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February 1, 2012


For those who believe that movies should be fun or action-packed or suspensful, Jason Reitman's Young Adult will disappoint. As she has done before, Charlize Theron takes on a thoroughly unlikeable character. Mavis is an alcoholic writer of young adult novels that are no longer popular among their fickle audience. When her high school boyfriend sends her an inviation to his newborn's christening, she takes offense, but it isn't long before, in her booze addled thinking, she convinces herself to return to the small town she so scorns to win him back from his young wife and new baby. What ensues as a result of her delusional fantasy is a series of humiliations generated by one of the most un-self-examined characters ever put on screen. She thinks in the teen cliches she listens for in public and puts to the page. Theron's naked performance holds nothing back, and in its unrelenting narcissism would be unbearable were it not for the unlikely connection she makes with the small town outcast she should remember from high school, who was disabled back then by a shockingly violent bullying. Patton Oswalt's portrayal of the geeky Matt is humanely complex, as he tries to reach some self-same humanity in Mavis. That that is never going to happen is what sets the movie apart from conventional narrative and gives it its courage.

David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is utterly gratuitous. Take the credit sequence. What's that all about? All those stylized, blackened-steel statue figures dripping in black oily ooze filmed with a camera moving around like a swashbuckling epee. From the first moment we see Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth in Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish adaptation we sense the energy and rage boiling just beneath the surface. By contrast Rooney Mara's Lisbeth is almost mousy, making her outbursts of aggression rather hard to buy into. In Oplev's version, there is nothing to make us doubt that Lisbeth’s sadistic legal guardian lives alone, but in Fincher's, there is a family photograph on his office desk and he wears a wedding ring. That makes the set-up in his apartment bedroom entirely implausible, to my mind. Lisbeth causes Martin Vanger to crash in both films, but Oplev's version implicates Lisbeth in Vanger's death by fire; Fincher's does not, which, for my money, makes his Lisbeth a much less interesting character.

If you want to see Sir Arthur Conon Doyle's great creation, get thee to the BBC's smart, sleek, classy series Sherlock set against the backdrop of contemporary London. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson, it is addictively clever. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is not. In fact, the sensation it caused in me was an overwhelming desire to flee the theater. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law make fools of themselves and bring down the rest of the cast with them with the exception of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, and Jared Harris as Moriarty. Still, not worth the price of admission and two+ hours of your life.

Based on Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a love letter to the movies. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a lonely orphan who lives as a squatter in the clock tower of a Parisian train station where his uncle, before abadoning him, worked as the official timekeeper. Hugo carries on his uncle's tasks tending to the gears and pulleys. The central focus of his passion, however, is a lifesize automaton. It is all he has left of his clockmaker father, and he purloins toys from a gruff toy merchant in the train station (magisterially played by Sir Ben Kingsley) to cannibalize parts he needs to bring the automaton back to life. When the toy merchant catches Hugo pinching his wares, he requires the boy to work for him to repay the trespass. Hugo's life becomes entwined with the toy merchant and his goddaughter Isabelle, who is roughly Hugo's age. Along the way Hugo finds the heartshaped key that might breathe life back into the automaton. Spoiler Alert: Eventually Hugo will discover that the bitter toy maker Georges is Georges Méliès! Scorsese employs 3D technology, but uses it with a judicious hand.This is a magical, beautiful, lyrical, melancholy film that never sinks into mawkishness or sentimentality. Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two.

Manohla Dargis, NYT, November 22, 2011:
A magician turned moving-picture pioneer, Georges Méliès (1861-1938) began his new career after seeing one of the first public film projections in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895. Until then, early moving pictures had been commercially exhibited on Kinetoscopes, peephole machines that enabled viewers to watch brief films, one person at a time. The image was tiny — less than two inches wide — and moving pictures didn’t become cinema as we know it until wizards like the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière created machines like the cinématographe, which projected larger-than-life images on screens that people watched as an audience.

While the Lumières dazzled with nonfiction films that they called actualités, Méliès enthralled with fantasies and trick films like "A Trip to the Moon" (1902). In this comic 16-minute science-fiction masterwork, a gaggle of scientists in knee breeches fly in a rocket to the Moon, where they encounter acrobatic creatures with lobster claws amid puffs of smoke and clever cinematic sleights of hand. In the film’s most famous image, the rocket lands splat in the eye of the Man in the Moon, causing him to squeeze out a fat tear. It was perhaps a prophetic image for Méliès, who, after falling out of fashion and into obscurity, ran a toy store in the Montparnasse station in Paris, which is where he was later rediscovered.

Speaking of Steven Spielberg, masochist that I am, I subjected myself to both Steven Spielberg holiday movies. The Adventures of Tintin starts out remarkably true to the wonderful Hergé creation, but instead of using one Tintin story, Spielberg proceeds to mash three together (“The Crab With the Golden Claws” [1941], “The Secret of the Unicorn” [1943] and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” [also 1943]). Tintin is a child journalist who lives with his dog Snowy and is forever finding himself called to distant shores to solve inscrutable mysteries. The gentle charm of Hergé's stories is soon mauled when, no longer able to contain himself, Spielberg lets loose an almost endless animated CGI orgy that left the youngsters in my audience crawling out of their seats and into the aisles to tune Spielberg out and become lost in their own imaginations. Usually critical of restless audiences, I sympathized while trying to stifle one sigh of annoyance after another. Writing in London's The Guardian, literary critic Nicholas Lezard rued "Coming out of the, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape."

Then there was War Horse with John Willliams's score of such emotional manipulation (of which Spielburg is so enamored) that you'd be crying buckets even if you weren't watching a film in which good actors are being directed in such a way as to make a Hallmark Hall of Fame tear jerker look like hard boiled storytelling. The horse is about the only player in the film whom Spielberg is unable to turn into a caricature. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI. If you would like a good, sympathetic review, try A. O. Scott in the New York Times. You ain't gettin' it from me.

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