As always, Hollywood saved its best films for year’s end. There’s not enough room in TKS to review all new releases, but here are some movies I caught over break you might be interested in:
“Hugo” – Martin Scorsese’s first family film in his four-decade career is fractured into two stories. One half is a whimsical, Dickensian adventure with the titular orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) working the clocks in a Paris train station while outmaneuvering an orphan-napping police officer (Sacha Baron Cohen), fixing up an automaton his father (Jude Law) started and befriending a young bookworm (Chloe Moretz). This plotline suffers from strained slapstick, which Scorsese tackles earnestly even if he doesn’t quite get it. He’s far more interested in the second story, concerning the girl’s godfather George (Ben Kingsley), his secret identity, and how that ties into the history of early cinema. That plotline is utterly magical, a compelling argument for the preservation of film that might inspire some would-be filmmakers. Other issues — weak pacing and an aimless supporting cast — are balanced by gorgeous cinematography and the best use of 3-D yet.
“The Muppets” – The new Muppets movie is glorified fan fiction. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, since it is written by fan, Jason Segal, who understands what made Jim Henson’s cloth puppets tick. He stars as a genial man engaged to Amy Adams at her most doe-eyed, whose younger brother, Walter, happens to be a Muppet. As they work to reassemble the original Muppets team, from Kermit and Miss Piggy to Statler and Waldorf, we are treated to strong doses of self-referential humor mixed with a huge list of cameos and new, goofy songs from Flight of the Concords scribe Bret McKenzie. The film’s sense of fun elevates “The Muppets” beyond a tired rehash to an amusing revisit with old, beloved friends. The wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor grows a little old, though.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” – The Hollywood equivalent of a super group — director David Fincher, screenwriter Steven Zaillian, DP Jeff Cronenweth and composer Trent Reznor — deliver an action thriller that’s more of a breezy summer walk than a serious, personal challenge. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the original Swedish film and thought it satisfyingly efficient, given its budget and TV movie origins. This new version apparently adheres closer to the original plot and drenches the screen in a pale-gray, Gothic freeze — the cinematography is stunning — but when you strip away the fire-raising commentary on gender politics and corporate corruption, you’re left with a pulpy, modern-day Sherlock Holmes mystery concerning a punk girl. Speaking of punk girls, Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth Salander more sullen and calculated than Noomi Rapace’s ruthless, bitter interpretation. I don’t know which is better, but Mara still kills in the role. On a more superficial note, the film’s oily, industrial title sequence might be one of the best ever made.
“The Adventures of Tintin” – For the few Americans who read the original Franco-Belgian comics, this is an exciting, nostalgic treat. The story concerns a boy journalist who embarks on globetrotting adventures with his intelligent fox terrier companion Snowy, bumping shoulders with nasty treasure seekers and a more pleasant group of alternating characters: the brash, drunk, but loyal sea captain Haddock, the bumbling Interpol agents Thomson and Thompson, and glass-shattering opera singer Bianca Castafiore. All these characters are fully realized on screen through motion capping, a controversial film technique that Steven Spielberg uses frugally here, mostly to stage bombastic, yet comprehendible action set pieces — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” powered by “Looney Tunes” logic, if you will. The standing ovation moment? A three-minute single take of a frantic, multi-layered chase through a Arabic city as it’s being flooded by a broken dam and a hotel, stripped of its foundation, slides through the streets. My childhood is pleased.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – Tomas Alfredson, who you might remember as directing the good vampire-romance “Let the Right One In,” compiles a group of England’s most versatile, capable actors—Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt—in this gleefully manipulative espio-noir mystery. A Russian agent has infiltrated the top ranks of British Intelligence and Smiley (Oldman) aims to rat him out. From the beginning, the audience must decode the movie like an encrypted message, determining which shots are important and sorting through information until the disparate, baffling details of the plot come together. The script juggles its huge ensemble cast and dense, serpentine plot deftly, allowing the viewer to dissect the plot without feeling they’re doing more work than necessary. Oldman deserves all the praise received for his performance.
“The Artist” – Short word: kind of magical, a silent film for the 21st century with knockout performances from unknown leads and a magnetic, character-driven story. Long word: check out my full review for more details on this modern classic.