by Tony Dayoub
More capsule reviews, this time on some of the wider releases of the last few months.
For this Spielberg fan, The Adventures of Tintin was a mild disappointment. Based on the Belgian comic book created by Hergé, Tintin has been updated visually thanks to the CG-animation technology quickly becoming prevalent in Hollywood films, motion capture. The look of the characters is a cross between the original cartoony designs and something closer to photorealism (think of the villains in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy). But the retro action movie reflects the production design's wishy-washy, neither-fish-nor-fowl sensibility. When it comes to the actual execution of Tintin's exploits, one never gets the feeling that Spielberg is all in. Perhaps it is because of the director's well-documented discomfort in the digital realm. (A rather surprising piece of trivia about a man known for his FX-heavy genre pieces: Tintin is the first time Spielberg has edited a picture digitally.) For one sequence that unfolds in a single extended take—a masterful chase scene in which Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his sidekick, Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), must chase down a thieving hawk on a motorcycle while trying to evade the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig)—the movie takes flight and feels as light on its feet as Raiders of the Lost Ark first felt in 1981. I'd like to think this sequence was generated during the later part of Tintin's production, once Spielberg got comfortable with the technology at his disposal. If I'm right, here's hoping it's a sign of things to come.
A more diverting computer animated production is Arthur Christmas, the latest from Aardman Animations. Far more kid-friendly than their previous endeavors, the movie introduces us to the clumsy, well-intentioned title character (James McAvoy), younger son of the current, burnt-out Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent). Arthur discovers one Christmas present remains undelivered after Santa's trip around the world. Enlisting the help of Grand-Santa (Bill Nighy), his father's retired predecessor, Arthur hopes to prove how important it is to preserve the magic of Christmas for every little child. This, despite the assurances of Santa's heir apparent, Arthur's efficient older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie), that less than 1% of presents left undelivered is an acceptable margin of error. Modest though it seems, Arthur Christmas has all the makings of a holiday classic.
George Miller, who has had some success issuing sequels as compelling, if not moreso, than their progenitors (The Road Warrior exceeds his apocalyptic Mad Max in nearly every respect; Babe: Pig in the City is a worthy follow-up to the children's classic), returns to Antartica to revisit Mumbles (Elijah Wood), the tap-dancing penguin in Happy Feet Two. While still as uneven and overlong as the first Happy Feet, the tangential side-trips this second chapter takes into the microuniverse of Will the Krill (Brad Pitt)—a tiny translucent crustacean who breaks away from his swarm to discover the larger world around him—are more compelling and engaging than anything else occurring in either of the environmentally-minded animated films. Will's conversations with the unwilling partner in his mind-expanding adventure, Bill the Krill (Matt Damon), are laden with existential conundrums and insights while still conjuring up the wittiest banter between two male cartoon characters since Timon and Pumba. Forget the idea of a Happy Feet Three and instead give us a Will and Bill spinoff.
Mixing robots with the premise of 1931's The Champ, in which a kid tries to convince his down-on-his-luck boxer dad to believe in himself, Real Steel proves to be a pleasant surprise. A lot of it is due to the melding of science fiction and a grimy blue-collar aesthetic, a perspective too rarely taken in the genre despite such notable exceptions as the Alien series, Outland and the aforementioned Mad Max. Hugh Jackman, who often comes across as a bit too upscale to play scrappiness (outside of his Wolverine persona), comes off way better than the annoying kid cast as his son, actor Dakota Goyo. Evangeline Lilly (Lost) tries unsuccessfully to invigorate the flat love interest character. Flawed as Real Steel is (like its robot star, Atom), the movie's low-fi vibe makes it an underdog worth rooting for.
Treading into a troubling, more plausible territory of futurism is Steven Soderbergh's disease thriller, Contagion. Using the same multi-storyline template he used to examine the drug war in Traffic, Soderbergh shapes an interesting and tight narrative speculating what might happen if there were a truly lethal outbreak of a swine flu. Standouts in the all-star cast include Matt Damon as the immune husband of the film's Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow), Laurence Fishburne as the grave Dr. Ellis Cheever of the CDC, Jennifer Ehle and Elliot Gould as scientists close to discovering a cure and Jude Law as a Matt Drudge-type conspiracy theorist who dangerously misleads his afflicted blog readers. Though a too-sentimental plot thread involving a World Health Organization operative (Marion Cotillard) being held hostage keeps the otherwise stark movie from being perfect, Contagion is a disturbing look at the breakdown of society when widespread panic begins to take hold of its populace on the way to the kind of apocalypse that ends with a whimper. The final sequence, a short Rube Goldberg-like flashback visually retracing the migration of the virus from an infected bat all the way to Paltrow's Patient Zero is chilling.
