December Links

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Nostalgic, esoteric, confessional and downright incisive, the best film blogs in December were a holiday package of insight and entertainment for movie lovers:

Kristin Thompson provided a sharp-eyed film historian’s reading of Scorsese’s Hugo, setting the record straight as to how George Melies was really re-discovered and adding a few autobiographical notes about the role the French wizard of film played in her own career.

Collector Bobby Beeman on the Universal Monster Army site offered information and some wonderful pictures of a 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man lobby display, including rare shots of surviving fixtures from those long-ago days of unabashed ballyhoo.

Also on the classic horror front, the site Vampire Over London reports on a recent auction of Bela Lugosi’s personal memorabilia, including some wonderful pre-Dracula theatrical portraits and personal photos…a charming reminder that beneath every icon is a human being – and, in this case, one with really snappy taste in shoes.

On the Los Angeles Review of Books site, writer F.X. Feeney looked back on his turbulent working and personal relationships with late director George Hickenlooper.

On the Notebook site, Luc Moullet held forth on the bravura ending sequences of two memorable King Vidor features, Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry.

Magician Ben Robinson conjured a professional opinion on Buster Keaton’s use of real-time sleight of hand while creating movie magic on the Moving Image Source site.

The Moviefone site reported on the 10 most pirated movies of 2011 – several of them surprisingly not targeted at the knuckleheads usually associated with illegal downloading.

Shoot on over and load up on these out-of-this-world links.

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December 29, 2011 · Posted in Legends  
    

Lest We Forget

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They won’t win any major awards, but some of the second- (or third-) tier releases of 2011 had endearing qualities that deserve recognition before they’re swept away by the flood of publicity for Globes, Oscars, Top 10 Lists, etc. So here’s one last nod to a few of those less-than-top-shelf movies that managed to leave a little piece of themselves with us that’s worth remembering.

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL

There have been other attempts at making parodies of all those trips to Camp Crystal Lake, Motel Hell and assorted other hangouts of chainsaw-slinging psycho hillbillies, but Tucker and Dale is hands down the smartest and funniest of them all, managing to be not only bloody but surprisingly clever and downright sweet.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

The biggest box office hit on this list, this adaptation of the long-running Marvel Comics superhero feature managed to hit all the sweet spots of comic book movies – well-executed explosive action, a dynamic and straightforward storyline, and a strong pair of colorful antagonists. What sets it apart from the legion of competing do-gooders is its beautifully realized period setting and a large helping of genuine heart that lingers in the memory long after the exhilaration of the fight scenes has faded.

DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME

Director Hark Tsui has turned out outstanding genre work for years, and this re-imagining of the classic Chinese hero is one of his most satisfying films. A fast-moving mashup of wire work, CGI, traditional martial arts and old-fashioned political intrigue, Hark’s fantastic mystery is one of the most satisfying pieces of eye candy to hit the big screen this year, while still managing to play completely fair as a whodunit.

CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF

Craig McCall’s documentary about the late cinematographer and director paints a glowing portrait of a man who quietly revolutionized filmmaking through the application of fine arts techniques (plus a little warm breath on the lens). Highlighted by so much interview footage with Cardiff that the enterprise at times resembles an autobiography, the film is a lovely human tribute to a self-educated artisan who taught moviegoers and his own peers new ways to see the world unfolding on the silver screen.

TYRANNOSAUR

First-time director Paddy Constantine has created a dramatic look at life in the side streets of a West Yorkshire city where people deal with rage born of loss and disappointment. The emotional violence makes for pretty rough going at first, but Considine’s script and the work of his talented cast draws us into his characters’ lives and shows us the worth of the damaged human beings beneath those angry facades. The final result is a touching and even wistful look at a set of characters that we’re almost shocked to realize that we’ve come to care for over its brief 91-minute running time.

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December 27, 2011 · Posted in Legends  
    

Conquering multiple ballots and defying eyestrain, my fellow deep thinkers about cinema at the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle have released their list of the best films of the year, celebrating some of the most ambitious and accomplished work on the big screen in 2011. Among the highlights are these winning achievements:

THE ARTIST

(Best Film, from Best Director winner Michel Hazanavicius)

GEORGE CLOONEY

(Best Actor, The Descendants)

MICHELLE WILLIAMS

(Best Actress, My Week with Marilyn)

ALBERT BROOKS

(Best Supporting Actor, Drive)

OCTAVIA SPENCER

(Best Supporting Actress, The Help)

For the complete list of awards – including the Not-So-Obviously-Worst Film and Best Guilty Pleasure – go to the OFCC website.

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December 24, 2011 · Posted in Legends  
    

Great Snakes!

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Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of TinTin is a first-rate adaptation of one of the most famous characters most Americans have never heard of.

