Director Steven Speilberg has been a busy, busy boy. In a ten day period he has two movies coming out at the same time. Whoa! But he's always been someone to give us a one-two punch. He's the text book example of "one for the studio, one for yourself." We got Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in the same year. Then we got The Lost World and Amistad four years later. And let's not forget the year of War of the Worlds and the incredibly underrated Munich. Now, just in time for Christmas, we have The Adventures of TinTin (his first animated feature film) and War Horse. Although this time it's hard to tell which was for him and which was for the studio.
War Horse is based on a novel, which also inspired an award-winning play. It follows a horse named Joey from his birth to his friendship with his human, Albert, played here by newcomer Jeremy Irvine. Joey gets drafted into World War I by the British Army and Albert has a hard time dealing with the loss of his best friend, so he enlists to try to find him again. However, the film isn't about Albert (thank God), it's about Joey.
Through the war, Joey gets passed through the hands of several people including a little girl in France and a German soldier as well. All the adventures that Joey has flow together perfectly and feels as if you're watching a collection of short stories. The welcomed effect of the script makes the two and a half hours of War Horse go by quickly and never feel bogged down. Although this backfires a bit making you forget Albert and how much he pines away for Joey.
Speilberg has been making films for 37 years and I can say with very little doubt in my mind that War Horse is one of his finest shot films. He used his loyal Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski again, who deserves an Oscar for some of the finest work in his career as well. It's true that he did Saving Private Ryan, but it's not just the war footage in this that gives a movie fan chills. The sweeping countryside, the gorgeous sunsets, the fluidity of the camera moving along with scores fo galloping horses is the stuff that makes the hair on your arms stand up.
War Horse is a near perfect film; and that's the problem with it. It's almost as if Speilberg, in his veteran mind, followed a perfect recipe for a Best Picture film. Is it a period piece with fantastic costumes? Yup. Does it shamelessly tug at your heartstrings? Check. Are there comedic moments in just the right places? Oh yeah. Is there an animal or person with a physical ailment overcoming adversity? You bet. How about a scene depicting war and how it's hell? Absolutely. I could go on and on like this. It's great but almost eye-rolling-ly great. It's fantastically entertaining but it's not art. It reminded me a little of Forrest Gump, which was a great film and so much fun to watch but it was Oscar bait just like War Horse is.
I won't give anything away about the ending of the film but it does have to be said that it's a film that everyone can enjoy. I know some people, my wife included, that considered not seeing War Horse at all due to not being able to take the death of animals well. Fear not! It's a movie almost everyone can enjoy together.
War Horsewill be nominated for Best Picture. That much I know is true. It has to be. Partly because it is one of the best films of the year, but also because it followed all the rules and that is the reward. To a casual film fan it's an easy pill to swallow and a no-brainer to be in most people's favorites of the year. To a more hardened, cynical movie-goer it is pandering, cliche and easy. Me? I fall somewhere in the between. War Horse (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A-
It wasn't that long ago that America took a fantastic Swedish film called Let the Right OneIn and remade it less than two years after it came out. The American version proved to be even a little better than that original mostly because of the direction Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) took it. Here we find ourselves in the exact same position again, only this time it's for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and our new director that thinks he can do it better is David Fincher.
Fincher is one of the best directors out there. He has hit home runs far more often than singles and I don't think he's ever struck out. After being film fanboy candy for years with films like Se7en, Fight Club and The Game, he branched out recently with widely watched and loved films like The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. So if anyone was going to have the arrogance to remake a film that came out less than two years ago, I'm glad it was someone who should be a little full of themselves.
I never read the book nor the two that complete the trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson, but I did watch the original Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows). I was not impressed with it nor was I bored by it. It was a puzzle to me. I couldn't understand why the books were such an international sensation when they came across like a painfully average murder mystery. But that's clearly my hang-up because the books and movies are so popular that Hollywood wanted to dig its talons in and take a bite for itself.
