Kudos to the actors and puppeteers. I attended with a horse expert who
felt that the puppet horses were manipulated perfectly. The mannerisms of
"Joey" the main horse were spot-on. Especially his ears (the best way
to tell what a horse is thinking) were well-done. On "Young Joey"
I was initially disappointed seeing the front legs as "sticks" but
the head and neck made made up for this, and the "sticks" were representative of
a foal/colt. On both versions of Joey, the tail was great. Realistic interaction
with a dopey goose adds a bit of visual humor.
The puppets and actors performed some slow-motion scenes that worked well.
At a few points, the companion "black"
horse seemed to be more horse-like in his movements and less puppet-like than Joey.
The inter-horse interaction was also realistic, including "grooming" behavior and
a herd-joining scene. The "pulling"/draft behavior was perfect, horses almost get down onto
their knees when they are overloaded pulling a cart or other item, and Joey was no exception.

The story documents the relationship between a boy and his horse that transcends
war. It shows the growth of trust between men and horses. The relationship that
Albert builds with Joey expands to Joey trusting most men, including the military.
Joey later builds a relationship with a young girl, Elizabeth, using the "skills" that he
learned building a relationship with Albert. The narrative is not too strong in terms of
the characters' motivations and cause and effect. In other words, the conflict felt contrived.
Given the name "War Horse", I expected less humor and more depth of drama. Sometimes
the scenes felt a little lighthearted.

The artistic design really makes this show great. A fragment of a ripped page with
projected images is used to specify setting and some events. The images appear to be
charcoal drawings, and generally enhance the experience.

High points: The bursting out of the fully-grown Joey, The ending hug, The training to eat, Two soldiers flipping a coin.

Now for the Distractions:
The video of tank attacks seemed a little out of place, it was obviously CGI animated
I had to suspend disbelief when canon that required 4 horses to pull could be pulled by Joey alone.
Sound effects were okay.
The actors were projecting and even yelling, but words were still muffled, I think that a better sound
check and a little more volume for the dialogue is needed. I not only noted this, but heard other guests
say the same at intermission. This was by far the biggest distraction, compounded by british accents.
The Germans could have been better differentiated from the brits (but this may have been intentional)
The Cadillac Palace's stage is 3 feet too long. It appears to have been retrofitted and built out into the old orchestra
pit. From the cheap seats, one cannot see the front 3 feet where much of the action takes place.

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