To Keep the Light


The loneliness of the lighthouse.

The loneliness of the lighthouse.

(2016) Drama (Quiet Rebellion) Erica Fae, Antti Reini, David Patrick Kelly, Jarlath Conroy, Gabe Fazio, Meagen Fay, Wass Stevens. Directed by Erica Fae

Florida Film Festival 2016

The lighthouse exists to warn sailors away from rocky shores. These days, radar, GPS navigation and other aids have largely relegated lighthouses obsolete but back in the late 19th century, they were a necessity; at night, ships wouldn’t be able to see where the sea ended and the coastline began and without these beacons they would wreck.

Being a lighthouse keeper was a prestigious and honorable job, a task to be performed by a man. However, there were approximately 300 women known to have performed the duties of a lighthouse keeper, many known only through the logbook entries they made. Abbie Moore (Fae) is taking care of the lighthouse that was entrusted to her husband who has been confined to his bed by some unnamed malady. One day a sailor washes ashore, a Swede named Johan (Reini).

At first he is more of a nuisance than anything else. There are no reports of any wrecks, although he claims that his ship went down. Brackett (Kelly), a local official, asks if ne’er do well named Eaton (Fazio) can help out around the lighthouse but Abbie is adamant that she needs no help. Her husband will recover shortly and she is handling the duties capably on her own. It doesn’t take long however for secrets to unravel not only Abbie’s tenuous hold on her position, but also Johan’s story as well. With a pair of inspectors (Conroy, Stevens) soon to come out to make sure that the lighthouse is in tip top condition and that the logs have been adequately kept, Abbie must find the strength to not only keep the house, the light and her husband’s health but to head off challenges from the drunken Eaton.

Fae puts on a clinic of camera composition. Every shot here is literally a work of art; this movie is like strolling through a museum where one great painting after another hangs on the wall. The lighting is also amazing; Fae utilized the light of the lighthouse itself in brilliant fashion, making a changing palate of light and shadows during one sensual scene in the film. While this is her first feature film (she’s also done short films) she is primarily known for her stage plays. With work like this, I sincerely hope Ms. Fae continues her work in the cinematic arts.

Fae has tended to write about women who, as the press notes put it, have been written out of the pages of history. While Abbie is not based on a specific lighthouse keeper, she is a composite character whose personality was created from the diaries, journals and letters of actual women lighthouse keepers of the period. Abbie’s strength and work ethic are admirable but Fae gives the character an inner core that is stronger than steel and grabs the viewer’s attention and admiration. She may be one of the most memorable female characters you’ll see in any movie this year and you certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon after the credits roll.

The movie does amble along at a fairly deliberate pace which might not be suitable for a 21st century ADHD audience but the pacing serves the atmosphere nicely. The time and place – 1876 Maine – is nicely recreated here, although I can’t really testify to its authenticity much, taking place more than 80 years before I was born. The ending isn’t clever or cute, but its sensible and welcome, putting a grace note on a movie that has plenty of them. If there is one movie you see at the 2016 Florida Film Festival, this one is the one I’d recommend in a year that the offerings are particularly strong. It also has a feminist tone which seems to be a theme at the FFF this year, which I also find pleasing. For those who think women aren’t suited temperamentally for the director’s chair (and hopefully none of those read this blog) I would point them in the direction in this film, which is an early candidate for my top films of 2016.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and composition. Strong character performance by Fae. Wonderful use of color and light.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and a gruesome image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Erica Fae’s birth name is Erica Stuart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score found. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Piano
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Other Kids

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The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)


"Ursula? Where?"

“Ursula? Where?”

(2016) Fantasy-Comedy (Sony International) Chao Deng, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang, Pierre Bourdaud, Ivan Kotik, Tsui Hark, Kris Wu, Kai Man Tin, Ke Bai, Yang Neng, Bo Xiaolong, Mei’e Zhang, Lianshun Kong, Zhang Wen. Directed by Stephen Chow

As we continue to wreak havoc on our environment, it only stands to reason that eventually our environment will wreak back. One can only take so much crap before fighting back.

Self-made entrepreneur Liu Xuan (Deng) has purchased the land surrounding the Green Gulf to create his own sanctuary there. However, that darn marine life insists on staying so Liu gets his top scientist (Kotik) to create a device that will send the local marine life fleeing for its life – a kind of a super-sonar that causes fish to explode, their faces to become badly burned and all sorts of other nasty consequences.

