Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ParaNorman: Breaking the Norm

Article first published as ParaNorman: Breaking the Norm on Blogcritics.

ParaNorman: Breaking the Norm

In ParaNorman, the beautiful stop-motion animated film created by LAIKA and Focus Features, a young boy named Norman Babcock possesses an unusual gift. He is able to see and speak with the dead just as easily as he does with the living and, although Norman appreciates his abilities, these powers cause him to be misunderstood by his family and labeled as an outcast in his small New England town. It turns out, however, that the same spiritual gift that the town has persecuted Norman for all these years is also the only thing that can save them from the wrath that they have brought down upon themselves.

This film is an entrancing visual journey, with each detail slightly askew, and every eye-catching character dancing gracefully with its fluid surroundings. However, it is not the stunning visuals that mark the true beauty of this film, but the extent to which the filmmakers have pushed traditional boundaries of children’s movies in order to convey an important message to its audience. This film covers issues of tolerance from all angles showing us not only the ways in which children bully each other, but also the ways that many narrow-minded adults force their agenda on anyone that does not conform to their ideas of normality— including their own children. It also shows the harsh realization of the hateful crimes that people commit against each other and how easily—and justifiably—a victim of these crimes can give up and turn into a bully themselves.

From the start, we witness the heartbreaking way in which Norman survives each day. We see a young boy whose school life is made a hell by his confused classmates who choose to either avoid or assault him, and whose home life is not much better, with a father and sister embarrassed of him and a mother who feels helpless in fixing the situation. The only exception to this is a fellow outcast who befriends Norman and celebrates his gifts, and Norman’s grandmother who loves him unconditionally, (however, being that she is dead, her opinions and advice are not really of much help). Norman leads a melancholy existence but is hopeful that he will one day understand why he has been given such abilities.

Although the element in the story that makes Norman different from others does not mirror the differences that usually cause prejudice in our world, we get a clear picture of what life is like for people who do not fit in with what society’s majority deems normal. In an attempt to either punish them for being different or in order to break them down and change them for “the better”, we witness those in power working hard to deny these people their basic rights, (such as voting, marrying, or simply being able to walk down the street without being accosted). However, this film not only carries a message to those that spew intolerance, but also to the people—and especially the children— who must endure it.

This precious film sends an important message to children that each person has their own unique abilities, talents, and ways of being. It teaches kids to cherish their individuality, not to be ashamed of it or conform to what ignorant people define as normal. Other people might not always understand the paths that we are on, and we may not even understand them ourselves, but we all possess gifts that make each of us more important than we could possibly know. This is what the film tries to get across.

I was pleased to see a children’s movie that encourages kids to follow who they are and which outright addresses many of the issues of the intolerance that prevents them from doing so. However, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to later read just how many of those ideas flew right over the heads of the exact audience members at whom they were being directed.

In a brief spot at the end of the story, it is made known that one of the characters is gay. This was enough to make many adults in the theater laugh and cheer, as it noticeably marked a progressive jump in mainstream children’s animated features, as well as a small triumph in the gay rights movement. Unfortunately, it was also enough to spark a controversy among those who do not want this to happen.

Many right-wing parent groups were appalled by the fact that the filmmakers would not only dare put a homosexual character in a children’s movie, but also have the nerve to actually present such a thing as totally normal to the other characters. These parents advised other families not to let their children see the film, as being made aware of homosexuality at such an early age could either desensitize their kids to the "abnormality of homosexuality", or “worse,” make their children gay.

Some parents said that they did not have a problem with the fact that one of the characters was a homosexual, but simply did not want to have “that talk” with their kids on the way home from the show. I wondered just how oblivious these parents were to the fact that they accurately (and predictably) mirrored the film’s prejudiced mob which ultimately put themselves, their society, and even their own children at risk.

Apparently, to these parents, intolerance should only cover subjects that they feel should be tolerated. And that is exactly the problem. By pretending that there is no other sexual orientation than heterosexuality or worse, to acknowledge that homosexuality exists and then to condemn it, these parents are virtually guaranteeing their children a future of confusion and non-acceptance with the world around them. Whether they meet other people who are gay in the future (which they will) or turn out to be gay, themselves (which, just like heterosexuality, no movie can cause and no type of upbringing can prevent), it will be a source of shock and bewilderment to them. Why would any parent do that to their child?

