This Week's Film Reviews (Christmas 2011)

23 Dec 2011

Opening this week on the 21st are THE ADVENTURES ON TIN TIN and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and on Friday 23rd, the excellent CARNAGE, WE BOUGHT A ZOO, PINA and IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY.·


The Roman Polanski retro at the Tiff Bell Lightbox continues in Toronto….


Directed by Steven Spielberg

Performance capture, the technique of more realistically bringing to life comic book animation, popularized by Robert Zemeckis in POLAR EXPRESS gets the high end treatment by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in their 3D collaboration THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, the biggest holiday movie opening around the world.

As most audiences are already aware or (most) grown up reading them (myself included), TINTIN is a series of comic books created by Herge originally in French and translated to hundreds of languages.· There are 23 of these books in total and the Spielberg film, though less than 2 hours in length combines three of these, The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackman’s Treasure.

Though animated, TinTin’s adventures take the audience to the high seas and the blue skies from the dry African desert to TinTin’s colourful hometown.· The film begins with a parody of TinTin getting his caricature drawn in the busy local market place.· As it turns out, the sketch drawn is an exact replica of the Herge cartoon drawing of TinTin.· TinTin ventures out to buy a model three-mast sailing ship, a replica of the Unicorn but is accosted by a dodgy Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who has more up his sleeve than what appears.· Sakharine kidnaps TinTin and imprisons him on the SS Karaboudjan where he meets an always drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis).· They seek out the three scrolls that were hidden in three similar ship models in order to hunt down a hidden treasure.

The story allows for lots of chases and swashbuckling type fights.· In fact the film is like an entire chase from start to end.· The performance capture works well and the characters are both animated and believable.· The only truly full animated character is TinTin’s dog snowy, who surprisingly steals the show in the film, as in the comic books.· The film works for both adults and children.· TinTin, though the character looks like a young teen, carries and fires weapons during the adventures.

For TinTin Lovers, the film derives much pleasure.· The spirit, humour, sense of adventure and mystery of the adventure comic books are more than effectively captured on celluloid.· The animation is both animated and spirited, the best sequence being the chase scene for the scrolls on the 3-wheeled motorbike.· All the characters are performed by non-American actors to keep TinTin’s European flavour.

But most of all, all the lovable characters are present from Snowy the Scottish terrier to the detective inspectors, Thompson (Simon Pegg) and Thomson (Nick Frost), with no ‘p’.

But for all the success of the splendid animation by Spielberg and crew, one does feel at the end of the film that there is something missing in the film – something that prevents this excellent film form being great.· Perhaps part of the flaw lies in the comic book’s late creator Georges Herge.· TinTin himself was a mystery, with no background.· Nothing is told of his parents or upbringing.· The film likewise lacks the human element and emotion that affects audiences.· Spielberg could have substituted the missing elements with his brand of magic, the sort felt with the flying bicycles in E.T. or the looks of awe on the children’s faces during the filming in SUPER 8.

Still the film ends, understandably with a sequel hinted at.· As the film goes, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is still entertaining and enjoyable enough to warrant its well deserved sequel.

CARNAGE (Germany/Poland/France 2011) *****

Directed by Roman Polanski

This is Roman Polanski at his wicked best, in a film with arguably the BEST cast living today.  CARNAGE is based on the Tony award winning play ‘Le Dieu de Carnage’ (The God of Carnage) by Yasmina Reza.  (It is best to view the trailer below to better appreciate this review.)

Starring Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and Oscar nominee John C. Reilly, Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE is a razor-sharp comedy centred on parental differences.  After one son hits the other with a stick in a public park, the parents of the “victim” invite the parents of the “bully” over to work out their issues.  A polite discussion of childrearing soon escalates into verbal warfare, with all four parents revealing their true colors.  None of them will escape the carnage.  Polanski co-wrote the script.

Performances are, needless to say top-notch and the best that can likely be seen in a single film this year. Reilly holds his own against his 3 Oscar winning co-actors.

