Monthly Archives: December 2011

Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

“Thank God, this movie is only 80 minutes long.” That was my initial response upon loading up Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. As it turned out, however, the penultimate entry in this feature turned out to be 80 minutes too long, and yet 80 minutes of pure trashy goodness at the same time.

The main plot thread running through Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is that on Mars, the children Girmar and Bomar (which means Girl Martian and Boy Martian, respectively) have no idea what fun is, having no freedom of thought as a result of all of their knowledge being fed directly into their brains through machines. Momar (Mom Martian) and Kimar (King Martian) are concerned that their children spend all of their time watching Earth television, particularly the programs with Santa Claus. The Martian leaders consult an 800 year old wizard sage that tells them who Santa is, and the Martians decide to go to Earth to kidnap Santa Claus to bring Christmas to Mars. Unable to find the actual Santa after witnessing multiple “Charity Santas” (you know, the Salvation Army ones), the Martians also take a pair of children to help them. The plot of this movie is so stupid I’m actually having trouble thinking of ways to make fun of it.

One of the Martians, the evil Voldar, dislikes this idea of fun for Martian children and years for the days when Mars was a planet of war. He and his cronies consistently try to kill Santa and the children, but Santa is magic and always manages to stop him. Then everyone goes home, the end.

"Drugs? Ho ho, I don't do drugs! Why, do you have some?"

One of the weirdest things about the movie is the plot progression. Santa truly does not seem to care that he is getting kidnapped, laughing his way through the movie. Even a brief monologue about how everything on Mars is automated is followed by more chuckling. I’d even go so far as to estimate that 70% of Santa’s dialogue in the movie is either a jolly chuckle or a “ho ho ho”. It’s true to the character, at least. Most of the Martians seem to be nice, and after the kidnapping Santa and the kids they make sure the trio is comfortable and really care about them. So there’s really no “conquering” in the movie. I’m guessing that Santa Claus Gets Taken To Mars and Does Some Shit and Then Goes Home was too long of a title.

There is a popular rumor about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that the entire cast was high during the production. It’s probably not true, but if one were to disregard common sense it could be possible. Most of the actors either overact, overreact, or simply have bizarre behavior that might suggest the presence of some drug. A couple of the actors literally laugh between every piece of dialogue. Segments of the script seem to be the product of drug abuse as well, what with talks of “nuclear curtains” and “Q-Rays” and other Martian technology that is obviously supposed to appear advanced and complicated.

This is the part where Google actually did not have any more color stills for the movie.

I had trouble trying to figure out if this was supposed to be a bad movie. It’s truly horrible, but in such a way that everyone seems to be in on the joke, attempting to make a movie that is so bad it can only incite laughter. In that respect, they have succeeded; it’s so abysmal in every aspect of its production, it’s just hilarious. From the idiotic script, to the cardboard sets, to the public-domain sound effects and bargain-basement special effects, this film is the definition of “no budget”. The best part, undoubtedly, is a fight between two Martians that has a shaking camera, point-of-view camera angles, and abysmal choreography.  The sequence where the Martians display the technology that allows them to freeze people was also hilarious in how utterly ridiculous it was. The film later tries to be sweet, but by that point everything is so stupid that it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a weird sort of fun: it’s completely awful, yet utterly hilarious. From top to bottom, it deserves the title of one of the worst films ever made. However, it is rarely so horrible that it is unbearable. If you’re the type that gets a savage thrill from these kinds of movies, as I am, you might find something entertaining here, even though you’ll hate every second of it. It’s another of those “So bad it’s good” cult flicks, and I almost have to recommend it merely on those terms.

"Martians? What's wrong with that?"

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The Adventures of Tintin (Review)

Tintin’s American theatrical debut is a visually stunning and extremely thrilling adventure.

Score: * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking.

Intrepid young reporter Tintin, star of an early 1900s Belgian comic book series by a man known as Herge, has had minimal exposure in the United States beyond the translated comic books and a brief cartoon television show. My own knowledge of the series is limited to the very small handful of the comics I’ve been able to find and read. I was fairly young when I first read a Tintin comic, but I liked it. It was fun, fairly exciting, and filled with some terrific characters.  Steven Spielberg agreed, and now, partnering with Peter Jackson, he has worked to finally bring the reporter to the masses with a big screen adventure. And what an adventure it is.

Based on the Tintin installment The Secret of the Unicorn, this debut follows Tintin (Jamie Bell) as, true to form, he gets thrown headfirst into danger immediately after purchasing an ancient model ship, when he is greeted by a sharply dressed man who introduces himself only as Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who asks politely to purchase the ship from Tintin. Tintin’s refusal does not go over well, and Tintin is eventually kidnapped and taken onto a boat, where he learns Sakharine’s true intentions: to recover the contents of the model ship, one of three scrolls that reveal the location of an old sunken ship. After Tintin’s small white dog, Snowy (who is awesome, by the way), rescues Tintin from his bonds, Tintin runs into Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), from whom the ship has been taken. Escaping from the ship, Tintin and Haddock find themselves racing Sakharine to find all of the clues and uncover the secret of an old rivalry between the Sakharine and Haddock bloodlines.

As you could guess, the voice cast here is pretty great. Jamie Bell seems to be a perfect fit for Tintin. Andy Serkis, who has essentially become a chameleon of thespians (having done Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and Casear from Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is also hard to distinguish yet completely perfect as Haddock. It was a treat to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunited as two bumbling, idiotic, identical-looking police officers named Thomson & Thompson. They’re one of the best comedic duos working today and they play off each other with delightful precision as always. Daniel Craig was the most easily identifiable as the villain, and he positively oozes menace as Sahkarine. This is, I believe, his first villain role in a major film, and he does it so well that I am very excited to see what other evil characters he gets to play in the future. Everyone in the cast clicked together excellently, without falling into the trap of other celebrity-voiced movies in which the star’s persona takes precedence over the actual character (I’m looking at you, Kung Fu Panda).

