After hundreds of releases, this is it: Hollywood's last gasp of 2011. Blockbuster literary adaptations, dueling Spielberg flicks, beautiful black and white, and more! Read on …
Full disclosure: I have not read Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or seen the original Danish film starring Noomi Rapace. Once David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) signed on to direct the American version, I avoided the material on purpose. Jingoistic? Maybe, but Fincher is one of my favorites — an iconoclastic filmmaker with rough edges unsanded by corporate Hollywood, who manages to leave indelible fingerprints on everything he touches — and I wanted to go into his Dragon Tattoo a blank slate. Now that I've seen it, I'm not sure why the director signed up in the first place ...
War Horse showcases director Steven Spielberg's well-known strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, we have his eye for framing shots and building tension. In the other column, War Horse feels dramatically inert, though still a pretty and occasionally thrilling film.
The movie wastes no time setting up the horse as something special. We see him standing upright as soon as he's born. Later, an old farmer (Peter Mullen) overpays for the energetic, untamed beast, sensing something special in him. Upon learning what the horse cost, his wife (Emily Watson) is incensed at his foolishness. For their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), it's love at first sight. He names his new charge Joey and promises to train him to work the field. As you'd expect, Joey and Albert commence a dance of resistance and trust that brings the two together and ends up amazing the boy's family and townfolk.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg's go-to D.P. since 1993's Schindler's List) gives War Horse a classic look that includes an overt nod to Gone With the Wind. His camera is at more of a remove than it was in Saving Private Ryan, where we were amidst flying bullets and explosions. Here, the bullets still fly, but we watch from a distance — the aesthetic rationale is that Spielberg is in storytelling mode and wants to shield his young viewers from the horrors of battle.
War Horse also showcases Spielberg's weakness with narrative. The film's episodic nature makes it feel every bit of its 2-hour-plus running time. Though individual segments have punch, they don't coalesce and give us the feeling we are working toward a dramatic purpose. The point of War Horse may be the survival of its title character through horrible circumstances, but Spielberg doesn't make the artistic connection between the horse's struggles and those of the soldiers. How ironic that a director so skilled at manipulation should lapse into restraint? 3 stars. —Anthony Salveggi
The Artist is an almost perfect masterpiece; an allegory about the artistic struggle and its attendant conflicts of youth vs. age, revolution vs. tradition and love vs. hubris. All must be conquered by George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star who hits his peak just before the talkies take over.
Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius uses shadows, reflections and other camera tricks to take us inside the beleaguered mind of Valentin as his career and identity start to crumble. Dujardin blesses Valentin with charm and pathos — and has great scenes with a nimble Jack Russell terrier and his loyal butler Clifton, played with poignant dignity by Oscar shoo-in James Cromwell. (What is it about kind but stoic butlers in movies?)
Valentin's artistic foil and love interest is a young bon vivant named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), whose star is on the rise. Bejo, Hazanavicius' wife in real life, is both alluring and likable. She has a slightly oversize grin like Carol Burnett that adds humor and sympathetic character to her Latin bravura. Also of note: John Goodman turns in a great performance as a gruff movie mogul, and Penelope Ann Miller is fantastic despite the script's two-dimensional characterization of Valentin's wife, a clichéd throwback to the ol' ball and chain.
At first glance it might seem that the characters are drawn in broad strokes with the affectation of retro caricature, but Hazanavicius uses the format of silent films as an intriguing framework for storytelling and audacious directorial choices. He gives us moments of poetry with amusing and bemusing breaks from reality, showing the viewer how both sound and silence resonate on and off the screen. 4.5 stars. —Julie Garisto
The Adventures of Tintin isn't as interesting as you'd expect, considering it's a product of Hollywood royalty Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. The film spans three of the original comic books by the writer Hergé, which follow a young, one-named reporter (Jamie Bell) on a series of adventures. We meet our hero as he purchases a replica ship from a market vendor, only to be kidnapped by the menacing Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who wants the model because it's hiding a scroll that holds a code that leads to lost treasure. That about sums it up.
The shallowness of Tintin's characters and plot match the simplistic, two-dimensional drawings in Hergé's comics. Beyond the flat characters, Tintin is also hampered by pacing problems (it really drags in the middle).
What the film lacks in characterization and excitement, however, it more than makes up for with amazing 3D and motion capture. This is Polar Express on steroids, and the visuals are nothing short of spectacular. (You may need to remind yourself that this is purely animation.) Also of note is another great motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, who played Kong in King Kong and Gollem in The Lord of the Rings. Glad he finally got to play a human.
Aside from the visuals, there's nothing particularly excellent about Tintin. Not to mention that Spielberg has stripped the comic's political undertones from the movie, taking with it some of the edge found in Hergé's originals. It's Spielberg; I expected more. 2.5 stars. —Daniel Feingold