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The Avengers (2012)
Fanboys and girls, after years of anticipation, you can finally breathe
I'll confess that I had reservations about The Avengers: the Marvel superhero movies have been a mixed bag for me so far, and the notion of a big-budget action spectacle centered on not just one but six protagonists, all of whom should theoretically get an equal amount of attention, sounded like a formula for disaster. At best, I assumed that it would be a fun slice of escapism that critics would treat with a mix of condescension and grudging acceptance. At worst, it would be the most ambitious fiasco since well, John Carter, though that had the benefit of low expectations. If The Avengers was anything but the cinematic equivalent of a walk-off grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series, blood would surely be spilt.
To my and no doubt tons of other people's relief, neither of those predictions turned out to be right. Not only is The Avengers a blast to watch, an explosive mix of humor, angst and awesome fight scenes, but it's also maybe one of the best superhero movies of all-time. Take notes, Hollywood: this is how you make a summer blockbuster. Despite clocking in at approximately two-and-a-half hours, The Avengers never fails to mesmerize, barreling headlong into the chaos like an enraged Hulk loose in Manhattan yet also giving its numerous heroes sufficient room to breathe and flex their ridiculously chiseled muscles. This is a ticking time bomb of a movie. Each scene brims with energy, an exhilarating, carefree vivacity that would probably be overwhelming if not for those little moments of unexpected pathos strewn here and there that leave you breathless. Joss Whedon, the geek idol whose previous credits include beloved cult TV shows Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, displays astonishing dexterity as he juggles over-the-top action set pieces with incisive, often self-deprecating banter and emotional turmoil. He treats the material at once with ironic self-awareness and the utmost respect, indulging the so-called fanboys without pandering to them, winking at the absurdity while making his passion for the characters and their stories palpable. There lies the key to first-rate superhero movies, something few directors seem to have realized: they may have godlike powers, but deep down, superheroes are still human (well, Thor is technically an actual god, but you get my point). Whedon refuses to glorify his characters, showing them in all their messy imperfections and weaknesses so that they feel less like the flat archetypes that often dominate superhero movies than like real people.
Nonetheless, the star of The Avengers is its phenomenal cast. If there's one thing that has remained consistent throughout the Marvel movies, it's the acting; The Incredible Hulk was saved single-handedly from utter mediocrity by Edward Norton's compelling performance, and even Iron Man 2 had Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and Sam Rockwell devouring scenery. You might think that stuffing so much (good-looking) talent into one 143-minute movie would be overkill, like forcing a pack of wolves to share one rabbit. On the contrary, the acting is what truly elevates The Avengers above "just another superhero movie", what makes it so compulsively watchable. Watching the actors Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston together on screen is a positively mind-blowing experience. As a group, their chemistry is fiery enough to light a small city, and as individuals, they alternately ooze charisma and vulnerability. I was particularly impressed by Johannson, who manages to exude feminist empowerment while fighting in a body-hugging leather suit, and Hiddleston, he of the startlingly expressive eyes and deliciously smug smirk, though it seems unfair to pick and choose when you have a cast as uniformly wonderful as this one. This is ensemble acting at its finest.
That said, I did have a few relatively minor problems. Given the fact that the majority of the movie does such a great job of balancing the action, comedy and drama, I found the climax a tad underwhelming. As pretentious as it sounds, I wish Whedon had supplemented the epic, CGI-heavy, property damage-laden battle sequence (which was thrilling, don't get me wrong) with something more emotionally resonant. It seems like a letdown to spend over two hours building these relationships, only to set them aside at the end. Judging from the audience reaction at my screening, though, most people didn't have an issue with this. Also, a familiarity with or a fondness for the previous Marvel films is preferable since The Avengers assumes that viewers already have some sort of relationship with the characters.
In two months, the Internet will inevitably be filled with debates over whether The Avengers is better than The Dark Knight Rises (The Amazing Spider-Man might join them, but to be honest, that one doesn't have the same level of anticipation as the others). And, if you'll allow me to be cynical for a second, those debates will inevitably boil down to this: The Dark Knight Rises is the serious, gritty one about timely political issues, whereas The Avengers is the fun, lighthearted one about s--- blowing up. Although both of those descriptions are accurate to some extent, they do a disservice to both movies. Counter to popular opinion, it's entirely possible to like Christopher Nolan's Batman films as pure entertainment rather than profound social commentaries, and although it may not have the thematic depth of The Dark Knight, The Avengers deserves to be taken more seriously than run-of-the-mill escapist fluff. Not only does it show (once again) that there is room in action blockbusters for actual acting, but it also makes an ardent case for the importance of superheroes: especially in our post-9/11 world of constant anxiety, they provide a comforting dose of old-fashioned values, hope for salvation from the anarchy. It's unashamed optimism, as opposed to The Dark Knight's secret idealism. Superheroes aren't here to save us from monsters, it says. They're here to save us from ourselves.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Jennifer Lawrence, Gary Ross and the audience emerge from The Hunger Games victorious
In recent years, the young adult sphere of pop culture has been dominated by a certain boy wizard and, more irritatingly for those of us who aren't tween girls or their middle-aged mothers, vampires and werewolves named Edward and Jacob. Now, at last, another is breaking into their ranks, a sixteen year old girl with a braid, a bow and enough spirited determination to conquer the world: meet Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.