For a family film, The Adventures of Tintin is one hell of an exciting action flick. Nearly every action scene ends up escalating to levels of utter insanity, with massive setpieces filled with implausible and completely crazy elements stacking on top of each other.  To give away some of the more ridiculous pieces would  be to spoil the fun in how far they go, but suffice it to say that the complete disregard for plausibility in favor of outrageous, epic mayhem and wanton destruction is worth the price of admission alone. A massive pirate ship battle that puts everything in Disney’s franchise to shame, a totally bananas chase through a Moroccan port town, and a final battle that completely abandons all reason are only the tip of the iceberg.

Steven Spielberg has stated in interviews that he enjoyed using the motion capture/computer animation format because of the way it allows him to do things he would not normally be able to do in real life. Indeed, he lets his imagination run wild here, not only with those action sequences, but also with some very creative camera movements, through buildings and transitioning creatively through scenes that would be either completely impossible or far too expensive or complex for an actual camera.

The film has a very interesting style, framing cartoonish characters against a more realistic background. Tintin and Thomson & Thompson have very round heads and softer angles, in contrast to the harshly angular dimensions of Sakharine. These characters, ripped straight from the comic (and directly referenced in an amusing nod to the original animations) inhabit a world that is as detailed and realistic as the technology will allow and makes for a rather pleasing aesthetic. Speaking of the animation, this is possibly the most impressive looking motion-capture animated film I’ve yet seem. It deftly avoids the uncanny valley (a plague that makes animated characters look distinctly unrealistic) and the horrible dead eyes that so many other computer animated films cannot get right. It’s bursting with life and color. The most impressive aspect is undoubtedly Snowy. Tintin’s canine sidekick is a triumph in animation, appearing so real in his animations that it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re not watching the real thing.

The movie is not perfect, however. After a very entertaining first half, the movie bogs down a bit with the mystery, and the mystery is significantly less interesting than the characters surrounding it. This might have something to do with the action, which is so fast-paced that the movie pretty much screeches to a halt when the action sequences end. I cared less about what the characters were chasing, and more about why they were doing it, which is little more than a thirst for adventure. The revelation about Sakharine wanting to amend the death of his ancestor was a great turning point, at least. I can only hope that with the sequel, which is already in the works as The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, will have a more interesting story. As it stands, Spielberg almost backed himself into a corner, creating action scenes that are so intense that the story falters in comparison. Hopefully Jackson, Spielberg, and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz will be able to deliver a better balance with the sequel, without skimping on the action.

Despite that, the story was decent enough to be engaging, and the action and colorful characters carried it the rest of the way. It slows down every now and then, but always picks right back up with some more large-scale action. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have assembled a film that by turns a pseudo-history lesson, treasure hunting adventure, engaging mystery, and breakneck action picture. It stumbles occasionally, but not enough to dampen the experience. This is a gorgeously animated, very exciting film and a great time at the movies.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Review)

Energetic direction, dry humor, and terrific action make the fourth Mission: Impossible movie not only the best film in the series, but also the coolest and most relentlessly exciting action flick of the entire year. 

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence

2011 has sadly been mostly devoid of truly great, solid action flicks. There have been a number of cool comic book adaptations, but apart from Fast Five and Hanna, there have been hardly any truly decent pure action movies all year. There has, however, been the promise of a good one, what with the very promising early trailers for the latest adventure in the Mission: Impossible series, which has been rocky at best. Four films have seen a new director each time, and after a decent first, dreadful second, and thrilling third, the fourth film truly delivers on its promise with the absolute best action picture of the year.

At the beginning of Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is in a Russian prison for crimes that are not immediately specified. Luckily, his techie buddy Benji (Simon Pegg) is working hard with series newcomer Jane (Paula Patton) to break him out. After causing an almost illogical amount of mayhem, Ethan escapes from the prison, and receives his IMF mission: he is to infiltrate the Kremlin and recover files identifying a dangerous potential terrorist known only as Cobalt. However, the mission goes horribly awry when Ethan finds that the files, and nuclear launch codes, have already been taken by Cobalt–a physicist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Dragon Tattoo movies), and the Kremlin is rigged to be bombed. Barely escaping the bombing, Ethan, Benji, and Jane are told by their superior, the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) that the IMF has been blamed for the bombing and disavowed. Moments later, they are attacked and the Secretary is killed. The trio, now joined by an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner), realize that they are alone. The IMF literally no longer exists and the four of them have the gear in their immediate possession to stop Hendricks from initiating nuclear war on what he sees as an impure world that is falling apart.

Once the movie gets going, starting with the infiltration of the Kremlin, it grabs on and never lets go. It’s the movie’s main strength, and its crowning achievement: it is blisteringly exciting and undeniably awesome from start to finish. The centerpiece is an extended sequence in which Ethan must use adhesive gloves to scale the glass Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The action and tension that occurs both inside and outside the building during this sequence is literally breathtaking and is the single most exciting sequence of anything else I’ve seen this year. It starts with Ethan scaling the side of the building, moves to a tense exchange between imposters, and  culminates in a magnificent breathless chase through a sandstorm. The positive buzz about the movie’s climax was not unfounded: the final battle inside an automated multilevel garage is excellently filmed and extremely pulse-pounding.

The movie’s tension and sense of danger is maximized by the fact that Ethan and his crew are completely alone. There are no safehouses, no airlifted gadgets, and no one to help them. They are faced with countless snags, malfunctioning equipment, and a couple of villains who are cunning enough to know exactly who Ethan Hunt is and how to combat him. It’s somehow significantly more exciting to know that when something  breaks, they’re not going to be able to call for help from IMF: they’ll just have to figure out a different avenue toward completing this leg of the mission.