The film contains choice countless quotes.  The film’s best line is delivered by Reilly.  Finally blowing his fuse, he screams: “I am fed up with all this touchy feely bullshit!  I am a shot tempered foul mouthed son of a bitch!

Polanski brilliantly manipulates the mood of his film and hence escalates the tension of his audience.  The film begins sensibly with both couples polite and patient.  As the conversations progress and more facts about the incident revealed with careless words exchanged, the ambience grow tense with everyone agitated.  When drinks start flowing (a single malt whisky), the mood of the meeting changes from defensive to total outrage.  At one point, fully drunk Winslet screams at Foster: “I wipe my ass on your human rights!”

Meetings as corrosive as this one do not end well.  But Polanski ends his film with a neat ironic twist which criticizes the hypocrisy of the human race.  This is not doubt his direct but subtle attack on the American judicial system.

CARNAGE deservedly won the Leoncino Prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.



Directed by Stephen Daldry

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE is more of an art than commercial film, based on the recent 2005 novel by well renowned New York writer John Updike.

The film deals with many questions involving loss especially in the case of the 9/11 attacks but provides fewer answers in the process.  But the film brilliantly deals with how human beings, in this case a boy and his family deals with the death of a close family member.  As in the other Daldry films (BILLY ELLIOT, THE READER and THE HOURS), Daldry knows how to draw on the emotions of the audience though he overdoes it a bit in BILLY ELLIOT and in sentiment in this film.

The person who dies at the film’s start is young Oskar’s (Thomas Horn) father (Tom Hanks).  Oskar is depicted as a very smart kid, who is also vegan and an amateur inventor.  Unable to cope with the loss, Oskar initially never enters his father’s room.  But he finally does so a year or two and finds a key in a broken vase.  He believes that if he finds the lock to which the key opens, he will discover a message from his father.

This is where one questions (the book or the script) of the boy’s intelligence.  This is a formidable task which might not succeed.  Worst of all, he finds the name Black written on the envelope where the key is found.  He traces all the Blacks in the telephone directory and with the help of his grandmother’s tenant (Max Von Sydow) who is mute, goes to hunt down the right Black, one by one after making a search plan.

A story like this one, centred on the character of the little boy requires the entire film to be carried on the actor’s shoulders.  Fortunately, Thomas Horn is a real find.  Horn carries the show balancing cuteness, intelligence and captivation.

Daldry’s supporting cast is a mixed bag of tricks.  Tom Hanks makes a memorable job of a small role, the father figure that is only remembered from the son’s memories.  The grandmother character is underwritten and acted and the mother’s (Sandra Bullock) suddenly appears towards the end of the film making a big, hardly believable part.  Max Von Sydow fares the best as the ageing new friend who aids Oskar in his search.

Audiences would likely find the film dissatisfying as the key does not provide all the answered questions.  But like the key, life is full of unsolved mysteries. If the audience is willing to accept that, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE would turn out to be a more realistic than satisfying evening at the movies!



Directed by David Fincher

For those hoping for an original spin by the director of serial killer hits like ZODIAC and SE7EN, disappointment is at hand.· THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) is a close remake of the shocking Swedish film based on the first book (of a trilogy) by author and journalist Stieg Larrsson.

Though 3 years has past since the original 2009 film appeared on screens, one can hardly recall anything clearly from Neils Arden Opolev’s film that was originally made for Swedish TV.· But when similar incidents occur in Fincher’s version, like the rape and revenge scenes, the revelation of the truth, the torture of the lead character by hook or the pasting of the images in the old photographs, memories are immediately jolted to mind.· When I first saw the first film, all the shocks, surprises were there especially when the violence appeared, but this new Fincher film just rehashes these old scenes, just perking them up a little.· For example, the material search segment in the library is now accompanied by an annoying gnawing sound, which turns out to coming from an industrial floor polisher used by a cleaner.· Even Lisbeth’s (Rooney Mara) make up is close to identical to the original Lisbeth.· I would bet that if the two actresses were placed side by side at the start of the film, most who had seen the first film would not be able to tell the difference.