Since it debuted in the 1930s, the comic strip by Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi) has been a hugely popular success just about everywhere but the U.S. Its blend of humor and pulpy adventure was an early forerunner of Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones, its art style so influential that it created an entire school of cartooning (ligne claire), and its characters so beloved by generations that their images have become positively iconic the world over.

Any Yank wondering what all the fuss has been about has only to check out the new movie. Except for the more realistic style of its motion-capture animation, this is a startlingly faithful adaptation of Hergé’s work, reproducing not only the events but the heart and spirit of some of the strip’s most popular stories.

TinTin, a boy reporter, comes by a model of a 17th century ship called the Unicorn and soon he’s up to his neck in bad guys trying to steal the mysterious secret it contains. Equally nosy and intrepid, he dashes off to find out just what’s going on, following the clues to a cargo boat crewed by a pack of thugs who are keeping the ship’s captain, Haddock, raving drunk and out of the way. The reporter and the captain make their escape from the trigger-happy crew, kicking off a chase across the globe, eluding the gang at sea, in the African desert and the streets of a Moroccan city.

Along the way we learn that Haddock is the descendant of the original Unicorn’s captain, and he relates the story of how his ancestor battled pirates who sank the ship with a vast treasure aboard – a fortune in gold and jewels which the villains are determined to find…and they’re willing to eliminate anyone who gets in their way.

The motion capture animation is effective and eye-catching, far more realistic than Hergé’s art but still cartoony enough to suggest the story’s comic strip origins. While earlier examples of the animation process were marked by characters with off-putting, dead-behind-the-eyes faces, the physical characterizations here are nuanced and expressive. And with a huge army of digital artists at his disposal, Spielberg has created a wild chase scene to out-do all chase scenes, the kind of frenzied action he’s been aiming for throughout his career – a sight-gag-filled bumper-car ride around, over and through streets and buildings, all seemingly captured in the kind of single camera shot that would be impossible without the use of computer animation.

There’s a certain dramatic risk in making such a faithful adaptation of the source material, for Hergé wasn’t one for in-depth characterization. Short of being brave and resourceful, TinTin himself has always been something of a cipher, and the supporting characters have rarely been more than goofy comedy relief or unalloyed evil. They aren’t appreciably deeper in the movie version, but the animation and the vocal performances add just enough shading to keep disbelief suspended most of the time.

Jamie Bell’s vocal performance as TinTin seems right on the money, projecting just the right combination of intelligence and pluck to make us accept him as the world’s greatest barely-adolescent globetrotting journalist; he even manages to sell the young hero’s trademark exclamation “Great snakes!” Andy Serkis as Haddock is appropriately blustery and whining, adding just enough humanity to keep his incessantly comic character grounded in something like reality. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg can’t quite turn their bumbling identical cops into flesh-and-blood creations, but they do the best they can with what the screenplay gives them and earn a fair share of laughs. Daniel Craig’s voice work is virtually unrecognizable as the star of James Bond movies, but he’s effectively waspish and menacing as the villain of the piece.

Perhaps the best character of all is Snowy, TinTin’s bright and energetic little dog. Whether we’re watching him freaking out over a neighborhood cat, trying like hell to get humans to pay attention to what he’s trying to communicate, or simply standing against some of the beautifully detailed backgrounds as a breeze realistically ruffles his fur, he’s a knockout. And so is The Adventures of TinTin, an entertaining roller coaster ride that’s a worthy adaptation of a famous comic strip that just might allow Americans to finally catch up with the rest of the world.

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December 22, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

Back to Baker Street

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With Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law are back as Holmes and Watson, each refining the Jack-the-lad twists brought to the characters in the first film. Director Guy Ritchie is back, too, again whipping the action along at lightning pace and occasionally stopping things dead to give us a point-by-point breakdown of Holmes’ hyper-analytical take on the world around him. Some will undoubtedly feel let down because this sequel doesn’t – and by definition can’t – deliver the excitement of viewing those elements for the first time, but in fact, this second outing of the Ritchie-Downey-Law team offers a good deal more than simply regurgitating a winning formula.

The title is inspired by that “great game” cited by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, the strategic manipulation of people and nations that was the stuff of foreign policy and espionage in the late 19th century. Here the game is being played not against one country by another, but against everyone by a single man, the brilliant Professor James Moriarty.

Jared Harris plays Moriarty with a measured, arid calm that’s a fine contrast to Downey’s manic Holmes, and there’s genuine pleasure to be had in watching the rigid and punctilious Victorian matching wits with the eccentric bohemian. In discoursing on mathematics and classical music or facing Holmes across the inevitable chessboard, this Moriarty is the epitome of the self-satisfied academic – but Harris’ admirable underplaying can turn on a dime and become quietly sinister when it’s time to show who’s in charge. In many ways Holmes’ equal, the Game’s villain is a far more dangerous brand of sociopath than the great detective could ever become, a man who sees the rest of humanity as collateral damage in his campaign for power.