That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t know how to have fun (what do you expect from a movie called Mission: Impossible?). The script ingeniously keeps things from getting too dark, surgically inserting liberal bits of bone-dry humor into the script whenever it needs it. It’s never corny, but it does have a sharp wit and a nice cynical edge. Many one-liners elicited loud chuckles from my moderately populated auditorium.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this whole project is that this is director Brad Bird’s (The Incredibles and The Iron Giant)  first live action film. He handles it better than many directors do after tons of practice. His direction here is so effortlessly creative and fun, it’s astonishing.  He’s got a style that is difficult to articulate in words, but is unmistakably crisp visually exciting onscreen.  Even better, he directs his action sequences with a refreshing coherence, pulling the camera back to show some truly painful-looking hits and avoiding the poisonous “shaky-cam” technique that countless other action films employ nowadays. Such a wonderful debut is hopefully only an indicator of Bird’s future as an action movie director.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol is more than just an action film; it is a spectacle. It’s a busy, muscular adventure that rarely fails to hit its mark and entertain. Tom Cruise has more charisma than he’s had in a film in years, and he plays Ethan Hunt with a great intensity that gels well with the rest of the crew. It’s all held together by the creative and confident direction of Brad Bird, who juggles all of the pieces of the film like a seasoned pro. A total blast from start to finish, this newest Mission cannot be missed.

Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: Home Alone 3

Christmas is over, but A Christmas Beeracle is not yet finished. There are still a few more awful Christmas movies left to suffer through.

It took the folks over at Fox two movies to apparently figure out what the Home Alone series was missing: military technology in the hands of a little kid who isn’t Macaulay Culkin! Such is the plot of Home Alone 3: terrorists hide a dangerous chip in a remote-controlled car so they can sneak it through customs. Since the airport has dozens of bags that all look identical, the car winds up in different hands and is later given to Not Macaulay Culkin (Alex D. Linz). The terrorists arrive in Chicago, somehow manage to find Not Culkin’s neighborhood, and immediately start breaking into the houses one by one to find the car. Not Culkin tries calling the police, but when the police show up and barely miss the robbers, the adults get mad at the youngster and don’t believe his protests, as all parents and adults in these types of films do. Not Culkin must take matters into his own hands, devising ingenious traps to humiliate and harm the bad guys as much as possible, until the adults figure out how stupid they are and come to arrest the crooks.

Not Culkin is going to grow up to be a very creative murder. He’s already a (fairly adorable) sociopath, using his telescope to spy on the neighbors, control their TV sets (because any remote will work on any TV, apparently), and devising traps that would likely be deadly in real life. No doubt about it, this kid is going to be a villain when he grows up. He even has a white rat with red eyes named Doris for a pet.  One of Not Culkin’s traps is a chair that sends thousands of watts coursing through one of the terrorists (which in real life would likely kill a man). Others send startlingly heavy objects hurtling into the heads of the other antagonists, one of the instances being a running lawnmower. You could make a drinking game out of how many times one of the terrorists plummets two or more stories. It’s kind of funny, but really just very dark when you think about it. For their part, the terrorists bring loaded guns and knives to the house with which they clearly intend to do as many horribly violent things to Not Culkin as they can, starting with tying up the neighbor in the garage and leaving the door open so she almost freezes to death.

Ohhh, wook at the adowable widdle psychopath!!

The terrorists themselves are somehow either incredibly stupid and clumsy, or technological geniuses, as they are able to hack into Not Culkin’s family’s phone lines and reroute calls (the reason for doing so actually being really stupid and based on chance), yet when it comes time to break into the house, they’re suddenly idiots. They meticulously and inexplicably track the chip to Not Culkin’s house, but they blindly run around ignoring the very obvious traps. It’s really weird how quickly the characters switch gears, but it’s all for the service of the “hilarious” hijinks.

There are also heaping servings of John Hughes feel-goodness here as well. The cruel older siblings eventually come through for Not Culkin, such as when his sister, played by a very young Scarlett Johansson, verbally bullies an Air Force general into divulging military secrets just by saying, “That’s my little brother you’re talking about.” Not Culkin does adorable things such as call the bad guys knuckleheads, and a cranky old neighbor turns out to actually just be a really sweet woman.

"OK, this gun has three bullets. That's one for each of us so we can get out of this terrible movie."

To be fair, there were a couple things that made me laugh here. As violent as some of the traps are, I did chuckle at some of them, and in a touch that actually legitimately amused me, every law enforcement official in the movie appears to be channeling as many 90s action movie tropes as possible: on the two burglary calls, the police roar up to the house with their guns drawn and kick the doors off their hinges, splinters flying. The Air Force cars are preceded by massive snow plows that tip over a minivan in their militaristic haste to get to the microchip. It seems that a lot of kids’ films have this type of violent law enforcement types, and it’s still amusing here.

It’s a bright spot in a boring, stupid movie. It’s almost not a Christmas movie, making only one or two mentions of the holiday and featuring some Christmas decorations and snow, but there’s nothing here actually about Christmas besides being around the same time as Christmas. It’s just plain bad, like everything else in this feature. And that’s a good thing, kind of. A Christmas Beeracle is drawing to a close, and I have some truly awful ones coming up. I’m not ready. Are you?

"Tom, is that your career up there? I think it's getting away!"

Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: A Christmas Too Many

Plunging into the depths of Netflix’s instant streaming service, I turned my eyes to the customer reviews of Christmas movies. After a couple of minutes, jackpot: a recent B-movie with a large cast of aging actors and an average user rating of two stars out of five. Obviously, this was going to be horrible. I hit the “Play” button and instantly hated myself.