The story involves a middle-aged investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and the punk genius-girl (Mara) computer hacker hired to dig into his background.· Mikael, publisher of the Stockholm investigative magazine, Millennium, is disgraced and bankrupt when he loses a libel case brought against him by a crooked tycoon (Ulf Friberg). He soon says farewell to his editor and casual lover, Erika (Robin Wright), to take a job from a savvy old industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who promises him lots of money but mostly a chance to get revenge on the man who brought him down.· But Vanger’s main aim is to solve the family mystery of what happened to a supposedly murdered Harriet, his niece, which Mikael and Lisbeth both solve successfully.

The film runs a long 158 minutes and from the story contains lots of dull investigations and only a handful of action segments.· Fincher intercuts the dull parts alternatively with the juicier bits ever so often.· One compelling scene with Lisbeth is normally followed by one with Mikael and this goes on so often that the intercutting becomes quite noticeable.

But most of the film’s surprises are gone.· When I viewed the original, I cringed when the electric prod was shoved up the a** in the revenge scene, when Lisbeth hunted down the same sex in an underground club or when she had sex with Mikael.· When viewing Fincher’s, I knew these segments were coming on, and just waited till they filled the film’s places.

Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is still watchable but that is much as can be said about this version.· Many critics have raved that this one is much better.· The awful last segment in which Lisbeth dresses up in blonde wig and disguise to transfer millions of currency funds to her account is totally unbelievable.· If she is so apt in doping this, why did not she do it in the first place, instead of being at the mercy of the state appointed guardian (Yorick Van Wageningen) for her grocery money?·· Fincher could have done better.


PINA (Germany/France/UK) ***

Directed by Wim Wenders

PINA is a documentary dance film by acclaimed German director Wim Wenders (PARIS, TEXAS and WINGS OF DESIRE) on the late Pina Bausch and her company Tanztheatre Wuppertal.

In Wim Wender’s opening statements about his new documentary dance film, he describes Pina’s Tanztheatre dance troupe’s performance affecting him as if struck by thunder, moving him to tears through the movement of dance.

His commitment to the dance works of the late Pina is evident in his 3-D film from start to finish.  As experienced in both the rehearsals and actual performances, Pina Bausch moves her dances in ways more than extraordinary – so much so that they wish her to visit them in their dreams after her passing on.

PINA the film contains no story or narrative. But the film is abundant in movement and flow.  The contortions and abuse the dancers put their bodies through are at times difficult to witness.  Quite a few of the choreography involve the dancers performing on dangerously slippery wet stages, often falling to the hard floor or swinging their limbs wildly and hard.  This is no gentle exercise.  Pina puts her performers under mental anguish as well to let their bodies and freedom take over.  One must admire Pina for coming out with very ingenious ideas.

Wender’s film contains little voiceover and includes a few wise sayings from Pina when she was alive.  The 3-D effects work well, especially when the dancers perform on stage to great lighting effects and impressive sets.

PINA might not be a film for everybody, especially if one is not interested in dance.  But Wender’s film is as magical and mesmerizing as anything (including the music) as dance can be.  Dance is all about movement and Wenders gets his point effectively across.

PINA was also awarded the Best Documentary at both the German and European Film Awards.

WAR HORSE (USA 2011) ****

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Based more on the 2007 National Theatre play of the same name, which in turn is based on the 1982 children''s novel by Michale Morpurgo, WAR HORSE is the type of epic Spielberg is known and is good for.

It is simple to see what attracted Spielberg to this project.· Besides his favourite theme on war, the film deals with horses (his family rides them), and the story has a classic English storybook setting.· Spielberg was drawn into making the film after seeing the National Theatre and his commitment to this story is evident throughout the film.· The film flows smoothly, the storytelling and pacing excellent but mostly, his magic is present without the film being over-sentimental.