There is a colony of mer-folk who live in the Gulf who are none too happy about this turn of events. After legal means of preventing Liu’s deprivations fails spectacularly, their leader – a mer-octopus named Eight (Luo) who also happens to be something of a pop star – decides to kill Liu to save his family. He enlists comely Shan (Lin) to seduce Liu, a notorious lady’s man, and lure him to the mermaid lair in a wrecked ship on the shore of the gulf where the angry octopus will seal the deal.

At first things go badly; the mermaids and mermen have absolutely no concept of human beauty, so Shen comes off looking more deranged than desirable. However, when approached by predatory Ruolan (Zhang), a partner in the Green Gulf project who wants to seal the deal with a physical liaison with Liu, who decides to use Shen as leverage. However, despite the deadly plot, he doesn’t count on falling in love with Shen. Nor does she count on falling in love with him.

So things are now FUBAR in both camps and of course, this being a Stephen Chow movie, the fur is going to fly – or in this case, the scales – and there’s going to be plenty of sushi and human carnage before it’s all over.

This is the highest grossing film in Chinese history, although it was only released a few months ago and was competing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens so it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment assuming its legitimate (there has been some controversy over China’s fast and loose box office numbers). The movie pushes a little bit the boundaries of what is acceptable in Chinese culture, being a little critical of the role that business plays in the despoiling of our planet, something that is seldom talked about openly in China.

Chow, who lately hasn’t been appearing in his own films the way he used to a decade ago, has a very broad style which syncs well with the Chinese sense of humor. Think silent movies; a lot of the humor comes from exaggerated facial expressions and from almost slapstick situations. Some Westerners tend to find this humor unpalatable and do be warned that while there are many genuinely hysterical scenes in the film, not all of them are going to appeal to our cultural humor.

The CGI is a little on the cheesy side as bodies go flying through the air. Be warned that this isn’t up to the standards most Hollywood films adhere to in terms of effects, but nonetheless the movie is still good looking and above all, fun. I was tickled by the irreverence and the broad strokes – there’s a teppanyaki scene that is one of the funniest single scenes I’ve seen in any movie anywhere this year.

This won’t be for everyone and even fans of Asian cinema in general might raise an eyebrow or two at some of the madness that transpires here, but I must have been in the right frame of mind for this because I enjoyed it immensely. Go in and just let the silliness wash over you like a velvet wave. It’s not meant to have too much brain power applied to it, even though there are some serious undertones to the movie’s message, which came to me mostly after the final credits and to be honest never really disturbed me during the course of the movie’s silliness. And what better way to get a point across than through a sneak attack?

REASONS TO GO: Fun is the rule of the day. Some really hilarious moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Moments of cheesiness. Some of the humor may be a little too broad for Western tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and over-the-top gore, although not terribly realistic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interiors were shot in a former glass factory in Shenzen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bunny the Killer Thing

The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer

The Perfect Storm


Cowabunga!

Cowabunga!

(2000) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, Michael Ironside, William Fichtner, John Hawkes, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Bob Gunton, Karen Allen, Allen Payne, Cherry Jones, Rusty Schwimmer, Janet Wright, Christopher McDonald, Dash Mihok, Josh Hopkins, Todd Kimsey, Chris Palermo, Wiley Pickett, Hayden Tank, Merle Kennedy, Jennifer Sommerfield. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

There is a certain romance that we landlubbers assign to the life of a fisherman. It is not an easy life, one of hard labor, patience and more often than not, frustration. Men leave their families and the comforts of home for days and weeks at a time, hoping to make a big catch that will keep them and their families heads above water when storm season makes deep sea fishing too dangerous.

The romance comes from the uncertainty of the ocean. She may be calm and give freely of her riches on one trip; the next she may give nothing but death. For the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, it’s the life they’ve known and loved since 1623. In that time, more than 10,000 men and women of Gloucester have lost their lives in the great, unmarked grave of the North Atlantic.