The plot of the movie is this: a famous Hollywood actress (Ruta Lee) invites her quirky family to her California home for Christmas. “Hilarity” ensues.

I actually had a lot of trouble even finding images for this article.

This movie is really awful, more than making up for the merely mediocre Fred Claus. It’s got an extremely peculiar feel of a stage production that was never adapted into a screenplay. Oddball characters pop in and out of a scene, desperately scrabbling for the most stupid lines. It’s less of a collection of coherent characters, and more just a series of personalities, and bad ones at that. There is not a single character in this entire wretched movie that does not fulfill some sort of stereotype. There’s a hunter father that is obsessed with finding and killing some guinea pigs, a misunderstood son, two sides of a family that hate each other, a gay hairdresser, a jock brother, a timid nice-guy boyfriend (who constantly gets hurt) and his spoiled girlfriend–it goes on and on, and the more time I had to spend with these people, the more I hated them. The only character that was remotely funny, a chef with a strong Bostonian accent, was ruined by a running and depressingly obvious joke about him possibly being in the mafia due to his accent.

The mafia joke, as awful as it is, is one of the better jokes in the movie. The rest of them are simply horrible. A character is cutting carrots, and cuts off his finger but doesn’t realize he’s done so until another character comments that he didn’t think carrots could bleed. Another character has diarrhea and rattles off almost half a dozen jokes about fecal matter–followed by three or four more jokes about erections, all of them distinguishable and memorable only for how completely unfunny they are. Mickey Rooney’s “grumpy grandpa” shtick takes literally less than five seconds to get irritating. And for Mickey Rooney, that’s really, really sad.

Mickey Rooney, wondering what the hell just happened.

While we are on the subject: Holy star power, Batman! A number of big actors and actresses are in this movie, from Rooney to Ruta Lee to Sam McMurray to Gary Coleman and more. I cannot imagine what compelled them appear in this movie. As a 2007 film, I can only imagine that it is has something to do with each of them making a desperate attempt to stay relevant. It’s actually kind of sad; Rooney was more lively in his two second cameo in The Muppets than any part of this film, and most of the rest of the cast, as good as they can be in anything else, find themselves working for a director who clearly has little skill in telling actors what to do. Of course, as I mentioned, this has a lot to do with the horrendous, smug script.

The icing on this crap cake is some of the worst cinematography this side of a high school drama project. Nearly every character is introduced via a slow tilt or pan from whatever they are doing, up to their face. The movie is filled with poor camera positions that are either too close or to far away. I’m not a director of photography by an stretch of the imagination, but I spent large stretches of the movie thinking about how I could have shot it better.

Overall, it just reeks of a made-for-TV Christmas special. While there have been some good TV films, like that one movie, A Christmas Too Many is not one of them. It’s below even what a broke college student would make by begging for favors. Amateurish, overwrought, and incredibly irritating, A Christmas Too Many is almost unbearable, and a sign that these bad Christmas movies are back with a vengeance.

"Did you put cyanide in this drink? I could really use some right now."

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Review)

David Fincher’s American adaptation of the popular Swedish novels crawls under the skin and stays there–but for those that will be able to stomach it, it is an accomplished piece of filmmaking.

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.

Human nature can be an ugly thing. The dark motives behind the most horrible things people can do to each other are not fun to look at, or think about. The cinematic examination of human nature is something of a forbidden curiosity; it’s not pleasant, but it’s fascinating. Such a taboo is the specialty of David Fincher, who honed his craft of portraying the dark heart with his crime film Seven. Fincher’s films are not fun to watch, but on a psychological level, they are horrifically fascinating. Now, Fincher is bringing his unique unnerving skill to his adaptation of the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of books, with the first installment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The results, as expected, are very upsetting yet brilliantly crafted.

Having been successfully sued for libel by a shady and connected businessman, journalist and researcher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) retreats to save whatever dignity and assets he has left. Not a couple of days pass before Blomkvist is contacted by wealthy business owner Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Vanger intends to hire Blomkvist to do research into the disappearance of his beloved 16-year-old niece, Harriet, who disappeared over 40 years prior and had never been found. The mystery tortures Vanger and he desperately desires closure before he dies. He suspects someone within his own family, which itself is a perfect storm of the most deeply unpleasant people, of the abduction or murder. Blomkvist cannot resist Vanger’s tantalizing offer of double salary and all of the available information on Blomkvist’s original prey, the shady businessman.

As the mystery gets more convoluted, Blomkvist decides to hire an assistant. Setting his sights on a mysterious hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an unstable and severely asocial goth-clad young woman, Blomkvist manages to convince Salander to assist him in his investigation. Lisbeth Salander is extremely cold and all business, resisting any and all attempts at Blomkvist’s friendliness, having been severely sexually abused throughout her life and being made a ward of the state as a result of being labeled as mentally incompetent. Nonetheless, Salander’s fragile yet startlingly brilliant mind proves to be a major asset to Blomkvist. Small details of the event begin to work their way to the surface, and as Lisbeth starts to lower her barriers as she gets closer to Blomkvist, they start to find themselves under attack from whoever they are hunting.

Lisbeth Salander is one of the most well-developed characters of modern literature. Deeply antisocial and scarred yet incredibly sharp and gifted as a researcher, Salander is more interesting than any fictional character I’ve seen grace the page or screen in recent memory. Rooney Mara slips into the skin of Lisbeth with stunning thoroughness, delivering a truly impressive performance. As good as Daniel Craig is, Mara commanded every second of screen time that she appeared in, dominating the scene with a quiet mix of terror and menace. She’s a broken girl, but she tries not to appear so. Mara’s tiny little tweaks to her performance–inability to make eye contact if she’s not in control, shrinking away when Blomkvist gets near her, and eventual warming up to him to accept him as a close friend–really complete her as a character.