This version stars Daniel Craig (James Bond films, Munich) and Rooney Mara (The Social Network, Nightmare on Elm Street). Craig is investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist who is hired to solve a 40-year-old murder and Mara is his tattooed, cyber punk assistant Lisbeth Salander. Craig is always a decent bet when choosing a film because you get intensity, good looks and quiet heroism. Mara, on the other hand, is brand new at this but so far so great! I don't like to cheer anyone on who's had nothing but a life of riches and lack of hardship (one relative owned the NY Giants, the other the Pittsburgh Steelers, and her dad walked into the family business of owning football players), but she is fantastic in this, although the hard work was already done for her by Rapace.
Mara takes some massive risks by taking this part on. Besides the fact that she's completely naked in several scenes, she also tackles some brutally graphic rape scenes. I understand being hungry to make a name for yourself in Hollywood, but a role like this too early in a career could also break it as well. She's not the only one to take a risk with that role; Fincher did too. Every studio executive and producer that had their slimey mit on this film begged him to use a more well-known actress for the titular character but he insisted on Mara and it looks like he made the right call (She's already nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination looks written in stone.).
The problem with this film, aside from the painfully average story as I mentioned before, is that they remade it for no reason at all. I'm not an anti-remake film fan. I think that a movie like this really could be made better. It's very confusing trying to keep all the Swedish characters and places and companies straight, especially since to my ignorant brain they all sound the same. So giving it a Hollywood spin would lend itself to be easier to follow by setting it in America and giving the characters American names. But that's not what Fincher did. Through foolish integrity, he kept it all true to the book. Fine, but then why the hell remake it at all? Just to avoid reading subtitles? Tisk Tisk, David.
The other mistake the film made was making it entirely too long. At over two and a half hours long, it feels like you've sat there for over three. I also understand that you want to stay true to the book, but some literary choices don't translate well to the big screen. Example in this case is a misplaced climax followed by almost 30 minutes of no-one-cares closure to a subplot; something the Swedish version was smart enough to condense down to less than ten minutes.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is just part one of a trilogy. No I will not read the books because nothing so far as blown my dress up to give me that kind of ambition. And although this film is far from a strike out, it doesn't leave me chomping at the bit for the next installment either. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B
I feel bad for director Guy Ritchie. I know I shouldn't because he's rich, good looking and probably has a splendid life. But besides the fact that the poor bastard had to be married to Madonna all those years, he's also a very talented filmmaker that never, ever gets any critical credit. The most commercial success he's had in his career have been the two Sherlock Holmes movies and both, just like all his other films, have been widely panned by my fellow critics. I don't know where the hatred comes from but it's certainly undeserved (except for maybe his taste in women. Yeesh!)
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows is exactly what you want if you were a fan of the first one. It's slick, fast-paced, exciting, funny as hell, action-packed and charming. Robert Downey Jr. returns as Holmes and ever-by-his-side in the eternal bromance is Dr. Watson, played once again by Jude Law. Both actors have proven time and again how skilled they are at creating charasmatic characters that you champion on, and they do it again here with no problem. Downey essentially is playing his Tony Stark character from Iron Man but with a British accent and Law is playing every character he's ever had in a romantic drama or comedy. It's uncreative, but we love it when they do that, so I can give them a pass.
The addition to this film is from Noomi Rapace, who was the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, performing in English for the first time in her career. Could have fooled me she wasn't speaking it all along. And Jared Harris (AMC's Mad Men, Fox's Fringe) playing the original Super Villain, Professor Moriarty. LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH JARED HARRIS AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS REVIEW Harris is excellent and an inspired choice to play the ying to Holmes' yang. I apprecitae that Ritchie selected a much less famous actor to take on the role. Their relationship is written and treated with the respect it deserves as the ultimate cat and mouse duo. Rapace's character I can't speak so highly of.