The skipper of the F.V. Andrea Gail, Billy Tyne (Clooney) knows the ocean and her fickle nature. One of the most respected captains in the Gloucester fishing fleet, he is in the middle of a horrible run of luck that has begun to get his crew doubting his abilities. Bob Brown (Ironside), the boat’s owner, is a bottom-line kind of guy who is thinking of replacing Tyne if he can’t get the boat to pay. Under this kind of pressure, Tyne decides to take the Andrea Gail for one last run on the Grand Banks even though it is October, and the Banks are no joke in October.

His crew, including the young, starry-eyed-in-love Bobby Shatford (Wahlberg) and the teddy bear-ish divorcee Murph (Reilly) know the risks, but are willing to follow the captain if it will mean a fat paycheck. However, as the voyage continues and the scarcity of a catch has begun to weigh heavily on their minds, Tyne decides to push for the Flemish Cap, east of the Banks and on the edge of the Andrea Gail’s range. There, they finally begin to have the kind of trip they’ve been dreaming of.

What they don’t know is that three weather fronts — a cold front from Canada, an embryonic Atlantic storm just waiting for enough energy to turn it into a monster, and Hurricane Grace, a category five storm moving north from Bermuda — are about to collide and turn the North Atlantic into a buzzsaw. And, because their radio antenna was destroyed (one of a series of mishaps that have plagued the trip), they don’t know they are headed straight into the maw of the mother of all storms.

Of course, this is the kind of script that even Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t dream up without a little help. The events of The Perfect Storm actually happened, with waves verified at over 100 feet (think of a wall of water the size of a seven-story building coming your way and you’ll get the idea).

Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One) captures the harshness of a fisherman’s life, as well as the courage that all fishermen must possess to brave the sometimes deadly seas. He also captures the agony of those who love them and must wait for their safe return. The people here are not wealthy or famous; they are ordinary, blue-collar folks who work hard to make ends meet (barely). They are heroic in the ways that we are heroic, struggling to make something better for our families.

The cast, which includes a nearly-skeletal Mastrantonio (how did she get so gaunt?), a too-rarely-seen Allen, Gunton and the lustrous Lane (one of my very favorite leading ladies), all give solid performances as people whose lives are changed forever because of the storm. The effects by Industrial Light and Magic are terrifying to watch as the sea’s fury grows and multiplies.

The real star of the movie is the Atlantic herself. Changeable in mood, eternal in her allure, she beckons the folk of Gloucester with a saucy wink and gentle, caressing whispers of wealth and wonder. And, like a woman, for all her beauty and charm, sooner or later she shows her volatile side. Still, I believe that not one of the 10,000 souls who went to their rest at the bottom of the sea would have traded their lives, even knowing their end, for any other. Perhaps that is the greatest mystery of all.

Da Queen lost count of her hankies for this one, so you can draw your own conclusions. The movie drags a bit during the fishing portion of the movie (think of “The Deadliest Catch” and you’ll get the drift) while the storm develops, but once it gets rolling, the tension doesn’t let up a bit. The Perfect Storm falls just short of being the perfect movie, but only JUST short.

WHY RENT THIS: Awe-inspiring effects. Gripping story. Terrific performances by Clooney and Wahlberg but in support by Lane, Reilly, Fichtner and Hawkes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re terrified of storms this will put you into the nut house for sure.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of salty language (they’re sailors after all) and some disturbing scenes of peril.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD and Blu-Ray have an HBO special on the making of the film as well as interviews with actual survivors of the storm, and a very moving photo montage. as well as a brief featurette on Horner’s scoring on the film.  There are also collectors editions and signature editions which include lobby cards and other non-disc extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $328.7M on a $140M production budget; the movie was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day After Tomorrow

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Mama

The Tempest (2010)


The Tempest

Helen Mirren is one hot Prospera.