It’s not to draw attention away from the rest of the cast, which is extremely impressive. Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, and so many more round out a large cast of power players and such a titanic blend of acting talent to portray a collection of clashing personalities does many favors to the film overall, and the tension from these fractured ties hangs thickly in the air.

That tension is increased a hundredfold by the Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross-composed soundtrack. The pair won an Oscar last year for their soundtrack to The Social Network, and this soundtrack is unmistakably better. It feels more like an actual component of the film, and some of the tracks in the movie’s soundtrack are so relentlessly tense, it causes intense unease and discomfort. The way the music blends seamlessly with the film makes it less of something you listen to, and more something that simply absorbs into the mind, crawling under the skin with the movie’s subject matter. It’s an achievement in film scoring that should not be ignored.

Little of this would be possible without David Fincher behind the camera. As the director of such crime landmarks as Seven and Zodiac, Fincher knows darkness. He drenches his film in a cold blue and grey hue for a relentless sense of dread permeated only occasionally by a hints of macabre humor. This is one of his slicker-looking productions to date; from the opening Bond-esque titles (set to a Trent Reznor and Karen O cover of Led Zepellin’s “Immigrant Song”) to some really great editing and camera movements, Fincher is elevating his dark style to an art form. Some of the ways he handles scenes are by turns enthralling and upsetting, and it’s impossible to look away from Fincher’s confident and brilliant direction.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not a remake, technically. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian referred to Stieg Larsson’s original novel instead, opting for a slightly more meticulous adherence to the source. However, as with any property for which there exists more than one adaptation, comparisons are inevitable. So, the big question weighing on the entire production: is it better than the Swedish movie? No, it’s not. Nor is it worse. It’s different. The script is more coherent and more neatly arranged, and Craig’s Blomkvist seems more confident than the weary character from the Swedish films. With a larger budget comes a nicer-looking film, and this one simply has a more expensive-looking sheen that differs from the grittier foreign version. I refuse to even compare the performances of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth here and Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film. They were both outstanding, and as Mara was not setting out to outdo her counterpart, putting her above or below another performance of the character is unfair. Both actresses perfectly convey the intense darkness and mental torture that this brilliant woman endures, and the violent reaction to the world around her as a result.

As you might be able to guess, this film is not happy. It plunges straight into the darkest depths of the human heart and almost never looks back. It’s unafraid to closely examine how utterly depraved some people can be. As such, I cannot readily recommend the movie to just anyone. The rape scene that occurs a ways into the film is one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen in a mainstream film. It’s graphic, shocking (though not exploitative or pornographic), and it left me numb afterward with my palms sweaty. (Even the actor who plays the rapist, Yorick van Wageningen, has said in interviews that he was so upset after filming the scene that he spent an entire day in his trailer crying). Later on, Lisbeth gets her revenge on her aggressor in a scene which is almost more horrific that what had been done to her. The central theme of this series (originally titled Men Who Hate Women) is violence against females. If there is anything good to be said about these scenes, it is that they are finished by the halfway point. But unless you have a steel will and a remarkably strong stomach, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will unsettle you deeply, from the startling content to the very uneasy tension that permeates the entire film.

As a character study, however, the movie is outstanding. Every little element of the production is, in fact, outstanding. David Fincher has assembled a desperately tense mystery thriller that is at times almost unfairly enthralling. It commands every second of attention, and it does not pull a single punch with content. It’s a dark and unflinching look into the most depraved parts of human nature, a forbidden slice of dark cinema. Many times during The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I wanted to crawl into my own skin and hide from the evil on the screen. It’s not an easy movie to watch, and it’s certainly not fun. But as I said with my favorite revenge thriller, I Saw the Devil, a movie that gets to you so profoundly is a feat of filmmaking unto itself, and there is no denying that Fincher’s vision of the popular novel is a fine piece of craftsmanship, no matter how much you might want to look away. I feel that Stieg Larsson himself would be very proud.

Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: Fred Claus

A spur-of-the-moment decision to pick out a Christmas movie led me to this little Vince Vaughn vehicle, a strange formula indeed: the normally very crude Vaughn and a host of other big name actors such as Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey, in a family oriented Christmas movie. It’s even more surprising that they actually got these actors to even be in the movie. I can’t imagine how they were convinced to do so, since it certainly was not the director David Dobkin, who joined after most of the actors. Either way, as expected, the movie is not good. A winter six pack for wasted talent!

Fred Claus tells the story of Santa’s older brother, disillusioned in childhood by his magical sibling’s constant, exuberant one-upmanship. An adult Fred (Vince Vaughn) is bitter, cynical and estranged from Nick (Paul Giamatti). He makes promises to his girlfriend that he cannot keep and his only friend is a young orphan who visits his house every once in while. When Fred finds himself in jail, he makes a last-resort call to Nick, who will only bail out Fred and provide money to Fred for an investment if Fred comes to visit and help out at the North Pole. Naturally, Fred starts to stir up trouble, getting the elves involved in dance numbers.

"Fred, I really can't express how much I hate this script."

Of greater worry to Nick is the visit of Mr. Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), an efficiency expert with a villainous streak who is looking to shut down the North Pole. As things spiral out of control, and the North Pole draws closer to being closed forever, Fred realizes how awful of a person he is. As always, it is this late-game revelation that allows him to save the day when Santa gets fired and cannot deliver the presents. Then everything is OK, as even Mr. Northcutt becomes nice and everyone is nice to each other and every little problem from throughout the film is handily tied off in the last two minutes of the film.