I brought my five-year-old nephew to see ParaNorman and he thoroughly enjoyed the film. Although he was a bit scared at times (as it was refreshingly spookier than what we usually find in children’s movies nowadays), he joined the gang on the adventure and shared their surprise at each new twist in the story. He was disgusted by the rage of the ignorant mob of adults and sympathized with the innocent victims who bore the mental and physical violence of their wrath.

And yes, he caught the small part about the fact that one of the characters was a homosexual. He thought it was a cute joke—as it was meant to be. He was not confused by the fact that there was a gay character, nor was he shocked by the fact that the other characters did not bat an eyelash at the revelation—and he certainly did not question his own sexuality on the ride home (which many right-wing parent groups have raised concerns about).

To be clear, not all children will be as understanding about this fact— but to be fair, my nephew was not raised to be a bigot. He is fully aware that the world is made up of an amazing variety of people. From the beginning, he was taught that just as there are people who dress differently and listen to different types of music than he does, there are also people of other races, religions, and sexual orientation than his own. We do not have to teach him to be okay with this, because he was never taught not to be okay with it in the first place.

As adults, we look back on our childhood and wonder how we could have been so cruel to others. As societies age, they look back at the generations that came before them and wonder how they could have been so blind—how people could have allowed such injustices to happen to their fellow man, or worse, could have been a part of it, themselves. Though these hate groups never seem to realize it at the time and wholeheartedly believe that what they are doing is for the greater good, you do not have to be psychically gifted to realize that all they are doing is perpetuating fear and hatred in the world and ensuring that it will always remain that way.

As the movie shows, seldom does society learn from their past mistakes and instead commits the same horrific acts over and over under different guises, always leading humanity one step closer to its own destruction. And, although the movie sends a message that it is never too late to change and to accept others, it also issues a warning that there is some damage that can never be undone, no matter how badly you regret it later on. This film asks you to put yourself in the place of those who have been brutally persecuted for innocently leading their lives— and it sincerely hopes for a different and better future for your children.

Although the people who could have benefited most from this message of love and tolerance clearly missed it, with any luck the idea will resonate with those for whom the film was most intended— the children who may still have a chance to love and accept others despite their differences, and most importantly, to love and accept themselves.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Movie Review: Trouble with the Curve

Article first published as Movie Review: Trouble with the Curve on Blogcritics.

Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is a gritty, old school baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves. Although his successful years and draft choices have made him a well respected authority in his field, as younger people and computer stats take over, Gus’s eyesight and reputation are beginning to fail him. Lobel has one last shot when the Braves’ General Manager (Robert Patrick) sends him to assess a young batter as a number one draft pick.

Lobel’s slightly estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), is made aware of Gus’ issues, but as she is slated to make partner in her law firm any day, she is reluctant to step off the fast track— and onto her proud father’s toes. Mickey’s love for the game and for her father win out eventually and she forces her way onto the scouting trip, making a last-ditch effort to save her father’s career and their flailing relationship.

Along the way, the pair picks up Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake)—a former draft pick of Lobel’s and now a fellow scout. Timberlake’s effortless charm serves him well as Mickey’s smooth-talking love interest, but a romantic chemistry never seems to develop between the characters. In contrast, the friendship between Timberlake and both Eastwood and Adams appears genuine, as if we are accidentally dropping in on their actual conversations. Eastwood’s delivery is unusually spot-on, each hard-ass comeback landing with well-timed accuracy. (Whether this is the result of the editing, the directing, or simply Eastwood, himself, it works—his lines deliver). Adams, as always, lends credibility and charisma to her role, but unfortunately, she does not have much more to work with. The characters in this film develop no further than the personalities and struggles initially presented.
Trouble with the Curve is not a sports movie, but a typical estranged parent-child story in which both seek to learn and overcome the reasons why their relationship doesn’t work. The film contains many amusing scenes and its attractive cinematography keeps the audience immersed in an enjoyable trip. However, the inconsistent tone of the film gives the impression of a romantic comedy that, every once in awhile, seeks to be something more.

Because of the relatively light tone throughout most of the film, sudden injections of hauntingly dramatic moments come across as almost comical. Adding to the problem is the serious lack of backstory, making it difficult to understand characters’ past and present motivations. For example, Gus’ memory about an event in Mickey’s childhood not only seems melodramatic when dropped into the overall pleasing tone of the film, but is also too brief and emotionally downplayed to be seen as an important revelation. It sheds light on Gus’ overreaction in a bar scene earlier in the film, but fails to sufficiently explain his deep seated aversion to ever getting close to his daughter.

