The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Director Steven Spielberg and Producer Peter Jackson collaborate for their marvelous adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin.  As a welcome Christmas gift to fans of the classic long-lived European comics as well as the uninitiated, this is the first motion-capture animated film I can fully praise with an abundance of exclamation points.  Spielberg has directed a sprawling action-adventure film for families that springs with life and leaps with wit.

In the 1940s, young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a model collector’s ship, the Unicorn, that immediately thrusts him into danger.  The model contains a riddle and secret code, but what does it mean and where does it lead?  Accompanied by his trustworthy pup, Snowy, Tintin must elude several dangerous characters seeking to steal his rare artifact.  This leads the young adventurer to Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a notorious drunk who may be the key to solving the secret of the Unicorn.

With Tintin, the infamous Steven Spielberg finally returns to light up cinemas following a 3-year absence.  Ironically, this film may have more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark than his last disappointing outing with the famed archeologist. Tintin is full of exciting mystery and grandiose action sequences, brilliant animation, shades of inviting humor, and a gorgeous 3D presentation.  This is easily the best animated film I’ve seen all year, and contains one of the year’s most entertaining action sequences, live-action or animation.

As for the motion-capture technique, Spielberg and Jackson know what they’re doing here.  I’ve found the work done by Robert Zemeckis (who’s recently been obsessed with the technology) over the last seven years to be a total snooze.  The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Christmas Carol never got it quite right despite painstaking efforts to be sure.  Tintin, however, is a visual marvel.  The animation is spot-on, and the performances behind the characters onscreen, chief among them Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, and Andy Serkis, are uniformly excellent.

The film ends with the setup for another adventure, and I hope American audiences seek out The Adventures of Tintin, as it is not a well-known property here.  Forget about needing to know anything.  Walk in blind and let the film dazzle you from beginning to end.

 

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The Lovely Bones

Visual excess abounds for Peter Jackson, whose imagination runs wild with the imagery provided by the text of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel.  Surprisingly, Jackson has less of a human element present in his crack at  ‘The Lovely Bones’ than he did in his spectacularly bloated rendition of ‘King Kong’ four years ago.  With so much lush opportunity to capitalize on an emotional resonance of his earthlings, Jackson instead seems far more eager to establish his flavor for special effects provided by the story’s setting.

Brilliant young actress Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominee for ‘Atonement’) plays Susie Salmon (like the fish), a fourteen year-old suburban middle-schooler, well-behaved, adventurous, with a thrill for photography and a longing for her first kiss with the dreamy English-accented Ray (Reece Ritchie).  Susie narrated the events of the film from beyond the grave, always keeping her audience ahead of the game.  She informs us that she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.  One afternoon on her way home from school, creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) stops her in a field and lures her into an underground ‘playhouse’ he tells her he constructed for the neighborhood children.  Horror follows as Susie never finds her way out, at least not in physical form.  Her spirit goes to the ‘in-between’ where she waits until her murder is solved.  Mark Wahlberg plays her determined father Jack.  Rachel Weisz plays her emotional-wreck mother, Abigail.  And Susan Sarandon plays her hard-drinking, chain-smoking grandmother.

The tagline on the poster stated: “The story of a life and everything that came after.”  While in some ways, that’s true, “The Lovely Bones” seems less interested in the effects of Susie’s death on her family.  I never once felt as though Peter Jackson meant to explore the family’s emotional devastation.  Instead, much of our time is spent through these other-world visualizations with ‘Hitchiker’s Guide to Galaxy’ style imagery that Susie occupies mostly on her own.  Here and there, another younger girl shows up named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who advises Susie to keep moving forward toward Heaven.  Since the audience fully knows of the details concerning the murder of Susie, and her killer’s identity, two hours are spent watching the police and the Salmon family overlook Harvey’s involvement, even though he sits next door.  Frustratingly, Jackson focuses a lot on Susie’s lone explorations, as he cuts and pastes gorgeous desktop wallpapers together to create his lavishly haunting vision of afterlife.  Instead of dealing with the Salmon parents’ emotional devastation, he uses their breakdowns as a backdrop for landmark special effects sequences that play pretty for sure, but they also never allow us access to real people occupying Jackson’s movie.  He spends so much of his efforts creating a surreal visual experience, that his protagonists become one-dimensional and without an inlet for the audience.  Where Jackson could’ve shifted focus and made Jack and Abigail dual lead characters whose relationship slowly faces demise as a result of Jack’s obsession over the murder case, the movie is constantly distracted, where only marginal suspense can be generated.  Since Susie tells us everything we need to know before it occurs, there’s really no surprise left in store.  At the very least, Jackson could have allowed us to get caught up in Jack’s investigation efforts and findings.  Instead, he goes back and forth with sub-characters that only seem to hinder and confuse the storyline, as well as skew the reality of what happens onscreen.