(2010) Fantasy (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, David Strathairn, Djimon Honsou, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Jude Akuwudike, David Scott Klein, Bryan Webster, Kevin Cannon. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

William Shakespeare was a man who understood human nature perhaps better than any writer in history; certainly he understood his own and it isn’t far-fetched to theorize that when he wrote his play, The Tempest, he was fully aware that it would be his last and accordingly, gave himself leave to discourse on our own mortality which he did in a way that was beautiful and neither grim nor morbid. Visually acute director Julie Taymor has stated that it is the most visually beautiful of Shakespeare’s plays and she would certainly know – she has already directed a filmed version of Titus Andronicus (as Titus with Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

Prospera (Mirren), once the Grand Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to a barren Mediterranean island along with Miranda (Jones), her daughter. The machinations of her wicked brother Antonio (Cooper) are what landed her there; he longed for her political power and wealth. However while on the island Prospera has amassed power of a different sort – magical and so when King Alonso of Naples (Strathairn) – complicit in Antonio’s usurping of her position and subsequent placing in a raft to die – returns from the wedding of his daughter with Antonio along, she uses the opportunity to summon a great storm that wrecks their ship. The passengers of the vessel are washed onto the rocky shores of the island, separated by the magicks of Prospera and her fairy servant Ariel (Whishaw), whom she previously had rescued from a tree where he’d been imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax who died long before Prospera’s arrival.

King Alonso, along with Antonio and Antonio’s co-conspirator Sebastian (Cumming) and Prospera’s former advisor (and Alonso’s current one) Gonzalo (Conti) find themselves beset by evil visions brought upon them by Ariel at Prospera’s command; drunkards Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) have discovered the island’s sole other inhabitant, the horribly deformed Caliban (Honsou) who had been enslaved by Prospera after he attempted to rape Miranda years earlier; the three plot Prospera’s downfall and assassination while partaking of much liquid courage.

Finally there is Ferdinand (Carney), Alonso’s son who has fallen for Miranda and vice versa, a union Prospera is not opposed to. The three groups will make their way to Prospera’s home and laboratory where Prospera will be faced with an awful choice upon which the fate of most of the castaways hangs upon.

Taymor is one of the most visually innovative directors working today; her images in Across the Universe are nothing short of spectacular. She works her magic here as well, showing Prospera dissolving into a flock of crows, or Ariel morphing into a variety of forms, or Prospera’s Escher-esque home. The visuals are often beautiful and dazzling, sometimes changing the night sky into alchemic equations that spin around the actors like locusts.

The cast is impressive but none more so than Mirren. An Oscar winner and along with Meryl Streep perhaps the most respected film actress of the 21st century to date, Mirren infuses Prospera with wistfulness, rage, motherly concern ad political savvy. The casting of a woman in the role completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between Prospera/Prospero and Miranda from father/daughter to mother/daughter and as we all know, those relationships are a different kettle of fish entirely. Whishaw plays the ethereal Ariel as androgynous and otherworldly; it is a scene-stealing performance that often ends up as the visual center for Taymor’s imagination.

Strathairn and Cooper are magnificent actors, both Oscar-nominated and in Cooper’s case, an Oscar winner. Strathairn has done Shakespeare before onscreen (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and both capture the essence of their characters nicely. Brand shows little affinity for Shakespeare, reciting his lines as if he is performing a stand-up routine. Honsou as well carries Caliban’s rage and torment to fruition, although he occasionally goes over the top.

“Over the top” often describes the visuals that Taymor inserts into the film. Some are wonder-inspiring but after awhile I found myself somewhat inured to them; some of the most beautiful dialogue in history is here in this play – “We are such stuff that dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by sleep” being one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever spoken in any play, ever – and yet these exemplars of language take a back-seat to special effects. Taymor may as well have set the movie on Tatooine and been done with it.

However, the prose of Shakespeare is ultimately what makes this movie worthwhile. That and some of the fine performances using those words. Usually I’m all good with special effects eye candy but here it detracts more than it creates wonder and that is where the film has its greatest failing; Taymor fails to trust Shakespeare to carry the movie on its own merits. If you can’t trust the greatest playwright in history, who can you trust?

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful eye candy. Mirren, Cooper, Whishaw and Strathairn are tremendous actors and show why here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many visuals and not enough substance; after awhile the effects distract from Shakespeare’s beautiful prose.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of nudity, some scary content and images and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Prospero was originally written by Shakespeare to be a man. Taymor encountered Mirren at a party and the conversation turned to Shakespeare; Mirren mentioned that she had previously played Caliban in a stage version of the play and thought she might like to do Prospero as a woman. Taymor, who was thinking along the same lines, told Mirren so and the two essentially cemented Mirren’s participation right then and there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some rehearsal footage (one focusing on Russell Brand alone) as well as a music video of “O Mistress Mine” which runs over the closing credits.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $346,594 on a $20M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:Mongol

The Adventures of Tintin


The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin maps out his next move.