Although there are some notable ideas (like Lobel feeling the game so deeply that he recognizes the caliber of a hitter simply by the crack of his bat), others seem to be thrown in for no apparent reason, (such as the song that Gus and Mickey randomly sing that should be an important past link, but turns out to serve no real purpose). Plot point resolutions are either absent (like whether or not Gus will ever deal with his serious degenerative eye condition) or are too conveniently wrapped up, showing us no real path in getting there.

The actors make Trouble with the Curve enjoyable and a pleasure to watch, but a talented cast can only raise a generic film so far. The story attempts to show characters that are taking an introspective look at their life choices. However, with its lack of story and character development, Trouble with the Curve delivers only a shallow version of these important journeys.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Genre: Drama
Written by: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Rated: NC-17
Running Time: 1 hr 39 min
Theatrical Release Date: December 2, 2011 (limited)
DVD Release Date: April 17, 2012
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Summary: The cold, industrial backdrop of New York City sets a fitting stage for the story of an emotionally void, thirty-something executive with a compulsive sex addiction. From his calm, focused demeanor to his meticulous personal style, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) appears to lead an extremely controlled existence. Beneath it all, however, his world spins in complete chaos, his every step dictated by his constant need to climax. His solitary, uncomplicated lifestyle allows Brandon the freedom to relentlessly and unapologetically follow his impulses—until his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up for an impromptu visit and turns his world upside down, forcing him to confront the destructive demons that have long dominated his life.

Performances: Fassbender’s gift of physicality is indisputable. The actor shows no awkwardness while engaged in scenes wrought with explicit nudity or sexual displays, but easily demonstrates the slightest humiliation when evidence about his private life is brought to light. More impressive is what Fassbender can do with a simple expression, the look in his eyes perfectly communicating Brandon’s longing for his next sexual release, but never falsely impressing upon audiences any notion of passion, (an aspect clearly absent from Brandon’s encounters).

Although Mullligan perfectly plays any role she takes on, her remarkable portrayal of Brandon’s muddled yet endearing sister was more than one could have expected from even such a well known talent. The actress easily conveys Sissy’s sexual confidence, while at the same time maintaining her emotional vulnerability. So totally encased in her performance was Mulligan that from her very first seconds on screen, the character became essentially unrecognizable as the actress who played her. Exceptional performances from such as gifted actress should be a given by now, yet Mulligan continues to surpass expectation.

Together, the actors constitute a mirror image of caustic sexual psychosis that is at once tragic and moving. In the quietly powerful lounge scene in which Sissy sings “New York, New York”, Mullligan projects an air of numb desperation that lies in stark contrast to the song’s hopeful lyrics. The crushing feelings of regret and defeat that Mulligan lends to this scene could only be improved upon by a performance of equal magnitude— that of Fassbender. His reaction not only conveys sympathy for his sister, but suggests a shared knowledge in her past sorrows. The strength of these performances transforms a long and potentially sterile scene into a deeply emotional success.

Other Considerations: The film’s style of cinematography and use of locations were just as important to its creation as its actors and storyline. The cool color palette echoes the insipid feeling of Brandon’s world, and the sparse, functional design of the apartment and city exteriors reflect the character’s mechanical approach to life and to sex. McQueen’s well-known use of the long take shows Brandon’s emotional trials in real time, allowing audiences the rare opportunity to share in the escalating intensity of a character’s emotions.

The isolated way in which Brandon lives enables him to continually feed his addiction without anyone getting in the way of his next fix nor condemning him for it. With Sissy’s arrival, however, Brandon’s freedom is stifled and his exploits are subject to the light of outside judgment. Especially maddening for the methodical Brandon is that there is no order or agenda to Sissy’s visit, so he has no idea how long this misery will last. Though the siblings share a common past, (the details of which we are not privy to nor need to be), Sissy’s emotional problems lie on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, with an overwhelming need for personal connection allowing the slightest hint of rejection to reduce her to a desperate wreck. This weakness sickens Brandon, as do her attempts to breach every gap in his psychological armor. The closer she tries to get to Brandon, the more awkward the situation becomes, and the harder he struggles to emotionally segregate himself from her. The foundation of Brandon’s hedonistic lifestyle begins to show cracks early on (as revealed by the discovery of pornographic contents on his workplace computer), but Sissy’s presence serves as the strongest catalyst for his unexpectedly volatile introspection. When a last ditch effort at redemption fails (Brandon attempts to connect with a woman that that he is genuinely interested in), Brandon realizes the extent to which countless, empty sexual encounters have damaged his ability to form meaningful relationships, and he plummets into a whirlwind of self destruction.