It’s almost disappointing that Fred Claus actually has some very mildly funny parts, mostly due to a pretty vicious mean streak in the first half (or about as mean as a family film can get). Early on in the film, to pay for his poorly-explained investment, Fred tries to pose as a Salvation Army Santa to get a little extra money. This leads to him getting accosted and then chased through the mall by an army of Santas, because Fred does not have the authorization to collect money. While I love a good dose of dark humor (Bad Santa is one of my favorites), I had wished for a more aggressively horrible movie. This one is bad, but certainly not terrible, due mostly to the cast. While there are some clever digs at the commercialization of Christmas, and the way that Santa’s operation is a corporation-run business, some of the other instances of humor are simply in poor taste.  Maybe hiring the director of Wedding Crashers to do a family film wasn’t such a great idea; Elizabeth Banks in a miniskirt playing a character referred to as “Santa’s Little Helper” was just a little bit creepy. And that kinda funny stuff at the beginning? That was all there was that even brought me close to a smile.

Did I mention Santa Claus literally has an eating disorder? COMEDY

Of course, it does try way too hard, from violent CIA-style security elves, to Willie the head elf being in love with (but not noticed by) a girl and having to be subsequently coached in love by Fred. I’m fairly certain that by this point Vince Vaughn is paid for every zinger he utters, and he must have made a mint from this film, turning up the Vaugn-ness to the upteenth degree. The cartoony sound effects, which I thought would not have gotten any worse after Santa Clause 3, have now graduated to the point of the sound editor downloading an open source package of Looney Tunes sound effects. That is not an exaggeration.

I’ll need to dig deeper for awful Christmas movies, because again, while Fred Claus was stupid and boring, it was far from the travesty that makes this feature such a demented kind of fun. I think there are some truly bad ones on the horizon, however–including some that have a full page of one- and zero-star reviews on Netflix, and a couple that appear on nearly every list of bad Christmas movies that has been compiled. This isn’t over yet, and this phase is undoubtedly just a brief lull in a bitter storm.

Oh, look! He's too big for the elf bed! COMEDY

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Review)

Director Guy Ritchie’s trademark impressive style clashes with a poorly-written, convoluted, and hollow script. 

Score: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material

2009’s Sherlock Holmes brought a jarring and divisive reinterpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective. Removing much of the slavish attention to personal hygiene and proper demeanor, the brief allusions to Holmes being capable in hand-to-hand combat was brought to the forefront, turning the detective into a highly intelligent, unstable action hero. It was a formula that largely worked and the film went on to be a fairly entertaining action flick, provided one could look past the liberal rearranging of the detective’s character traits. Two years later, one of literature’s greatest villains has joined the fight, but the adventure is not nearly as lively this time around.

Anarchy is on the rise in London at the outset of A Game of Shadows, as terrorist attacks via bombing have reached concerning highs. Irene Fisher (Rachel McAdams), the femme fatale from the first film, is intercepted by Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) as she delivers to a man what turns out to be a bomb.  Holmes correctly proclaims Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as the mastermind.  After Irene is killed by Moriarty for her failure, Holmes retreats back into his house redoubling his efforts to find Moriarty. Watson (Jude Law), having recently been estranged from Holmes, visits him in his room to find the man in a state of disarray, living on a diet of tobacco, cacao beans and embalming fluid. Watson is getting married, and wants Holmes to be his best man.

Agreeing to a gentleman’s meeting, Holmes goes to see Moriarty at his office. There, Moriarty invites Holmes to a literal and metaphorical game of chess, and tells Holmes that his strong respect for him is the only reason he has left him alive thus far. Holmes requests that Watson and his wife be left alone in their game, but Moriarty tells him that every battle has collateral. As the story continues, he pair find themselves under almost constant assault from Moriarty’s army of mercenaries as they try to uncover the next bomb sites and figure out what Moriarty’s master plan is with the help of a gypsy (Noomi Rapace).

The biggest offense on display here is the script, which is a mess. The scattershot direction of the screenplay is reflected first and foremost in the treatment of Holmes, which simultaneously tries to increase the emphasis on both his multifaceted interests and intelligence, and continue to paint the detective as completely insane, which only makes him more of a caricature. He even drinks embalming fluid, for some reason.  Most disappointing, however, was Moriarty. Jared Harris does what he can with the script, but he never really feels like the Napoleon of Crime that he is meant to be. One of literature’s finest villains just isn’t given the treatment he deserves, and the tension is weakened further by stupid gags such as Holmes dressing up in drag as an effective disguise for getting onto the train.

The broad attempts at humor only hurt a story in which we are also expected to believe the stakes have been significantly raised, to the point where the story switches tones every few minutes and no one knows what to think. In an attempt to pay homage to the literature, the script also borrows elements from one of the last stories in the series, The Final Problem. However, the script’s liberal use of elements from the other stories makes it feel piecemeal. The jarring tonal changes and liberal borrowing from various sources are like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t all fit together, or are forced together in such a way that it looks unpleasant.

The film does not even really get entertaining until after the halfway point, beginning with Moriarty’s detention and torture of Holmes and leading to a stunningly well-shot slow-motion escape sequence in a forest, which was legitimately jaw-dropping as the camera slows down almost to a complete stop to show bullets and cannon shells ripping through the trees and exploding on the ground. It was a terrific action sequence that handily rivals the vault heist from Fast Five as one of the most memorable action sequences of the year. The climax finally delivers the mental sparring between Holmes and Moriarty that the film had been hinting at for a long while, in a sequence that gives Moriarty his due treatment as a mastermind worthy to go against Holmes. I won’t spoil their final showdown, but it was, for me, the most satisfying part of the movie.