As Harry Potter's legacy officially ends with the eighth and final movie of the franchise having bowed last year, cementing J.K. Rowling's landmark series as the cornerstone of the childhood of a generation, and the world eagerly anticipates or dreads the release of the last Twilight movie, Gary Ross offers us his fine cinematic adaptation of The Hunger Games, the first chapter in Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy about a dystopian future where teens are forced to fight to the death by a government that controls its citizens with an iron fist. The director of Seabiscuit brings Collins' story to life with a serious-minded verve and intelligence that distinguishes it from other young adult-oriented fare, assembling an almost pitch-perfect cast and treating the source material and its fans with a respect that feels increasingly rare in an industry that often seems to value easy money and marketability over true quality, especially when it comes to potential franchises.
The temptation to churn out a cheap, lazy cash-grab a la the Twilight movies must've been there, given that audiences would've flocked to the theaters regardless, but the filmmakers evidently cared about the movie beyond its obvious box-office potential. They take the pulse-pounding intensity of the books and successfully translate it to the big screen, staying true in spirit but displaying a great willingness to tweak and embellish the story when necessary. Among other changes, by expanding the point of view beyond Katniss, the movie offers a wider perspective, something new that could not be found in the book. It feels like a genuine, standalone movie rather than a paint-by-the-numbers adaptation, a distinction that the Harry Potter movies, for all their artistic merits, never quite mastered. Aside from some memorable performances, those films never provided anything that the books didn't. Furthermore, though as someone who has read the books, I could be wrong about this, The Hunger Games does a good enough job of establishing its characters, story and tone internally that it should work for those coming in cold as well as long-time fans.
Instead of going for sweeping and epic, Ross smartly focuses on the intimate, human aspects of the story, using a sometimes shaky camera and concise editing to create an almost documentary-like feel. He pays as much attention to the quiet scenes, such as a moment near the very beginning where Katniss comforts and sings to her younger sister Prim before leaving to hunt, as he does to the action scenes, which are sporadic and avoid self-indulgence, neither glorifying nor glossing over the violence. The music, composed by T. Bone Burnett, eschews the bombastic punk rock one might have expected in favor of a sparse, folksy vibe that reflects both the rustic simplicity of Katniss's District 12 roots and her inner desperation as she fights for survival; a few techno beats are thrown in as well whenever the action moves to the more advanced, futuristic Capitol. The costumes and sets also help realize the world of Panem in vivid detail while toning down the more outrageous elements of Collins's descriptions, particularly when it comes to the over-the-top fashion tastes of the Capitol residents.
At the center of it all is Katniss Everdeen, played by a forceful but artfully restrained and nuanced Jennifer Lawrence, who appears in nearly every scene and, coupled with her Oscar-nominated performance as the similarly strong-willed and independent Ree in Winter's Bone, is establishing herself as a consistently compelling actress and a screen presence to be reckoned with. Passionate, complex and quick-witted, Katniss is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people she loves, even if it involves violence or means putting herself in danger, but she doesn't descend into the emotionless, sexless (or sexed-up) killing machine cliché that seems to pass for a strong female character in action films nowadays. She's a heroine worth rooting for.
Though Jennifer Lawrence is undoubtedly the star of the movie, she's joined by a host of talented, well-chosen supporting actors. As Peeta Mellark, Katniss's fellow District 12 tribute and sort-of love interest, Josh Hutcherson displays the appropriate amounts of charisma, sensitivity and conviction; he's come a long way since he first appeared in movies like the mostly forgettable Will Ferrell vehicle Kicking and Screaming and Zathura and continues to prove himself to be one of the most promising actors of his generation. Elizabeth Banks is almost unrecognizable under heavy, purposefully crude makeup as the shrill, peppy Effie, and Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are both as magnetic as always as, respectively, Katniss's and Peeta's perpetually drunk mentor Haymitch and Caesar Flickerman, host of the Hunger Games telecast.
Movies geared toward young adults or teens tend to be dismissed as escapist, mindless fluff not worthy of more serious consideration. Though it's hard to tell whether The Hunger Games will break this mold and be embraced as fully as the Harry Potter series, which found admirers among the young and old, critics and general audiences, was, it has an edge and intelligence that make it hard to resist. Sure, there are more pointed, hard-hitting social critiques out there, and it isn't as bleak or gritty as some might have liked, but as engaging entertainment that doesn't just ask viewers to turn their brains off, it more than delivers.
The Artist (2011)
The stuff dreams are made of
Like so many movies released in 2011, from Hugo and Midnight in Paris to Like Crazy and even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Artist is about someone who clings to the past, who insists on lingering in some idealized Golden Age even though the rest of the world has moved on. When the movie's protagonist, the once-celebrated silent film star George Valentin first encounters the burgeoning phenomenon later known as "talkies", he laughs in scornful defiance, believing with every fiber of his being that this is just a transient fad, nothing more; even when his studio ceases production on all silent films, essentially putting him out of a job, he refuses to accept the fact that he has become passé, that the audience that used to adore him has lost all interest, and starts to produce and direct his own movies. This fall-from-power storyline, made popular by such ancient Greek dramas as Oedipus Rex and Agamemnon, is hardly original, yet Michel Hazanavicious's The Artist lends it a new poignancy, for in our modern-day world of constant motion, Valentin's fate seems all too real.