Despite the selfish, arrogant being we first judge Brandon to be, we soon discover that he is not a bad person. He is never degrading to the women that he is sleeping with, nor is he aggressive toward them— in fact, they have little to do with his problem. As with any addict, his compulsions have less to do with obtaining an end goal and more to do with relentless attempts to feed a habit that will never be satisfied. The sympathy we feel for this character grows the further he falls and by the end, the audience may be even more invested in Brandon’s salvation than he is.

The Final Wrap: Opening scenes introduce Brandon by following Fassbender’s penis around the apartment, serving to accurately establish a character whose life is led solely by the promise of his next orgasm. Nothing else the director showed could have illustrated this more effectively. Yet, because of scenes such as these, some critics reduced the brilliant performance of the movie’s lead actor to a joke about full frontal nudity and this intelligent film to nothing more than a well made porn. The real shame is that, as many people will not be able to see past the film’s graphic nature, they will never access the beautiful heart that beats just below its scandalous surface.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games

Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Drama
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr 22 min
Release Date: March 23, 2012 (Wide)

Synopsis: The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ popular trilogy and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville), is set in a dystopian future in the remains of what was formerly North America. In this nation of Panem, made up of the Capitol and its twelve surrounding districts, a past uprising has led to a meager and monitored existence for district citizens who are forced to live in squalor and provide goods and services to the rich and ruling Capitol. As further retribution for their “past sins”, citizens are also forced to participate in an annual, nationally televised competition where children fight to the death. Two children (one male and one female, between the ages of twelve and eighteen) are chosen from each district in a lottery called the Reaping and are then forced to compete until only one survivor remains. Our heroine, sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), makes a powerful impression on Panem’s citizens and game officials when she volunteers as District 12’s “tribute” in place of her younger sister, whose name had actually been chosen. Katniss, the District 12’s male contestant, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and twenty two other tributes are then brought to the Capitol, where they are polished and paraded in front of oblivious audiences who cheer gleefully for participants as if being chosen for the Games was an exciting honor, rather than a gruesome and likely death sentence. Unlike some of the other tributes, Katniss and Peeta have had no previous training and must mainly rely on their own skills and knowledge to keep them alive, as well as the guidance of the mentor that they are assigned. Enter past victor and present drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose first words of advice to the pair are, “Embrace the prospect of your imminent death”. Fortunately, they are later granted more useful counsel, as well as a talented stylist and confidant named, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who helps the duo to impress potential game “sponsors”. As the twenty four tributes enter the arena, a televised blood bath begins, and Katniss must weigh her desire to preserve her humanity against her need to survive.

Performances: As is the case when all idealized literary characters are brought to life on the big screen, the question of who would fill such well defined roles caused much anxiety within Hunger’s loyal fan base. Coming off an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Winter’s Bone, there was no doubt that Lawrence possessed more than the acting chops required for such a role, but the question still remained: Could this young actress successfully embody the already iconic Katniss Everdeen? As for this fan, I don’t believe that filmmakers could have made a wiser choice. Lawrence is appealing without being overly feminine, successful at blending the confidence of a warrior with the vulnerability of a child, and seems to possess an internal strength that never borders on arrogance or brutality, making her effortless portrayal of Katniss Everdeen spot on perfect.

Hutcherson did well playing the boy-next-door type, and he and Lawrence never exhibited a chemistry beyond that of two people awkwardly displaying their affection for the camerawhich is exactly the way that they were supposed to play it. Haymitch Abernathy is shown in a much more appealing light in the movie than he ever was in the novel, but Harrelson still retained the character’s wise and weary soul. Though not the most convincing actor, Lenny Kravitz exhibited the warmth and sincerity that we hoped to see from Cinna. Finally, two small but memorable parts were that of Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. Banks did a great job of concerning herself immensely with trivial issues, and Tucci’s depiction of the Games' host was perfectly exaggerated, (and even more brilliant upon second viewing).