Once again, I appreciate Ritchie going out on a limb and choosing an unknown (to American audiences) actress for the role of a gypsy woman named Simza. She aides Holmes and Watson in their mystery this time around, but unlike Rachel McAdams in the last one, Rapace is a wildly pointless character. (McAdams does reprise her role in Game of Shadows but only for about 5 minutes.) Everything Rapace puts into her performance is erased by how unneeded she is in the film. The motives for that character to be in the story stems only from pandering to male audiences that might want some eye candy in the film, which offends me more than it pisses me off.
Another area Game of Shadows failed was in the concept of taking Holmes out of London for a vast part of the story. That might make casual fans of the films pleased but that's like taking Superman out of Metropolis, Batman out of Gotham, or Spiderman out of New York...you just don't do it. London was just as much a character in the Sherlock Holmes stories as Watson was. I can respect that the producers might have feared the film got too bogged down or copycat of the first one if they stayed in 1891 London again, but I say, if you want to make a movie about Sherlock Holmes...that too damn bad.
But once again, Guy Ritchie makes a visual feast for you to look at. He directs with the furocity of Oliver Stone and the humor of some Coen Brothers films. Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels are still some of the best crime movies ever made and I encourage everyone to see them. The Sherlock Holmes films are made for a wider audience than those, but, at times, executed with the same level of aggresive fun. With consistency like this in a film franchise, it makes me eager to see what comes next. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B+
Listen to Gavin's interview with Jared Harris here:
Juno was one of the best films 2007. It was nominated for Oscars, it won writer Diablo Cody one and attracted a broad audience. Director Jason Reitman and Cody teaming up again should recapture that same cinematic magic. I have no doubt that Reitman is a skilled filmmaker. Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air are also fantastic films. However, Cody has Jennifer's Body in her post-Juno catalog and that was so awful I'm still trying to forget the stink. The good news is that Reitman makes Cody's words sparkle, even if they still don't recapture the Juno gold.
Young Adult is an ambitious film about a quasi-famous writer who never grows up, played well by the always-gorgeous Charlize Theron. Due to some sort of bug in her head, she decides to go back to her loathsome hometown and steal back the ex-boyfriend she had shortly after he has a baby with his wife. Sounds like a pretty awful character, doesn't it? That's because it is.
I totally appreciate the challenge of making a movie where the main character is the antagonist. I have to think really, really hard to come up with another film that attempted to do that and even when I do it's up for debate. (Some might consider One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to be one of them.) Theron is absolutely the bad guy in this movie and she enjoys every second of it. Although the doe-eyed ex-boyfriend, played by Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) seems to slip out of her clutches every move she makes, it's uncomfortable and suspenseful to see if he falls victim to her spells. Comedian Patton Oswalt (Big Fan, Ratatouille) might be the shining role of Young Adult as a fat, unhappy, nerd who acts as Theron's good angel throughout the film.
This might venture slightly into the spoiler alert realm, but there's no way else to articulate why I didn't fully enjoy this film. If I'm going to sit and watch a 94 minute film, I want to see the characters change. That's what makes storytelling the centuries-old tradition it is. If I follow several characters along on an adventure and they come out exactly the same on the other end as they were in the beginning, what the hell was the point of hearing the story? I understand that not everyone needs that from their entertainment, but goddamnit, I do! I won't say what happens to her or whether or not Theron seduces her old beau, but I will say that if you're looking for the Hollywood turnaround from an immature character with a heart of stone and a head of delusion, you won't find it in Young Adult. And because of that, I feel like I wasted my time.
The film is well directed. Cody's script is funny, dark, moving and ambitious. The performances are fantastic, including mine for sitting still and not throwing up while watching Oswalt perform a sex scene. (I love you, Patton, but nudity just isn't for you.) Young Adult is the kind of film that some people will truly appreciate for its creativity, relatable small town humor and unlikeable and identifiable villain. However, I left the theater feeling pissed that a character I invested time into lets me down at the end. You may find that beautiful and I won't mock you if you do. Call me old fashioned, but I don't want to watch a dog chase its tail for an hour and a half. Young Adult (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B-