From the second it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May to apparently resounding applause, The Artist burst onto the scene as a prime Oscar contender. Critics lauded Hazanavicious for his clever ode to the era of silent film, and audiences fell in love with the charming characters (especially the beloved dog Uggie) and winning, feel-good story, which never loses its endearing vivacity, even when it strays down a surprisingly dark road. In short, the movie is almost impossible to dislike. From the moment the opening credits flicker on screen in delightful, old-fashioned black-and-white (a touch sure to induce nostalgia in anyone who has seen a movie made before the advent of Technicolor), it sweeps the audience back to a time when sincerity was admired, and the public still swooned unashamedly over the pure ingenuity of "moving pictures". The whole thing would feel gimmicky if it didn't feel so real, so heartfelt. For the first ten minutes or so, the mere novelty of it all is its own kind of magic, but then, it wears off, and you're no longer watching a 21st century silent, black-and-white film you're simply watching a film, one filled with boundless energy and passion and emotion, one that's enchanting not because of its old-fashioned visual aesthetic but because it genuinely wants to tell a story, which sadly seems to be quite rare these days, when many filmmakers are content to clobber together a random series of set pieces and call that a "plot", and even dramas are increasingly described as "character studies" and "explorations". Needless to say, Hazanavicious pulls it off with seemingly effortless grace. With the help of an animated cast and a vibrant, suitably dramatic score courtesy of Ludovic Bource, he weaves a tale that is simple yet beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking, full of humor, drama, pathos, romance and suspense, along with an extra helping of panache.
Speaking of the cast, it's no wonder Jean Dujardin, a French actor formerly known for the OSS 117 James Bond spoofs, has become a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor, a category that will probably include such Hollywood superstars as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Blessed with a naturally expressive face and old-timey movie star looks, Dujardin is perfectly cast as Valentin, oozing charisma as he smiles and dances and intermittently raises his eyebrows, and even when Valentin plummets down a death spiral of depression and arrogant self-pity, he remains almost brutally likable; to say that it's easy to see why he was adored by movie audiences would be a glaring understatement. He also shares some nice chemistry with Bérénice Bejo, who plays up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller with infectious vigor, and despite never saying an audible word to each other, they make an exquisite couple, simultaneously sweet and believable. The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Penelope Ann Miller (Valentin's wife, Doris), James Cromwell (the butler, Clifton) and John Goodman (the director, Al Zimmer).
But lest anyone get the wrong impression, The Artist is neither stuffy "Oscar-bait" nor a cutesy indie; in fact, with its lighthearted, effervescent tone, it could not be more accessible or crowd-pleasing (though this will inevitably lead some critics and more hardcore film buffs to dismiss it as sentimental fluff). Also, although the marketing campaign has focused largely on the movie's attempt to replicate/pay tribute to classic Hollywood, its story and themes could not be more timeless or universal: while I can't say it's the overall best movie of 2011 (my personal favorite is J.J. Abrams's Super 8), The Artist does the best job of all the nostalgia-themed films released last year and there were many of depicting that intense sense of longing for a bygone era. For unlike most of the other movies, as good as some of them are, The Artist doesn't simply portray nostalgia as a wistful fantasy but also acknowledges that it is essentially rooted in stubbornness, a refusal to accept change that may not be idealistic so much as willful and irrational. And maybe that is ultimately what makes the movie special, what elevates it above sentimental fluff. For the very existence of The Artist, a 21st century silent film, as well as this recent trend of movies that romanticize the past, is proof that nostalgia is always relevant. It's a little sad to think that, even after all these years, we are still like George Valentin, struggling to revive silent films. Perhaps the real tragedy is not that the Golden Age is gone but that even today, we still miss it.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Tinker, Tailor spins tangled web of intrigue, betrayal and frosty brilliance
In a way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of those movies that's easier to admire than to love. From a technical standpoint, it's pitch-perfect with a top-notch cast of actors who effortlessly burrow into their parts without any of the usual "look at me!" theatrics, sets and costumes that meticulously recreate Cold War Europe and subtly elegant cinematography, all blended together with precision by a promising, up-and-coming director. Yet, it's not the type of film that will inspire feelings of warmth or ecstasy from many moviegoers, more likely to leave them wandering out of the theater deep in thought than giddy or excited. In most movies, the stern aloofness that pervades Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy would be a drawback, preventing the audience from connecting with or caring about the characters, but in this case, it works, effectively creating an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust where the viewer is as wary of the characters as they are of each other.
Based on the well-respected novel of the same name by former spy John le Carre, Tomas Alfredson's adapation manages to strip down le Carre's book to its bare bones every scene, line of dialogue and gesture feels absolutely essential to furthering either plot or character, often both without sacrificing its complexity or nuance. The story is elaborate, though its basic premise can be boiled down to "there's a mole at the Circus", code for British intelligence agency MI6, and as condescending as it sounds, it requires the audience to not only pay attention, but to think. At the center of it all is the famed George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman in what is probably the most low-key performance of his career, a stark contrast from the deliciously over-the-top grandiosity he has developed a reputation for over the past three decades. With his large, plastic-framed glasses, nondescript suits and soft-spoken manner, Smiley is reminiscent of an owl: outwardly, he's passive and remarkably still, virtually blending into the background, but there's also an aura of wisdom, the kind that comes with age and world experience, surrounding him; you can sense that he's constantly thinking, observing. Oldman conveys all this perfectly, easily inhabiting a role that should, but likely won't, earn him a long-awaited Oscar nomination. He's accompanied by a stellar supporting cast of some of the best British actors working today, including veterans John Hurt and Colin Firth, rising stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, the always reliable character actor Toby Jones and Mark Strong, whose role here is the best he's gotten since first appearing on most people's radars in Ridley Scott's decent but otherwise unremarkable Body of Lies.