(2011) Family Adventure (Paramount) Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Tony Curran, Gad Elmaleh, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Mays, Kim Stengel, Sebastian Roche, Cary Elwes, Phillip Rhys, Ron Bottitta, Joe Starr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The children of Europe may be more familiar with Tintin than the children of the United States but growing up he was a favorite of mine and my sister’s. Created by Hergé (the nom de plume of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi) in 1929, Tintin became a European sensation and a symbol of Belgian national pride until his run came to an end in 1976. Tintin continues to be hugely popular across the pond and while he did make some impact here in the States, his popularity is essentially centered in Europe.

Tintin (Bell) is a young reporter with a nose for news and an aptitude for trouble. He and his dog Snowy are roaming a local market when a model ship catches Tintin’s eye. When he buys it, a pair of gentlemen attempt to buy it away from him with one giving him a dire warning about danger from people “who don’t play nice.” That proves to be true.

The two buyers turn out to be Sakharine (Craig), a professorial and urbane villain and Barnaby (Starr), an Interpol agent who gets shot on Tintin’s doorstep. Tintin’s detective buddies, Thomson (Pegg) and Thompson (Frost) are on the case but they seem more interested in finding a serial pickpocket (Jones) than anything else.

Shortly thereafter Tintin gets kidnapped by Sakharine’s flunkies Alan (Mays) and Ernie (Crook) and brought aboard a dilapidated freighter where Tintin meets Captain Haddock (Serkis), the nominal master of the vessel whose ship has been stolen by Sakharine who paid off his crew and the crucial piece in the puzzle of the location of a fabulous pirate treasure and a centuries-old grudge.

This movie has been long-gestating with Spielberg, a long time avowed Tintin fan. Spielberg approached Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings movies to see about creating a CGI Snowy; Jackson in turn persuaded Spielberg to go the motion capture route (although ironically Snowy is a CGI creation). Jackson, also a Tintin fan from childhood, remained involved as a producer, a role he will exchange with Spielberg when the sequel is made once Jackson is through filming the two Hobbit movies he’s currently involved with.

Motion capture has had a checkered box office history with such films as The Polar Express, Beowulf and Mars Needs Moms. Tintin is already a box office success after doing tremendous business in Europe where it was released in late October 2011. American box office has been, in its first weekend of release somewhat tepid although it was never expected to be greeted with the same enthusiasm it was elsewhere in the world.

The look and feel is very much of an Indiana Jones film (which kind of brings Spielberg full circle) with a side dish of The Goonies and a heaping helping of Pirates of the Caribbean. Some people dislike motion capture because of the lifeless look of the human characters (whose faces are often masklike and the eyes lacking spark) but that’s not a problem here; the facial expressions are realistic and there are even times that you forget that you’re watching something generated by a computer.

Spielberg took great pains to make sure the characteristic look of the Hergé drawings are retained here, but they are certainly given three dimensions and are fleshed out (the opening credits, reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saul Bass-esque opening credits on Catch Me If You Can, look more truly like the original comics) which has also caused some purists to grouse.

The plot isn’t anything fans of the series will be unfamiliar with. It might be old hat for some, but to me anyway it never gets old to see an intrepid reporter up to his eyeballs in danger, beset by goons and involved in thrilling chases as they seek a fabulous treasure. This is what the old serials were all about and why I love them so much (and I’m not alone in that).

Bell makes an enthusiastic Tintin and does his job adequately; Serkis, however as the bumbling and alcoholic Captain Haddock is absolutely amazing. He is alternately comic relief and pathos, a man who lives with the burdens of his ancestry on his shoulders and finds himself lacking. There is a good deal of subtlety in his performance that is surprising in a film like this.