Other Considerations: Those who have read The Hunger Games should be happy with the way in which the material was handled, as the film faithfully follows the main points of the book and accurately reflects the novel's ambiance. The setting and costume designs of the Capitol were reminiscent of movies such as Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, but culminated in a style distinctly its own and perfectly illustrated the phony, over the top façade of the Capitol.

While it is disturbing to watch, the extreme use of violence was a necessary component of the story and filmmakers did not shy away from its importance. Although the violence was not overly graphic, (which may have hurt or helped the film, depending on how you look at it), the idea behind it (children savagely murdering other children) should be enough for parents to heed the PG-13 rating.

The Hunger Games not only deals with important moral and ethical issues, (government control vs. societal breakdown, self-sacrifice vs. survival, entertainment vs. exploitation, poverty vs. excess), but also delivers up one of the strongest female leads that a film like this has ever seen. Katniss Everdeen is an empowering character for female audiences, possessing a physical and emotional strength that surpasses that of any of her male counterparts. However, audiences of both sexes can appreciate the film, since, as there is no male/female divide in this world, there is also no chauvinism on either side.

The only thing that the film did not successfully capture was the soul of Katniss and her relationship with other important characters. Though filmmakers quickly filled us in on Katniss’ past and personality, there was not enough time to fully explore the character’s psychology, nor set up anything substantial regarding her deeper connections. Because of this, important events did not emotionally weigh on audiences as heavily they should have. For example, while the death of Rue was sad, we really didn’t know her well enough to care about her death on its own terms only in relation to what it might have meant to Katniss, (who likely associated Rue with her own little sister). The moment should have been heartbreaking (as determined by Lawrence’s reaction to it), but to audiences, it simply felt like another bump in the road.

The Final Wrap: With the close of the Harry Potter films back in 2011 and the last of the Twilight movies being released this coming November, this next young adult fantasy franchise was sure to be a box office smash, no matter how well or how poorly the films were constructed. Fortunately, this first installment was not only a well done YA movie it was a well done movie, period. Fans of the books will be thrilled to see their story finally come to life, but newcomers should find the movie just as exhilarating (and addictive) as Hunger’s seasoned followers. For those of you who have not yet seen this film for fear that it is just another Twilight, know that it is not. Unlike the other teen novel-turned-blockbuster sensation, this movie dealt with more profound questions and went much further than simply bringing popular literary characters to life in a substandard film. Filmmakers do have a bit of improving to do, as they are not yet taking the risks that deliver the emotional punches audiences are expecting. However, if their first attempt is any indication of what these filmmakers are capable of, the movies will only get better, putting the odds of the franchise’s continued success ever in their favor.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Genre: Drama
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Screenplay by: Eric Roth
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 9 min.
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2011 limited/ January 20, 2012 wide


This adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s controversial 2005 novel follows 11 year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) as he attempts to solve a mystery that he believes his father has set for him. The socially awkward boy (with possible Asperger’s syndrome) is unable to understand the reasons why he lost his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack one year earlier and needs tangible answers in order to cope. Flashbacks show Thomas as a wonderful father who constantly motivates his son by creating “reconnaissance expeditions” for him, which serve to sharpen the boy’s intelligence and help him to push past the self imposed boundaries that restrict his life. Now, receiving no emotional support from his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock), Oskar feels the lack of a parental bond and desperately searches for a way to stay connected with the only person in the world who he felt really understood him. When he searches through his father’s belongings and discovers a key within an envelope labeled “Black”, Oskar believes it to be part of a last game that his father had set up for him. He begins a journey that takes him through the five boroughs of New York City, looking for everyone in the phonebook with the last name “Black”, and ends up meeting more people than can actually be shown. Among the more significant individuals he encounters on his quest are a divorcing couple played by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who help Oskar despite their own personal issues, and a man known simply to Oskar as “The Renter” (Max von Sydow). This man, who moved in with Oskar’s grandmother a short time after Thomas’ passing, aids in Oskar’s search and, although he cannot speak, seems to communicate with the child better than anyone else. As time goes on, the puzzle seems less and less likely to be solved, but Oskar does not give up. This is due, in part, to his father’s last message of “notstop looking”, but also because of the child’s naïve hope that if he can find the corresponding lock, the mystery that is revealed will somehow give meaning to this senseless tragedy.