The movie as a whole is a lot like the character of Smiley. On the surface, it's positively serene, but underneath, there's so much going on that it can be hard to keep track of it all as tension quietly builds toward the gripping climax, which features not a shootout or frenetic car chase, but a waiting game. It's a labyrinthine mind puzzle as tightly constructed and methodical as the clocks ticking in the background of several scenes. Making his English-language debut after receiving much acclaim for the vampire coming-of-age movie Let the Right One In, Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson proves himself to be a master of silence, of revealing everything using virtually nothing. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the definition of a slow-burner, but for those willing to be patient and attentive, it offers ample rewards.
Welcome to the land of ice and snow
Three years ago, nobody took David Fincher seriously. People admired his visual artistry he made even preposterous duds like Panic Room interesting with his imaginative camera-work and his willingness to push the envelope, but even his most celebrated film, the cult favorite Fight Club, bombed at the box office and received disparaging, almost downright hostile, reviews upon its initial release in 1999. Then, in December 2008, the ambitious, long-gestating romance The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie unlike anything Fincher had previously attempted, debuted to critical acclaim and eventually garnered a stunning thirteen Oscar nominations, including one for its director. In 2010, his next project, The Social Network, became the virtually undisputed Best Movie of the Year, sweeping the critics' awards and appearing on countless Top Ten lists, and suddenly, David Fincher was one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. Considering his previous filmography and his newfound popularity, it's little surprise that when Fincher was chosen to helm the American adaptation of Steig Larsson's wildly popular crime novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the decision was met with much excitement and surprisingly little outrage. It was the perfect opportunity for Fincher to both prove his worth as a mainstream filmmaker and return to the darker, more audacious movies that jumpstarted his career.
By all rights, the movie should be considered an undeniable success. Opening with a typically innovative, gorgeously nightmarish credits sequence set to the distorted, rollicking strains of a cover of Led Zeppelin masterwork "Immigrant Song" by Karen O, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fascinating tight-wire act of a movie, weaving a story of murder, rape, intrigue and vengeance that feels adequately gruesome and macabre but never abusive, once again demonstrating David Fincher's ability to handle graphic material with finesse. The director fuses together an ice-cold atmosphere (both literal and metaphorical, as the audience can practically feel the frigid Swedish weather through the screen), spine-tingling imagery and a taut score (courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for their work on The Social Network) to create almost relentless tension; even those who know every inch of the plot will find themselves on the edge of their seats for much of the running time. It goes without saying that this movie is not for the faint-hearted. Even so, Fincher surprisingly manages to devise moments of poignancy and even humor amid all the gloom, making this film slightly more enjoyable if such a word can be used in this context than the generally bleak source material and Swedish version. Devotees of Larsson's novel will be pleased that this adaptation is remarkably faithful, keeping the majority of the plot intact and making only a few minor tweaks.
As far as the actors go, not a single misstep can be found. Despite his limited screen time, Christopher Plummer imbues the jaded Henrik Vanger with a nice mix of pathos and dry wit, and Stellan Skarsgard thankfully plays the cordial yet enigmatic Martin Vanger, brother of presumed murder victim, Harriet, with a chillingly understated menace, lending realism to a character that could easily have been overly manic or cartoonish. Daniel Craig takes a break from his usual macho-guy persona to embody the determined, albeit somewhat bland journalist Mikael Blomkvist, his hulking, age-worn physique lending credibility to the character's lofty ideals. Nonetheless, as in the novel, the undeniable star of the show is the tortured, antisocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and, in the titular role, Rooney Mara is simply sensational. Previously known by most for playing Mark Zuckerberg's exasperated girlfriend in The Social Network, Mara became all but a household name when David Fincher chose her to play Salander, one of the most coveted roles of the century, as evidenced by the frenzied media coverage that accompanied the seemingly endless search process, during which such A-list actresses as Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson were allegedly considered. Viewing the final product, it's obvious Fincher made the right choice. Mara, ordinarily a rather unassuming brunette, is unrecognizable with her dyed-black hair, heavy make-up, multiple body piercings, tattered Goth clothing and near-anorexic frame, yet more impressive than her physical transformation is the way she nails Lisbeth's volatile psychological state, her fragile yet explosive personality. Through her haunted eyes and guarded posture, she conveys myriad emotions at once, alternating between passion and vulnerability, belligerence and anguish, tenacity and insecurity to create a complex, mesmerizing character that dominates the screen simply by being there.
And yet, something doesn't feel quite right. For all its perfectly calibrated suspense, the movie left me, if not disappointed, then slightly empty, as though something vital was missing; even now, I can't quite figure out why. Maybe it's the story itself, which I find overly convoluted and rather unfocused (I was never a huge fan of the book). Maybe it's the fact that, despite having both read the novel and seen the Swedish adaptation, I let the feverishly edited teaser trailer trick me into believing that the movie would be a kinetic, fast-paced thriller rather than the slow-burning mystery that it actually is. Or maybe and this seems the most likely explanation I'm just tired of the detached, methodical air that has saturated Fincher's recent work, even the ostensibly warm Benjamin Button. Don't get me wrong: I adore The Social Network as much as the next person, and I was captivated by 2007's Zodiac. But what happened to the dynamic brio of Fight Club? Technically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is flawless almost too flawless, if that's possible. The whole affair is so measured, so painstaking, that it's honestly not that fun to watch; I suppose this could be more to do with my own expectations than the movie itself, but I somehow wish it was more stylish, more liberated and adventurous, more like the old David Fincher. I liked it, but I wanted to love it.
Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol is blockbuster escapism at its best
It's been fifteen years since Tom Cruise first exploded into movie theaters as superspy Ethan Hunt, a role that catapulted him to the upper echelons of modern-day action heroes, and now, with the release of the fourth and arguably the strongest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, he shows little sign of slowing down. Directed with aplomb by Pixar's Brad Bird, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol is smart, stylish and, most importantly, as entertaining a film as one could ever hope for.
Like its predecessors, Ghost Protocol boasts only the skeleton of a plot, which this time around, centers on a bombing at the Kremlin and rogue Russians attempting to incite a nuclear holocaust for reasons that are never fully explained. Still, for the most part, it's easy to follow, with the team's step-by-step goals clearly laid out, a definite improvement over the nonsensicality of the third movie, and considering that the franchise has always put story secondary to spectacle and extravagant action set pieces (which, frankly, isn't such a bad thing, at least not this time), it's hard to imagine many people coming into the theater expecting a fully fleshed-out, intricate or particularly creative plot. The only genuinely problematic moment occurs at the end with a last-minute twist that feels forced, more like a cop-out than the satisfying resolution it's no doubt supposed to be.
Propelled along by a pulse-pounding score from the always reliable Michael Giacchino, Ghost Protocol features almost wall-to-wall action, punctuated only occasionally by some perfunctory exposition and character development. Fortunately, Brad Bird, who is making his live-action debut here and, with animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille already under his belt, is now four-for-four, is at the helm, and boy, does he know how to stage action. Elaborate and ambitious but grounded enough to never become laughably over-the-top or ridiculous, each sequence is executed with such pizazz and creativity, filled with such tension that the nonstop action never feels tedious or repetitive; it is relentlessly enjoyable to watch. In a refreshing change of pace, Bird opts to not rely on techniques like the shaky camera or slow motion that film-makers seem to employ all too often these days, knowing that such stylizations are more often suffocating than beneficial. Taking advantage of exotic locales like Russia, Dubai and Mumbai, as well as the IMAX format, he lets each stunt and set piece speak for itself, capturing it all with the steady hand and keen eye of someone who knows precisely what he's doing. Each M:I film has had a different director, but if there is another sequel, and there almost certainly will be, Brad Bird is more than welcome to be the first to return for seconds.
Brad Bird has also been gifted with a cast that is more than up for the challenges he throws at them. Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg are the only returning major cast members, though both Ving Rhames and Michelle Monaghan pop up briefly. They are joined by the white-hot Jeremy Renner as the mild-mannered but enigmatic analyst Brandt, Paula Patton, who is surprisingly convincing in the obligatory female role, and Mikael Nyqvist, who is best known for the Swedish version of The Millennium trilogy and doesn't get a whole lot to do here as the villain but is more than adequate with what he has; Tom Wilkinson and Lost's Josh Holloway also make cameo appearances. What the characters lack in depth, the actors make up for in pure charisma. It's a blast watching them do their thing.
Though this movie focuses more on the team as a whole instead of the usual lone-wolf approach, it's still undeniably Cruise's showcase. Despite the crow's feet and bags emerging under his eyes revealing that he is not, in fact, immune to aging, he is remarkably fit and never seems to strain even slightly while performing the high-risk stunts he has developed a reputation for, including the much-buzzed-about Burj Khalifa sequence. It's hard to believe that he's approaching fifty years old. However, age is not the only challenge the actor has faced recently. In the years since the first Mission: Impossible, the star of Tom Cruise has faded somewhat, tarnished by personal controversies and general audience indifference to traditional movie stars, and of late, his public persona has more often than not overshadowed his work. It doesn't help that, with the exception of the underrated Nazi thriller Valkyrie and a memorable turn in the otherwise unremarkable Tropic Thunder, the vast majority of his recent projects have been mediocre. It seems fitting that Ghost Protocol would be the movie where he finally regains some of his old mojo, serving as a welcome, charming reminder of why he's one of the last true superstars left in the business.
Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol is no cinematic game-changer, but it doesn't need to be one. In turning out a film that is simply engaging, exhilarating, carefree, unadulterated fun, Brad Bird, Tom Cruise and co. can consider their mission accomplished.
War Horse (2011)
The human side of war
Steven Spielberg has been called many things: "boy wonder", "visionary", "hack". But even Spielberg's detractors and there are many have to admit that, regardless of whether the film-maker caters to the masses or indulges in sentimentality, he is a master of the medium. If recent offerings like Minority Report and Munich proved that he is willing to explore darker, more adult fare, then War Horse reminds us that the director has not lost the uncanny ability to charm and shock audiences that catapulted him to stardom in the 1970s. Indeed, this sprawling, old-fashioned tale of a farm boy and his beloved horse feels much like a fusion of E.T. and Saving Private Ryan, two movies that, while seemingly polar opposites, exemplify the childlike sincerity that has defined much of Spielberg's career. Heartrending, triumphant and visually magnificent, War Horse provides a glimpse of a cinematic wunderkind at his best.