I read a remark where someone referred to this film as Sherlock Holmes 2: Holmes Harder, which is of course a reference to the similarly-titled second Die Hard film, which delivered everything of the first film but on a much grander scale. The second Die Hard was not nearly as well-received as the original, which makes the allusion significantly more resonant than might have been the intention: if anything, the lifeless, stumbling Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows shows that bigger does not necessarily mean better.

Hugo (Review)

A beautiful and deeply touching study of art, love, and imagination, Hugo is a rare treasure.

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking

Movies are special. They take you to different places and times and provide, for a couple of hours, an escape from reality. Such a powerful medium is not always recognized, and it seems that very few directors recognize this power, and take it seriously. Martin Scorsese is one director who does, however. More than almost any director working today, Scorsese has labeled himself as a massive fan of film, and his diverse filmography, that ranges from dramas, to biopics, to documentaries, to thrillers, shows that. Now, Scorsese can add a family film to that list.  Adapting Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese applies his profound love for cinema into a celebration of art, and one of the best films he has yet done.

The titular character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the walls of a Paris station, maintaining the clocks and watching the ongoing lives of the people who spend their time working at the station. Watching these smaller stories fit together is a joy that is shard by Hugo as he will frequently move between the clocks in the station to watch romances develop and friendships flourish. The inhabitants of the station are themselves a part of some giant metaphorical clock. Hugo reminisces about his father (Jude Law), who worked at a museum before his untimely death. One day, his father brings home an automaton, a mechanical man designed to perform complex actions such as walking, with minimal human input, through an intricate clock-style mechanism. When his father is killed in a fire at the museum, Hugo’s uncle (Ray Winstone) takes Hugo to the train station so that he can work as a clock mechanic. Even after the disappearance of his uncle, Hugo continues to work on the clocks in the station, stealing food to feed himself and little cogs and pieces to repair the automaton as his father promised they would do, all the while dodging the meticulous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

One day, Hugo is caught trying to steal from a toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), who in retaliation takes Hugo’s notebook that holds the blueprints for the automaton. In his aggressive attempts to convince the man to return his notebook (which holds some profound significance to the toymaker), Hugo meets the toymaker’s godchild, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who spends her time buried in literature and longs for a true adventure. Jumping at the chance to have one, she agrees to help Hugo. Hugo shows Isabelle the world of cinema for the first time, something she had never been allowed to do.  After they have spent time getting closer, Hugo notices that Isabelle wears a heart-shaped key around her neck–a shape that matches the keyhole on Hugo’s automaton and the very last piece needed for it to operate properly. As they discover the secret of the automaton, they also start to unravel pieces of why Isabelle’s godfather is so depressed and secretive himself.

Chloe Moretz, who has already proven herself as a young actress of remarkable depth and range in films such as Kick-Ass and Let Me In, once again knocks it out of the park with a sweet, innocently curious performance as the adventure-hungry Isabella. Her chemistry with Asa Butterfield is quite good, and they have less of a romance than an affectionate friendship. For his turn, Butterfield brings a great deal of intensity and emotion to the character of Hugo. He’s got a lot to do with his character, and he takes it and runs with it for a really terrific, nuanced performance. As expected, the rest of the seasoned thespians in the film also put on fine performances, from Christopher Lee as a fatherly librarian, Sacha Baron Cohen (delivering a slightly slapstick adversary with hints of light tragedy), and especially Ben Kingsley as a broken man past his prime. Scorsese, as always, proves himself as a director who is enormously capable of getting fantastic performances out of each of his actors.

Hugo marks the second time this year that I must mention the necessity of seeing a film in 3D. I’m usually fairly opposed to the format given that it rarely brings anything significant or worthwhile to the film. Like last month’s Harold & Kumar installment, 3D is used well here, although not to the idiotically goofy degree of that film. Here, Scorsese makes very careful use of the foreground. In scenes that take place inside of the clock, cogs and other clock parts can be seen in in the foreground and corners of the screen, giving a distinct feeling of actually being inside of the clock.  He also uses sparks and smoke to float around in the foreground as well, making for one of the most visually stimulating films of the year.  The “something popping out of the screen” gimmick is rarely used, but when it is, it is done to excellent effect: one of my favorite shots in the entire film involves the Inspector menacing the children, leaning closer and closer to them.  As he does, his face starts to come out of the screen, and the effect is delightful. It’s almost funny that after several other directors and films attempting and failing to use 3D effectively, Scorsese effortlessly trumps all of them with such a fine treatment of the format: so good, in fact, that James Cameron, the pioneer of the new wave of 3D himself, reportedly said that Hugo had the best 3D he had ever seen, better even than his own films. It is a lofty claim, but one that certainly is justifiable.

At its heart, Hugo is a magnificent treat for fans of classic cinema. I originally thought it would be a spoiler, but since it arrives around the halfway point of the film, I don’t have any issue revealing it. Many reviews have already done so and clever viewers will figure it out very quickly, but if you don’t want to know then skip this paragraph: it is revealed that Isabelle’s guardian, known to her as “Papa Georges”, is actually  none other than filmmaker Georges Melies, director of some of the earliest silent films such as “A Trip to the Moon”. In a flashback sequence, the production of this film is recreated in loving detail by Scorsese. Here, Melies is a nearly forgotten entity, and feels that his life is wasted. Again, this is a major plot point but not the kicker of the story: the way everything comes together is how the plot truly shines, as well as the fact that this movie is literally about the love of cinema and the passion that so many people have for it.

It goes beyond that as well. Eagle-eyed lovers of old silent films will notice ample references to older films, one of the most obvious being a heavily foreshadowed (but no less thrilling) reference to the the Harold Lloyd classic Safety Last, in which he hangs from the face of a clock. The Inspector is a shining tribute to classic silent cinema police officer villains, which gives the tremendously talented Sacha Baron Cohen a chance at more physical comedy. Even more impressive is how well these more slapstick moments blend with everything else. Scorsese has weaved sincerity, emotion, comedy, and childlike wonder together so expertly it makes other similar films appear downright primitive by comparison.