Just watched The Help last night after the Black Film Critics Circle named it their best film of the year. Not that I was entirely surprised, but I wondered. Had I written the movie off as an extremely saccharine take on a little discussed byproduct of the Jim Crow era because it was told through the perspective of a pretty, young, white woman? The Help describes a legitimate moral disgrace that I'm certain many here in the South have buried as deep as possible. In fact, only last week did President Obama address this (indirectly) by proposing a "new rule that will ensure in-home care workers are included in the same minimum wage and overtime protections afforded to other workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act." The disgusting treatment of working black women humiliated by the Southern whites who hired them to help with such sensitive household chores as caring for their children or elderly parents is personified in the (not so) subtly abused maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer). Both of them must endure such humiliations as having to use an outdoor restroom rather than the same ones their owners use or take verbal upbraidings from the very women they practically raised as children. And swooping in to save them comes fledgling writer Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), whose own curiosity about the mysterious dismissal of her longtime maid/nanny (Cicely Tyson) drives her truthseeking about the dilemma facing the others. The Help goes to great lengths to make sure Aibileen and Minny are of equal stature to Skeeter within its story: the movie begins and ends on Aibileen's story; allowing Minny and Aibileen's grievances to get equal play with Skeeter's effort to get their story out (and profit from it, a point the movie glosses over). The problem is Aibileen and Minny shouldn't be competing for time in Skeeter's story. It's their story, and elevating Skeeter's role to anything beyond that of simple transcriber is just another symptom of how tone-deaf The Help really is.
George Clooney's third directorial effort is the clever The Ides of March, which follows slick Steven Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a young political consultant who, under the watchful eye of campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), runs the presidential campaign of Mike Morris (Clooney), an idealistic (and idealized) Obama-like candidate. Meyers' loyalties are called into question after the rival primary candidate's campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) invites him to jump ship. Based on Beau Willimon's play, Farragut North, the movie never quite transcends its polemical stage roots, hampered by an overreliance on stereotypical types rather than characters, i.e. Marisa Tomei's New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz, and Jeffrey Wright's cabinet post-seeking senator. But Clooney does his best to mask that with a trio of fine performances at the top—Gosling's, Hoffman's and his own. Giving some time to real-life pundits such as Chris Matthews and Charlie Rose and getting into the nuts and bolts of electoral votes and gerrymandering grants a strong measure of authenticity. Jaded political junkies will eat up The Ides of March. For everyone else, it might prove to be quite an education.
Though I also greatly enjoyed another politics-infused movie, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, it'd be a lie to say I don't have strong reservations. Leonardo DiCaprio is quite adept at conveying the tortured, lonely soul of one of American most notorious historical figures. Eastwood tracks FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's career using a surprisingly effective non-linear structure that relies on the varying levels of makeup on the three principals—DiCaprio, Naomi Watts as his longtime secretary, Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer as Associate Director Clyde Tolson—to help viewers get their bearings within the story timeline. But while DiCaprio and Watts are able to convincingly sell their performances through the, at times, heavy prosthetics, Hammer simply becomes progressively stiffer, relying on cliched "doddering old man" theatrics in his interpretation of the aging Tolson. The result is that his makeup resembles a ridiculous Halloween mask in a way the others' do not. This major drawback nearly ruins J. Edgar, which at heart is a love story (by Dustin Lance Black of Milk) between the paranoid Hoover and the milder Tolson, their homosexual relationship long the subject of unconfirmed rumors. Watch for J. Edgar to gain new life on video, where smaller screens will hide some of the makeup issues.
Just when you think an action franchise and its eccentric star's career are on their last legs, along comes the best entry in the series to revive both. Yes, despite the fact that I am a big fan of Brian De Palma and the movie in which he introduced us to Tom Cruise's IMF spy, Ethan Hunt, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol easily blows the original one out of the water. A large part of the reason is filmmaker Brad Bird's refusal to remain bound by the laws of physics or the limits of imagination, the same qualities he brought to Pixar movies like The Incredibles when he was a director of animated fare. If you think Cruise's much publicized scaling of Dubai's Burj Khalifa is the only stunt that will take your breath away, you're mistaken. Each setpiece leads to another, with the stakes getting progressively higher for the IMF team each time. Unnecessary character beats and exposition threaten to disrupt the breakneck pace Bird strives to maintain, particularly just before the final act. But ultimately, Ghost Protocol overcomes its concessions to plot and character motivation to reach the pole position of 2011's action films. See it in IMAX.
Moneyball is a baseball movie which looks at the declining fortunes of the Oakland A's until general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) drafts accountant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to help him come up with a system of drafting players that can compete with that of deep-pocketed teams like the New York Yankees. Pitt is ingratiating in his lack of pretension, a case of an actor giving one of his finest performances simply by offering an honest glimpse into something approximating his real self. Hill also does well, leaving all of his annoying comedic tics behind in order to just simply be. Moneyball is less about athletics and more about running a business efficiently, so it should appeal even to anyone uninterested in sports. Moneyball is one of my favorite movies of 2011, and it only looms larger and larger in my memory as I look back at this fantastic year for American cinema.