The movie follows a horse named Joey as he develops a close friendship with a naïve teenage boy, only to be sold off to the British army for usage in World War I (the last major war to use cavalry) and subsequently passed between numerous different owners. It sounds straightforward and, for the most part, it is; Anna Sewell first wrote from the point of view of an animal over a century ago in Black Beauty, a novel to which War Horse bears a striking resemblance. In fact, the first half hour or so isn't much different from typical animal movies like Old Yeller and My Dog Skip: the boy, Albert, acquires Joey, his pet, despite the reservations of his parents; they slowly yet surely form a bond as strong as that between any two humans; the animal helps its human friend confront a major dilemma in this case, the impending seizure of the family's farm; due to unexpected circumstances, the human is tragically forced to part with his pet. However, while most movies end there, this is only the beginning of War Horse, and, although the first act is compelling enough, not until Joey and Albert separate does the movie really kick into high gear. Sweeping from peaceful, rustic farms to grimy, death-ridden trenches, the film drifts along, leisurely yet never sluggish, inviting viewers to absorb the scenery, a rich tapestry of landscapes so relentlessly, overwhelmingly gorgeous that they feel dream-like, though thankfully, it never succumbs to the idle self-indulgence that plagued such visual extravaganzas as Terrence Malick's poetic-yet-inscrutable The Tree of Life. It's the kind of majestic, ambitious epic that hasn't graced movie theaters since, well, Saving Private Ryan.
Of course, even the most far-reaching sagas have intimate moments mixed in with the larger-than-life heroics, and War Horse is no exception. As Joey navigates the numerous perils of World War I, we are introduced to a vast assortment of characters, including the goodhearted Captain Nicholls and the carefree girl, Emilie, not to mention Albert himself and his troubled parents. On paper, the human characters seem unremarkable, not particularly vivid or memorable, but thanks in large part to the uniformly strong cast, they feel alive, people with whom anyone can sympathize. Although the actors are secondary to the story and visuals, a couple of them still manage to shine: the only person with a substantial amount of screen time, Jeremy Irvine displays a wealth of promise (War Horse is his first feature film role), and he shares easy chemistry with his animal counterpart; Emily Watson instills Rose Narracott, Albert's mother, with a riveting mixture of fiery pragmatism and melancholic weariness; after his charismatic, coolly menacing turn as Loki in the gaudy Thor, Tom Hiddleston takes on the radically different role of Captain Nicholls, yet, despite the more easygoing nature of his character, he has no trouble commanding the audience's attention with his bizarrely expressive eyes and effortless poise; and lastly and most unexpectedly, first-time actress Celine Buckens practically leaps off the screen in her feisty, self-assured performance as the young Emilie. Nonetheless, as indicated by its title, the star of the film is the horse, and the way in which the film-makers coaxed various emotions fear, desperation, anger, sorrow, pain out of its animal performers is simply awe-inspiring. Despite not saying a word, Joey is as nuanced and captivating as any human.
It may sound like hyperbole, but War Horse is truly unique in its portrayal of war, unlike any other movie in recent memory. Although lacking the gritty, devastating immediacy of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg's latest has a power of its own, arising primarily from its brilliant imagery. Acclaimed cinematographer and long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski paints this strange, contradictory world as only a true master can, with each shot deftly crafting an atmosphere of stark beauty: soldiers mount their horses amid a sea of tall, yellow grass; casualties lie strewn across a ravaged battlefield (in a shot reminiscent of Gone With the Wind); gas envelops the silhouette of a single figure; flares explode above the head of a galloping horse; snow swirls around a cluster of battered men. Whereas most modern-day war movies rely on violence and gore to create a "realistic" portrait of war, the effectiveness of War Horse lies in images like those, and it could be argued that the absence of lurid details makes the film all the more potent. Whereas Saving Private Ryan explored the cruelty of war, War Horse searches for the hope that can be found amid the cruelty. As always, Spielberg treads the fine line between poignancy and melodrama, yet although it's hard not to wonder whether he could have delved a little deeper (the ending, while not unsatisfying, feels somewhat rushed), he shows much more restraint than his critics would be willing to admit. Free of pretension and cynicism, War Horse is a lyrical, compassionate story about the struggle to remain innocent amid senseless brutality that feels old-fashioned but never outdated. To the most influential director of his generation, welcome back.
Tedious, my dear Watson
The world's favorite detective has gotten a makeover. Gone is Arthur Conan Doyle's intelligent, resourceful, eccentric creation, and in his place, we have gotten a swashbuckling, wisecracking, (still) eccentric action hero in the vein of Jack Sparrow. This is Sherlock Holmes for a 21st century audience, complete with all the explosions, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat you've always wanted from the 19th century British investigator but have never before gotten. At least that seems to be the train of thought taken by Guy Ritchie, who first introduced audiences to this updated Sherlock in 2009 in a film that was fairly successful, particularly considering it went head-to-head with James Cameron's Avatar juggernaut. Certainly, Ritchie's take is a breath of fresh air after so many decades of deerskin caps and frock coats, and in fact, many consider it to be more faithful in spirit to Doyle's original intentions, yet there is something missing from this sequel , which follows Sherlock and the ever-faithful Dr. John Watson as they tackles one of their most famed nemeses, Dr. Moriarty, played with devilish charm by Jared Harris. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.
Ritchie sets their adventures, which takes them from London to Paris, Germany and, ultimately, Switzerland, against a perpetually but appropriately grimy, dour backdrop that reeks of the industrialism of the mid-to-late 1800s. Though this tale takes place in an entirely different era from his usual works, it is still distinctly a Guy Ritchie movie, bloated with his regular stylizations and love of slow-motion. These flourishes sometimes work, as in segments that show Sherlock utilizing his almost superhuman powers of observation; other times, like in a massive action set piece in a forest, it feels like something lifted out of a Zack Snyder movie, which is not a compliment. Still, most of the action scenes strive for some level of originality, boosted significantly by a gleefully ominous and dissonant score from Hans Zimmer. However, beneath all the visual bravura, the movie feels oddly soulless, treating its characters like pieces in a game of chess. Despite a clever ending that features a couple of nice throwbacks to earlier moments in the film, the plot is cluttered, and it often seems as though the writers were making things up as they went along.