Though it is being touted as a PG-rated family film, it’s not necessarily something kids would love. Emotionally and thematically heavy, many of the elements, including the back half of the film, will probably be lost on the average child unless they’ve been schooled from a very early age on the dawn of cinema. Even so, the comic relief sprinkled through the film, the terrific visual style, and the beautiful, lively music should hold their attention while the adults get sucked into the history lesson. It does bog down just a bit in the middle as the movie gets a little more plot heavy, but the rest of the film is so well-constructed it’s barely a detraction.

Hugo is a beautiful love letter to art and childhood, done by one of the greatest directors of our time. Scorsese’s self-professed love for cinema shines prominently throughout the film, in the way he lovingly recreates old movies and painstakingly films the train station, which itself seems like a character. His sure-handed and confident direction has rarely been so clearly noticeable as it is now, and it makes Hugo more than just a simple family film, as the trailers might have you believe. It’s a masterpiece by an artist who has a passion that burns brighter than that of nearly anyone else in the industry.

The Muppets (Review)

The Muppets’ return to film ages with its original fans, pumping nostalgia to its maximum level and delivering everything a fan could want, and so much more. 

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for some mild rude humor

There never was a show quite like The Muppets Show, nor was there a series of films quite like that which the Muppets had. That very special brand of humor, iconic characters, and enthusiastic celebrity cameos and hosts was a formula that won over a legion of fans, until the show ended and production of the movies stopped. Living for years only in the memories of the characters’ aging fans, the Muppets were in need of a revival. One such pair of rabid fans, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (of Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame) had the same idea, and began working on a script, and here we are with a return to form that is just about perfect.

The world of this new film has sadly forgotten about the Muppets for the most part, and all of them have separated and gone on to do other things while the original Muppets theater and theme park have closed down.  Young Walter, who himself is a Muppet (although not by name, his physical status as a puppet is, like the rest of them, something that is never noted or apparently even realized), falls in love with the Muppets as a child and when he and his older brother Gary (Jason Segel) are adults, they travel to Hollywood to visit the Muppets Theater and for Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their anniversary. When they get there, Walter overhears oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) discussing his plans to bulldoze the place and drill for oil. As per the contract the Muppets signed at the beginning of the career, if they can raise $10 million within the next few days, they will be able to reclaim their theater. It’s up to Walter and Gary to get Kermit and the Muppets back together for one last show so they can save their theater from Richman and his gang of Moopets, scumbag Muppet knock-offs (including Foozie the gangster bear and the gender-unspecific Miss Poogy).

One of the defining features of the Muppets anthology of entertainment has been a razor-sharp sense of self-consciousness as a piece of media. As always, the characters seem keenly aware that they exist in a musical film, from recommending that they “travel by map” (which is faster, they say), to one character upset that his story was not part of the reunion montage,  to another character referencing a song he just sang. It’s the best kind of humor for this type of movie, made even better with the way they’re placed in the script, paced at an almost perfect rate. Some of the gags here are just brilliant; I won’t spoil all of them, but I was laughing frequently and loudly throughout the film. Many of them might go straight over the heads of youngsters, however, which might make this better for adults who used to love the Muppets as a child (and I certainly feel that that was the intended audience for the film anyway).

A Muppet film would be nothing without some musical numbers, and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords does the music-writing numbers here. While some of the songs feel like they could have come from that show, nearly all of them are as catchy and wonderful as ever, particularly the opening song and one toward the end of the second act. As always, basically anyone that walks into the frame during the first and last song gets into it, and there’s an infectious energy running through the film as a result of all of the great music.

Chris Cooper as Tex Richman deserves a special mention here. As if having the absolute best name imaginable for an evil oil tycoon was not enough already, Cooper plays his character relentlessly straight, but completely in on the joke: that is to say, while he’ll do things such as physically say, “Maniacal laugh!” instead of actually laughing, his character never partakes in the same sort of self-conscious joking that the rest of the characters do. It’s a careful balancing act that Cooper pulls of with ingenuity, and you can tell he’s having the time of his life doing this role. He does do something rather surprising a way into the film–which I will not spoil–but it is hysterical. The rest of the cast is perfect as well: Segel and Adams crank up the earnestness to delightful levels, and the celebrity cameos, which are numerous, were all great. One of my favorites was Selena Gomez, who claimed that she was only at the show “because my agent told me to”.

Though it is not actually part of the movie, it is absolutely worth noting the Toy Story short that precedes the film. I admit that I was fairly against another Toy Story film given that last year’s fantastic third installment bookended the series so well, but the material here, which involves Buzz getting accidentally left at a fast food restaurant and joining a support group of discarded fast food toys, is so fresh and creative, I’m on board for another. It was also extremely funny. From Beef Stewardess (a flotation device-equipped cow in a flight uniform) to Super Pirate (exactly what is sounds like), the characters and dialogue written for this short had me in stitches. Don’t be late for the movie or you’ll miss a quality prologue.

Just about anything a longtime fan of the Muppets could ever want is in this new film. It hits just the right notes of nostalgia, has most of not all of the legion of characters in varying degrees, is legitimately hysterical, and has doses of humor and emotion in perfect amounts in just the right places. As with this year’s other nostalgia trip, Winnie the Pooh, it is a joyful celebration of childhood and a rekindling of a shining memory. The Muppets is a must-see for anyone that enjoyed the characters so many years ago. It’ll put a smile on your face that lasts for two solid hours and will probably continue for a long time afterward.