Most of what confuses is a supernatural element that never becomes clear.  There’s a character who seems to have the ability to contact/see the dead walking among the living.  She witnesses Susie’s spirit leaving Earth, and senses her presence later on toward the end of the film.  There are also moments where Susie seems to have access to her father, instances where he tries to reach out and touch her, as Susie watches him in her Purgatory-esque  existence.  She even seems to be able to intervene in terms of her father’s emotion–sort of an E.T. like connection where they can feel each other’s pain.  This idea seems to give way to improper character motivations and realizations.  Eventually Wahlberg’s character suspects Harvey, but for no apparent reason, other than his image in a photograph.  Soon enough, he’s trying to smash in Harvey’s door and declaring him the killer.  Sure, the audience knows he is, but for Jack to have this sudden realization, it really makes little sense.

Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable from his standard supporting affairs in films like ‘Julie & Julia,’ really has all the meat this script has to offer.  Weisz, Wahlberg, and Sarandon literally disappear in this movie and their struggles go overlooked.  Instead, the serial killer of Harvey manages to steal all the thunder.  When Tucci makes his way to the forefront, the movie has an undeniably unsettling quality.  Perhaps that has to do with Jackson’s way of lingering on an up-close shot of Tucci’s mug or him tapping his fingers ever-so eloquently.  Tucci ends up stealing the movie with a haunting performance.  Of course it is easier to steal a movie as a memorable villain, but Tucci never has to compete with anyone onscreen.  His presence dominates any acting on display, whether it be Oscar-nominee Wahlberg, or winners Weisz and Sarandon.  Ronan manages to put on a strong performance, but once she exits Earth, her character loses almost all depth.  That leaves ‘The Lovely Bones’ to rely on Harvey and his potential capture.  Luckily “Bones” has Tucci to the play the character, because he manages to place that weight on your chest early on that the movie never lifts.

Other than impressive special effects sequences and a memorable performance from Stanley Tucci, Director Peter Jackson has a movie that is so obtuse that I don’t even know how to classify it.  If James Cameron is to be chastised for inventing a picture based on his obsessive visual excess, then Jackson should face a similar fate of criticism.  To Cameron’s credit, he never intended on placing his focus on genuine human characters.  Jackson did.  While part of his misfire may have to do with the source material, “The Lovely Bones” nevertheless misses its opportunity to illuminate a family torn apart by murder.  Even though part of me wants to give this a marginal recommendation due to its haunting and unsettling presence, I am slightly forced to move in the other direction.  Jackson has delivered another overlong, bloated movie (that I didn’t love as much as ‘King Kong’) that is a bit anti-climactic and confusing as to what its intentions really are.  I don’t know what to take away from ‘The Lovely Bones.’  There is only little resolve for the family characters, and not much invested in them anyway.  If I was meant to be captivated by Susie’s journey beyond the grave, then I’m left unengaged.  Jackson’s version of Heaven, while a culmination of raw technology efforts, feels desolate and lonely. I can’t say the movie didn’t impact me–it sure startled me, and stirred up emotions, but its protagonists did not, leaving a gaping emptiness all the special effects in the world can’t fill.

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District 9

district9_poster-689x1024I love a movie that doesn’t just serve up passable or forgettable entertainment, but one that gets me giddy about movies–a sort-of recharging of the batteries after suffering through some big disappointments this summer: Transformers 2, Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, The Taking of Pelham 123, G.I. Joe.  The only saving grace for big budget action this summer seemed to be ‘Star Trek,’ a movie I really enjoyed that revived a lacking franchise, and also the latest ‘Harry Potter’ installment which might not exactly qualify as big budget ‘action’. Neill Blomkamp’s ‘District 9’ doesn’t just revive a franchise, or a genre, but it revives a seasonal drought.  I admit to falling under its spell early on with some intriguing high-concept trailers, but for the most part the movie remained under the radar, with most of its marketing stemming from that of the viral sort.  Nothing prepared me for how suspenseful and nail-biting this Peter Jackson produced feature would ultimately be.

I’ll try to remain vague with the plot. The story sets up the concept that an alien spacecraft came to earth twenty years ago on accident, having run out of fuel. The aliens inside were discovered starving, and thus, a camp was set up for them to live in known as District 9, located in Johannesburg, South Africa, mostly separating them from humans. The population of the alien species, known as prawns, grows over two decades to roughly 1.5 million, which brings us to present day where a government outfit attempts to relocate them to a type of concentration camp that will further distance them from humans.  More developments ensue, but I’ll stop there.

‘District 9′ is a flat-out masterpiece in every regard, surpassing even high expectations amongst the isolated hype surrounding it.  The movie is socially conscience with something to say, generating strong and interesting conflict in its approach to the age-old alien invasion film.  The movie also looks incredible, and this is done with a budget of only $30 million, a staggering decrease from Transformers’  and ‘Terminator Salvation’s’ $200 million.  The intensity of the film is uncompromising, and it has some incredible, violent action.  Neill Blomkamp is already quite a talent, and an interesting name to watch for.  His observation of the alien creatures and human reactions to them call upon great controversy that helps give the film an added weight that most films of this subject matter would easily dodge.  The special effects, I can’t stress enough, are just remarkable at their cost.  The aliens looks great, the action looks great.  All the right elements combine to make the best, most ambitious and engrossing movie of the summer.  I can’t recommend it enough.

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