Though set also in France with the horse owned by German soldiers, the actors speak English with the appropriate ascents, instead of their own language.· At least Spielberg casts French to portray the French and the Germans to portray the Germans.

This is a horse’s film in terms of story and arguably point of view.· Those in love with the animal will no doubt love the film even more.· In Devon during at the outbreak of World War 1, Joey, young Albert Narracott''s (Jeremy Irwine) beloved horse, is sold to the Calvary and shipped to France. Joey, as the horse is so named, serves in the British and German armies, which takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before being wounded in no man’s land.

The story also allows Spielberg to deliver a good message of peace during the yuletide season.· The German and British soldiers risking their lives and working together to save the horse in no man’s land is most touching.

The filming with the horses must have been a tough test for Spielberg.· It is reported that as many as 28 horses were used in the filming.· But the payoff shows, as the spectacle, especially of the scene in which Joey races off into no man’s land is an example of the mastery of filmmaking.

Spielberg goes a bit overboard with the cinematography towards the end of the film.· It is easy to understand why as he has two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SCHINDLER’S LIST) working again for him.· His use of shadows on a red background and the appearance of the horse as a little silhouette appearing from the right side of the screen are feasts to the eyes.

WAR HORSE is good old fashioned and original (at least it is not a sequel) filmmaking.· With good storytelling, performances and direction, WAR HORSE is likely the best bet for a family film this Christmas.

Directed by Cameron Crowe

20th Century Fox must be wishing high for their new Christmas movie WE BOUGHT A ZOO.  Directed by renowned Cameron Crowe (JERRY MAGUIRE, ALMOST FAMOUS) and based on the book of real story of a zoo start-up written by none other than the lead character himself, WE BOUGHT A ZOO is a serious animal film like MARLEY AND ME which made lots of bucks for Fox not many Christmases ago.

Unfortunately, Crowe’s film has an over long stretched out ending (Crowe is not known for short and sharp films – JERRY MAQUIRE ran 139 minutes) and bogged down with clichés.  He ties up two romances and a happy ending with a new obstacle that runs 15 minutes over the time the film should have ended.  Worst still, his film is sappy and full of sentiment, which he had controlled so well throughout the first three quarters of the movie.  So what happened?   Is it pressure from the studio bosses or his attempting too hard to succeed with a formulaic Christmas film?

Recently widowed father, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) moves his family to the countryside for a fresh start.  With the help of an eclectic staff, and with many misadventures along the way, the family works to return the dilapidated zoo to its former wonder and glory.   His son, Dylan (Colin Ford) feels neglected and misses his friends while younger sister, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is enjoying all the animals.  For the zoo to be re-opened, it has to meet all the inspection requirements.  Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) is not your friendliest inspector.  The subplots involve two romances, one between father and zoo-assistant, Kelly (a really radian and beautiful Scarlett Johansson) and the son with her daughter, Lily (Elle Fanning), both of which are rather boring to sit through.

The main plot of getting the animals into shape is the most interesting portion of the film.  Credit is given for the likely difficult filming of the animal scenes, like the escaped bear sequence and the hatching of the baby peacocks/peahens.

The film starts off with a voiceover from Rosie and a view from her perspective.  But this point of view changes midway through the film with the film feeling disjointed as a result.  Crowe holds back on the soft spots -  the tear that can be seen from Dylan’s eye or Rosie contributing a buck fifty to the zoo repairs being the only ones throughout the first three quarters of the film.  After that, it seems he is catering the film to those who cry during TV commercials.

Cameron Crowe is in desperate need of a hit and WE BOUGHT A ZOO is not it.  The film might make the bucks at the box-office as there is quite a number out there who do cry during sappy commercials, especially those that ask for donations during the yuletide season.  The zoo that the book and film is based on is doing well and maybe the film will too.


Best Action:· Mission Impossible 4: Ghost protocol
Best Drama: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Best Foreign: The Artist

Best (Wicked) Comedy: Carnage
Best Family: The Adventures of Tin Tin
Best Documentary: Pina (dance)

Worst: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

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