Although Horn delivered a decent performance, (especially when considering the fact that he was not a professional actor and was expected to carry almost the entire weight of the film), he came off as more arrogant than eccentric.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock played minor roles, therefore not too much can be said about their performances. However, Max von Sydow’s character was a welcome addition that added warmth and authenticity to the film.


There were many unbelievable and conflicting aspects to the story. For instance, the boy clearly states that he has trouble talking to people, but seems to have no problem going on and on to perfect strangers, regarding everything from useless facts to his own personal drama. (I understand that he could more easily open up to outsiders than to his own mother, but it is still contradictory.) The boy also states that he is easily disturbed by loud noises, fast moving objects, and anything dangerous (such as public transportation and even swings), but constantly puts himself in unnecessarily risky situations, such as standing in the middle of a busy city street as cars go whizzing by. Yes, Oskar is trying to push himself beyond his worst fears in order to keep his father “alive”, but I don’t believe that a person with (possible) Asperger’s can just get over it because someone writes him a note, any more than I believe that a good mother would allow her eleven year old child to run around New York City all alone, especially after just losing her husband to such an unexpected tragedy. These implausible details pull the audience out of the story in order to question the validity of such unlikely events.

Oskar’s voiceovers of endless dialogue seemed to be a lazy way for the storytellers to explain his inner workings and eccentricities. The boy’s long, drawn out explanations may have worked in the book, but they do not translate onto film.

Finally, the story did not need to be based on the 9/11 attacks at all, but would have worked with any tragedy that took the life of Oscar’s father. If you are going to use such well known events, then at least have the story merge with that incident rather than simply tapping into the memories and emotions that people have already assigned to it. The filmmakers may have been trying to connect the family’s personal tragedy with the idea that all people have experienced loss in their lives, (which we understand from all of Oskar’s visits), however, they fail to successfully link all of this to 9/11.

Final Wrap

This formulaic drama may superficially appear to be an Oscar worthy film and will most likely be nominated for one. However, once you move past its captivating external attributes (such as the beautiful music and cinematography), you realize that, although the movie seems to possess the qualifications of an award winning film, the completed work falls incredibly short of the masterpiece that it is being touted as.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Genre: Action/Adventure, Family
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.
Release Date: December 21, 2011

Summary: The Adventures of Tin Tin, based on Hergé’s classic comic series, follows the young reporter as he attempts to reveal the mystery of The Unicorn. Tin Tin’s (Jamie Bell) purchase of a model ship from a local flea market instantly attracts the attention of unwanted admirers wishing to acquire his find. Soon after the ship is stolen from his home, Tin Tin is kidnapped and delivered into an adventure marked by opera, pirates, and buried treasure. His two companions on this journey are his faithful dog, Snowy, and a drunken ship captain, named Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose memory and family history hold the key to the mystery. The villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who also possesses an important ancestral past, always seems to stay one step ahead of Tin Tin and one step closer to the prize. Although he has every opportunity to turn back, Tin Tin is never deterred and continually chooses to see the mystery through to the end.

Performances: Though it seems difficult to discuss performances when the movie’s actors are animated characters, in this type of “Performance Capture” film, actors provide not only the voices for their characters, but the physical actions, as wellessentially performing as they would live.

Some characters seemed much more realistic than others, owing to both the style of animation used to create them, and to the actor behind each character’s performance. Tin Tin possessed a straight-lined, less detailed appearance and, although this was in keeping with his comic book image, it unfortunately prohibited Bell from “animating” the character outside of its cartoonish constraints. In contrast, Captain Haddock seemed to burst from the screen, due to his strikingly detailed animation and to Serkis’ expressive performance, which provided Haddock with an absolutely vibrant soul.

Analysis: Spielberg recently commented that had wanted to tell this story for years, but was waiting for the appropriate technology to be developed in order to film it in the way that he had always imagined. Once you see this movie, you will understand why. What was achieved could not have been done using live actors, nor could it have been properly accomplished with past computer animation.

Other than the fact that the film was obviously geared toward male viewers, (there were no women in the movie, save one), it is difficult to determine the filmmakers’ intended audience. While children seemed to be the aim of the quick and continuous action and physical comedy, many situations (such as murder and the constant intoxication of Haddock) seemed inappropriate for younger audiences.
Uncharacteristic of a Spielberg project, this movie does not delve to deeper emotional levels and instead opts for more superficial revelations to tie the story together. The non-stop action was appropriate and never made the movie feel overstuffed, however, a few less action scenes and a couple of additional scenes allowing for further character exploration could have raised the emotional stakes of the story greatly.