The cast features several impressive names, but with the exception of Jared Harris, who, interestingly enough, is the least well-known of all the major performers, none of them are particularly engaging. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock and Watson, respectively. They have a pleasant, natural chemistry with each other, but the script never really allows their dynamic to progress beyond the exasperated but reluctantly loyal sidekick babysitting a mad, erratic genius. Downey Jr. has plenty of charisma, as he displayed so gloriously in his "comeback" role as Tony Stark in Iron Man three years ago, but one wonders when he might explore roles that stretch his range and acting chops more, as Stark and Sherlock both feel like two sides of the same sarcastic narcissist coin. However, most disappointing is Noomi Rapace, who is wasted in the role of Madam Simza Heron, a gypsy who is supposed to help the main duo in their quest to foil Moriarty's dastardly plan and who possesses all the personality and depth of a plot device. Deservedly rocketing to fame after her excellent performance as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestselling Millennium trilogy, she is much too talented to spend an entire movie (her first Hollywood blockbuster, no less) essentially standing around and taking orders while everyone else gets to actually partake in the action.
One of the main attractions of Sherlock Holmes has always been his relationship with Watson, which is often depicted with some degree of a homoerotic subtext, and Guy Ritchie's version is no different. In fact, the movie seems to care so much about this relationship, to the detriment of all others, including the one between Watson and his wife, that at some point during the film, I began to abstractly wonder what it might be like if the film-makers just defied convention, took a risk and let them go beyond bromance and into romance, even a closeted one, given the time period. Roll your eyes and scoff if you will, but I would've accepted anything that might have livened up this humdrum affair.
The Muppets (2011)
For the lovers and dreamers
As any film critic and movie-goer will tell you, 2011 is the Year of Nostalgia. It's impossible to explain this phenomenon maybe it's the result of the public's collective need to escape from the grimness of reality or maybe it's the upshot of aging film-makers struck by the urge to reflect upon their lives and careers or maybe it's simply a coincidence yet in the end, it hardly matters. The fact is, several movies this year express a yearning for the past, either directly (Super 8, Hugo, The Artist) or obliquely (Crazy, Stupid, Love, Moneyball, We Bought a Zoo). Of those in the latter category, The Muppets is most successful at transporting viewers to a bygone era, a supposedly happier time, more rational in which dreams came true if you believed in yourself, and good inevitably triumphed over evil. It's Singin' in the Rain meets Toy Story 3: a delightful ode to the power of friendship, the strength of the human spirit and the joy of childhood that's bound to charm the most steadfast cynic.
The movie opens with a montage showing the two main characters, Gerry and his brother Walter, growing up, a five-minute scene that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Like Toy Story 3, which featured a similar sequence during its opening credits, The Muppets is a "kids'" movie that appeals just as much, if not more, to adults and, despite being an ostensible comedy, aims more for the heart than the funny bone. It has its share of gags and jokes, yet what ultimately makes the film special is its ability to blend off-the-walls elation with wistful melancholy, to advocate traditional values in a fresh, inspired way and to evoke memories of the past without coming off as resentful or condescending. Although each scene bursts with manic energy, beneath all that can-do spirit and gleeful fluff, the movie is bittersweet; it's not simply an attempt to introduce a beloved host of characters to a media-savvy generation but a tender elegy to the lost innocence of youth. In its own uplifting way, The Muppets insists that the past is still relevant and always will be, no matter how far away it seems.
Of course, The Muppets also works as pure spectacle. The cast is huge, thanks to numerous cameos, including Neil Patrick Harris and Emily Blunt (in a clever wink at her work in 2005's The Devil Wears Prada). It is a credit to the tact of the film-makers that none of the cameos distracts from the storyline or the central actors, who fulfill their parts with aplomb. As the lead, Jason Segel radiates verve and sincerity, his well-documented fondness for Jim Henson's felt creations palpable. He makes an endearing couple with Amy Adams, who, after The Fighter, returns to the cheery persona that made her famous, though here, it's more effective than in movies like Doubt and Enchanted. Also impressive is Chris Cooper, who makes the villainous Tex Richman both legitimately menacing and appropriately cartoonish. However, the real stars are the Muppets themselves. The whole gang is back, engaging in their usual lovable antics, and there is something heartwarming about the sight of old-fashioned, tangible puppets in an era of digital animation. At the forefront is Kermit the Frog, as earnest as ever, and feminist diva Miss Piggy, and their romance is so surprisingly heartfelt that it's easy to forget that they're not human. The whole thing brims with infectious energy, complete with musical numbers that represent some of the catchiest tunes since Disney's 1990s heyday (standouts include the joyous "Life's a Happy Song" and a triumphant rendition of the classic "The Rainbow Connection"). It hardly matters that the plot itself is as frothy and predictable as that of a traditional TV sitcom.