The point of this movie is entertainment and on that score it delivers big time. Kids are going to love this movie even if their sights are set on movies that have gotten more hype on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Tintin may not have the cache in the kid community that Shrek or Pixar might have but once kids give it a chance, they are going to be delighted. Adults will also find this fun and energetic enough to keep their interest. This isn’t quite as good as, say, Hugo but it makes for a great holiday movie to take your kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Nonstop action and adventure and the motion capture is photorealistic enough to make you forget from time to time that you’re watching computer-generated images.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little long and might be too intimidating for little kids.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action-adventure violence, a fair amount of drunkenness on the part of Haddock and some smoking here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg became a fan of Tintin after a review comparing Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin piqued his interest enough to investigate the artwork. He has had the rights to the series since 1983; this is the first time he has made a movie based on a comic book character and is also the first animated feature he has directed.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this should be seen in the theater if possible and yes, in 3D if you can.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Fog (2005)


The Fog

Driving Miss Daisy, this ain't!

(2005) Supernatural Horror (Columbia) Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, Selma Blair, DeRay Davis, Rade Serbedzjia, Kenneth Welsh, Adrian Hough, Sara Botsford, Matthew Currie Holmes. Directed by Rupert Wainwright

One of the most underrated of John Carpenter’s movies was his follow-up to Halloween, 1980’s The Fog. Although there were cheesy elements to it (heck, that wasn’t uncommon for any horror film of the era), it still was a genuine creepfest and still gives me the chills whenever I watch it even now, a quarter of a century later.

When they announced the remake of it, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. I’ve found most of the horror movie remakes of classic ’70s and ’80s scare flicks to be uneven at best – few have really done little more than to update the stories for a more modern audience. I didn’t hold out hope for much better from this.

Antonio Island is celebrating the centennial of their founding, but there is a terrible secret harbored by the remote Northern California seaport and it is born on the fog. Nick Castle (Welling), a charter fishing boat operator, has to put up with a ne’er do well first mate named Spooner (Davis) and a boat that has seen better days. Still, they manage to make ends meet, but while on a charter their anchor dredges something up from the bottom – artifacts of a bygone age that have been at rest for a hundred years.

Back on shore, Nick is surprised to encounter an old flame, Elizabeth Williams (Grace) walking to town from the pier. She had left suddenly five years ago without really resolving things between them, and he had been hurt by it. He was just now beginning to get involved with the pretty single mom DJ Stevie Wayne (Blair) but now he is torn.

In the meantime, Spooner has taken out Nick’s boat to party with a couple of bikini clad girls and Nick’s cousin Sean (Holmes). But a heavy fogbank is headed their way unbeknownst to them, and moving against the wind. Before you can say “bad things are going to happen,” bad things happen.

Spooner survives the mayhem, but is considered primo suspect number one for the murder of the other three. His story is completely whacko about ghost ships and fog banks, so his friend Nick goes out to find out what’s going on. He and Elizabeth discover a startling truth – that the town was founded on blood money stolen from a colony of lepers who were then burned alive on the ship that they thought was going to take them to a new home. That kind of thing can piss a ghost off.

The effects are much more sophisticated than in the original fog, but then again they don’t use nearly as many effects as you would think they might, director Wainwright wisely allowing the natural setting of the fog-shrouded town to create an atmosphere of creepiness that carries the film. The problem is that the characters are a bit faceless. Welling is a good-looking lead, but he doesn’t really carry the film like you think he might. He does better in his role as Clark Kent in “Smallville,” but here he seems a little bit passionless.

Grace and Blair are both lovely to look at, but Grace is given not a lot of character by the script; she exists mainly to move the plot along. Blair has a bit more to chew on as a character, and takes advantage of it. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more of her in the movies – she was certainly marvelous in Hellboy.

There are a lot of plot holes in the script – for example, they clearly state that they are celebrating the hundred year anniversary of the town’s founding, and they clearly link the founding of the town to the nefarious acts with the lepers, but they also clearly state that those events took place in 1871 and it is even more clear that the movie is set in contemporary times, not in 1971 which would be accurate. Whoops.

Still, despite all that, I liked the movie, I liked the atmosphere that was created, I liked Blair and I really liked the climax of the movie. It’s certainly far from perfect, but it’s a nice evening’s entertainment, particularly if it’s a dark and stormy evening. 

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric to the max. Blair is a particularly good performer and easy on the eyes, as is Grace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weilling is unaccountably bland. Cheese factor a little high for modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a little sensuality and enough bad language to be…bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debra Hill, the co-writer of the original movie and given a producer’s credit here, died shortly before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a nice feature on the special effects which show how good-looking effects can be accomplished on a tight budget.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.2M on an $18M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Country Strong