Some advance reviews are lamenting that the movie offers no compelling mystery for the great Baker Street detective to solve – which just shows how little those reviewers know about the Holmes canon they think they’re sticking up for. A Game of Shadows is drawn from the famous Conan Doyle story “The Final Problem” – one of only two stories in which the Professor appeared – and there’s even less mystery in the original than in the new movie. In the short story, we learn that Holmes has been making himself tiresome to the “Napoleon of Crime,” who makes a single appearance to trade barbs with our hero before returning to the shadows and turning his assassins loose on Holmes. The rest of the story concerns Holmes fleeing for his life to Switzerland, where their rivalry is resolved in an “off-camera” bit of action-flick violence.

In the new screen version, Moriarty’s crimes have been expanded to take in terrorism aimed at sparking a war between France and Germany that will eventually encompass much of the globe – World War I kicked off 20 years early, and all so that the Professor can gain power and profit on a Krupp-like scale. In scrambling to keep up with a scheme that’s far larger than anything he’s encountered before, Holmes is swept by events into taking on a role paralleling those prototypical British literary spy heroes Hannay and Ashenden…a role similar to that which Conan Doyle would later assign him in the story “His Last Bow.”

Here, too, the flight to the Continent and ultimately Switzerland is propelled by a flight from assassins – in this case killers Moriarty has assigned to eliminate Watson and his new bride as sadistic punishment for Holmes’ meddling in his affairs. Once Holmes has removed Mrs. Watson from harm’s way in his inimitable fashion, the Baker Street buddies are free to shoot, pummel and occasionally deduce their way across Europe in pursuit of Moriarty and his thugs.

As in the first film, Downey is funny, charming and utterly believable as the loose-cannon genius Holmes. And as before, the movie’s secret weapon is Law as his two-fisted ex-soldier pal Dr. Watson, cutting a figure so handsome and charismatic that at times it seems that Holmes has partnered up with James Bond in the ultimate action buddy flick. The two of them are an irresistible combination.

Stephen Fry is a welcome addition as Holmes’ equally eccentric big brother Mycroft, who serves the government as a major player in the Great Game. He delivers a large, droll performance as esoteric and plummy as his fine star turn in the 1997 Wilde, simultaneously the canniest man in the room and the most oblivious to social mores. (What a household those two must have grown up in.)

Best among the other featured roles is Noomi Rapace as a Roma fortune teller with roots in the international conspiracy; though the script doesn’t give her a chance to make the kind of powerful impression that her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo role allowed, Rapace remains a fascinating figure on the screen and easily keeps up with the fast company she keeps here.

The film has a good deal of fun with some of the clichés of the Holmes canon, particularly the hero’s penchant for preposterous disguises; where in older movies we’re supposed to pretend that we can’t recognize Basil Rathbone or other actors under the cheesy makeup, here the phoniness of the beards and bald caps is front and center, apparently effective only because of their sheer audaciousness. And the question of the homoerotic nature of the Holmes-Watson friendship/bromance is brought into fuller and cheekier focus. It’s hardly a new take, having been the object of speculation long before Billy Wilder first raised the question in his 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes…but only the truly easily offended will allow these tongue-in-cheek moments to interfere with their enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, one of the most entertaining action movies of the year.

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December 17, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

In Brief: Troll Hunter

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Droll, imaginative and one hell of a lot of fun, Troll Hunter is a Norwegian adventure romp in the guise of a documentary being shot by film students who learn the bizarre truth behind ancient myths and quickly end up in over their heads.

Smartly utilizing the “found footage” format of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and the various Paranormal Activity chillers, writer-director André Øvredal drops us in the middle of his group of fictional filmmakers as they learn that the mysterious poacher they’ve been following is living a secret life right out of The X-Files.

The herky-jerky vérité camerawork effectively keeps things moving while teasing the audience with corner-of-your-eye glimpses of the film’s various creatures. All those preposterously named monsters are based on Scandinavian lore – including a big nasty who lurks under a bridge – and the ones we get a good look at are gnarly nightmare versions of the bulbous-nosed figures familiar from fairy tale illustration.

The CGI is, if not dazzling, more than adequate for the stark faux-documentary presentation, and there are even a few genuinely eye-popping moments. The cast is uniformly good; best of all is comedian Otto Jespersen as the hunter – a dryly humorous and immensely charismatic performance that keeps the human factor front and center, which is just where it belongs in this unique and quirky little entertainment.

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December 7, 2011 · Posted in DVD