Final Wrap: Truth be told, I had no intentions of seeing this movie. I did not enjoy previous attempts at this style of animation and the story (what little I knew of it from the advertising) failed to interest me. However, a friend finally convinced me to go and I am glad that he did. Within minutes, I was amazed by the animation (a significant improvement to the eerie Polar Express style) and was immediately caught up in the adventure. (Of course, with a director like Spielberg, computer animation by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, and music by John Williams, it is hard not to be.) Aside from the apparent and surprising lack of an emotional core, Spielberg’s first attempt at directing an animated film was a success. This technological marvel was an exciting adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones— it was just not quite as animated.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Genre: Action/Adventure, Mystery, Suspense,
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Kelly Reilly, Rachel McAdams
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs. 8 min.
Release date: December 16, 2011

*Spoiler Alert*

Summary: Ritchie's latest Sherlock Holmes installment begins with a brief reunion between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his love interest, Irene Adler (a cameo by Rachel McAdams), a quick introduction to Holmes’ arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), and the return of Holmes' partner, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law). Watson has come back to London to marry long-time girlfriend, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), and although Holmes has conveniently forgotten about the impending nuptials, he remembers to take every opportunity to protest them. That same night under the guise of Watson’s stag, Holmes attempts to unearth further clues regarding Moriarty’s criminal activities and ends up gaining the group an additional member— Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a gypsy whose family connections are directly related to the conspiracy. Holmes soon comes face to face with Moriarty where his opponent warns him that, despite his request, Watson and his new bride will not be spared from the impending violence. In order to protect the unsuspecting couple, Holmes secretly accompanies them on their honeymoon— then quickly removes Mary from the equation (in a surprising and amusing fashion). This act saves Mary’s life, but more importantly, it gains Holmes what he most desperately desires— another adventure with Watson (sans his new wife). This journey takes them across Europe, uncovering a plot to thrust the continent into a war with Moriarty producing the materials in which to do so.

Performances: With his perfectly timed wit and polished physical style, Downey has truly settled into the role of Sherlock Holmes. Law’s Watson was much more exciting the second time around and the rapport between the two actors operated like a well oiled machine.

Harris’ sedate performance did little to demonstrate the complex relationship between Moriarty and Holmes, but fortunately Downey’s skillful execution clearly illustrated the repressed anger, extreme competitiveness, and respectful admiration both men felt toward one another.

Rapace is a pleasure to watch (and much more exciting than Rachel McAdams’ lackluster delivery of Irene), but the strength of this actress’ abilities ends up being a bit of a problem. The part of Sim was a small role, (the purpose of which seemed only to serve as a witness to Holmes and Watson’s adventures and witty banter), and although Rapace played the part well, one could feel the stifling of energy caused by the attempt to squeeze such a powerful presence into such an insignificant role.

Other Considerations: The movie contains beautiful costumes and set pieces, but you never stay in any one place long enough to appreciate them. The film is also about thirty minutes too long due to Ritchie’s attempts to slow every action down to a near standstill (even those that are not part of Holmes’ intellectual calculations) and to pack every insignificant detail into the plot. When the filmmakers do attempt to slow the movie down with the intention of presenting a sentimental or pivotal moment, they switch gears too abruptly, stunting the audience's building reaction and resulting in anticlimactic finishes.

The final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty was arguably the finest scene in the film and the one that best exemplifies what the rest of the movie ought to have been like. This clever scene demonstrated the way in which these two comparably brilliant individuals could easily predetermine the move that the other would make, thereby rendering any tangible participation in a competition futile.

Final Wrap: This movie was highly entertaining as far as action films go, but it seems to have missed the mark on many occasions. Sequels are understandably required to raise the stakes higher than those of the films that preceded them, however, adding excess action and information solely for the purpose of eliciting a fleeting response from the audience serves only to muddle the story’s more essential components. There were several elements missing from the first Sherlock Holmes, so it should have come as no surprise that its sequel would also be lacking. But going into a movie with low expectations does not make a film's deficiencies any less disappointing— especially when it clearly possesses the potential to be so much more.