The day after seeing The Muppets, I came across an article on The A.V. Club that I found uncannily resonant, even though it was actually a review of the latest episode of NBC's wry, pop culture-obsessed show Community. In it, author Todd VanDerWerff asserted that the episode, a Christmas special that parodied Fox's hot-button musical-comedy Glee, reminded him of one thing: that, to quote directly, "liking things is vital". In a way, that could be the message of this film year. As reflected in the Best Picture wins of such films as No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker, recent cinema is dominated by cynicism, a sense that the best movies are ones that reveal some fundamental truth behind the chaos of reality. In contrast, this year's most popular movies and prime Oscar contenders, including silent-film homage The Artist and Steven Spielberg's weepie War Horse, are saturated with optimism. Predictably, this trend has drawn complaints from critics who bemoan the attention given to the aforementioned films instead of darker offerings like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia, essentially equating lighthearted romanticism with escapist fluff. This is where I finally arrive at my point: while I understand the need for grittier, more somber fare, it's a mistake to assume that pessimism is the same as seriousness or that optimism is the same as naiveté. Maybe I'm just a sentimental person, but to me, this shift in attitude is a breath of fresh air. This year has given me some of the most eye-opening and downright magical film experiences I've had in a while in Super 8, Moneyball and Hugo, all of which favor emotional catharsis over "realism". The Muppets may not be on the same level as those, but it exemplifies an idea extremely relevant to our perpetually ironic, postmodern climate: it is okay to feel good. It is okay to indulge in nostalgia or yield to emotion. Sometimes, you have to stop analyzing everything and learn to let go. Cynics had their turn, and chances are, this is nothing more than a fleeting anomaly. For now, though, let us dreamers have our moment in the sun, just for one year.
Hugo: A Waking Dream
Ask any film buff walking down the street who Martin Scorsese is, and they're likely to respond with something along the lines of "living legend" or to mention Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, perhaps the occasional After Hours or The Departed. With roughly half a century of filmmaking under his belt, the director has become revered for his dark, uncompromising looks into the human psyche, often focusing on seedy or morally ambiguous protagonists. Therefore, the news that his next project after the twisty, B-movie homage Shutter Island would be a kid-friendly fantasy, in 3D no less, was greeted with understandable skepticism by the film world. Despite its enormous departure from his usual tone and material, the result, however, feels like arguably the most personal of Scorsese's many works. Joining a host of other films from this year suffused with nostalgia, Hugo is a giddy, mischievous romp through 1930s Paris steadied by the confident hand of a master who not only knows his craft inside and out but is also madly, hopelessly, infectiously in love with it.
That adoration permeates through every aspect of the movie, from the breezy performances and tone to the absolutely stunning visuals and the love letter to Georges Melies and silent films, an ode that might have come off as ham-handed had its intentions not been so blatantly earnest and pure. Indeed, there is an innocence to Hugo that is all the more surprising when compared to the gritty realism of the rest of Scorsese's oeuvre. It celebrates the magic and joys of cinema with childlike wonder, allowing the audience to get swept up in much the same way that the story's two young protagonists, Hugo and Isabel, are when they sneak into a theater to watch an old Harold Lloyd comedy, the way audiences were when the first moving picture came out and viewers ducked and screamed because they thought the train in the film was going to hit them. In spite of the decidedly 21st-century technology used to make the movie (though it must be noted that Hugo boasts the best use of modern 3D in a chiefly live-action film so far, as even Avatar used as much CGI and animation as live-action), Hugo feels cheerfully old-fashioned, featuring long sequences without dialogue, including the remarkable opening sequence, and a wonderful score by Howard Shore that not only evokes the proper setting, but the entire feel of that era; you can easily imagine hearing it over a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. Also refreshing is the strictly platonic but heartfelt relationship between Hugo, an orphan who has lived in the Paris Nord train station since his father died in a fire and has a natural instinct to fix things, and Isabel, the god-daughter of a crotchety, old man who runs a toy shop in the station. They exude naiveté but are not dumb or overly cute, treated by the filmmakers with the same respect accorded the adults in the story.
Another running trend through this year in film, in addition to the strong currents of nostalgia, has been the unusually strong performances from kids or teens, from the gang in Super 8 to Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life and Kerris Dorsey in Moneyball. Though the youngsters here aren't necessarily the most impressive entries into that list, they both hold their own against their more seasoned costars. Asa Butterfield is passable as Hugo, able to convincingly play the character as both a lonely misfit and a smart kid who has learned quickly how to take care of himself, though there are moments when his emotions feel more forced and artificial than truly organic. However, it is Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabel who shines, radiating warmth, sincerity and a charming sweetness, a performance that is a far cry from her breakout role as the foul-mouthed Hit Girl in Kick-Ass; in the year since that movie came out, she has shown incredible range and, in Hugo, only further establishes that she is one of the most talented young actresses working today. Among the supporting players, a solid if eclectic group, Ben Kingsley, who portrays Georges Melies, seems likely to attract the most accolades, but perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Sasha Baron Cohen, who suggests here that he's capable of more than you'd think judging from Borat.
However, despite some notable performances and a lovely script, it is the visuals that bring Hugo to life. Normally when someone says the visuals are the most impressive aspect of a film, they're referring to CGI-and-F/X bonanzas, and it's usually a criticism, suggesting that such technical proficiency only serves to distract from uninteresting characters or a weak plot, but Hugo shows that this doesn't always have to be the case and that it's not always a bad thing when set design or special effects steal the show. The period sets and costumes are flawless, feeling authentic with a slight touch of whimsy that adds to the film's fantastical, dreamlike atmosphere, and the many shots overlooking Paris are simply breathtaking. Scorsese creates a world that feels completely real, even when it clearly isn't, so much so that there's a dream sequence that audiences likely won't recognize as a dream until it is nearly over. It is a world where magic is real and dreams come to life, and it is this sensibility that makes Hugo such a stirring tribute to not just old, silent movies, but cinema as a whole, and to the power of the imagination.