In 2012's first film round-up, we give you a mixture of the multiplex and the art house: Spielberg! Damon! Fassbender! Oldman! It's a holiday movie season explosion!
Two notes before we hit the reviews. Of course, I saw a movie Saturday night that I missed putting on my top 10 list: Mike Mills' "Beginners." What a lovely film. If Christopher Plummer (pictured) doesn't get an Oscar nod, the Academy should dissolve and just choose nominees from a hat.
Second, I'm pretty sure Michael Fassbender is responsible for the 17 of "Shame's" NC-17 rating. Let me put it this way: Getting the jumbo hot dog before that screening was a terrible idea.
These reviews previously appeared in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)
War Horse (Dir: Steven Spielberg). Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup. Like drinking maple syrup straight from the bottle. A plucky English farmboy (Irvine, in a grating performance) connects with a beautiful, wild stallion, but the relationship abruptly ends when the boy's cash-strapped father (Mullan) sells the gorgeous beast to the British cavalry. And so begins the horse's glorious travels through World War I Europe, where he provides an escape for two ill-fated German brothers, enchants a sickly French girl, and helps warring sides work together. Spielberg has always had a saccharine side—remember his endings to Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan?—but at least those movies had memorable content that somewhat justified the weepy finales. War Horse is a feature-length greeting card from Spielberg on the wonders of a beautiful animal with vaguely human qualities, which should delight the apartment-bound, cat-hoarding spinster demographic. Thanks to characters with the emotional depth of Precious Moments figurines, we're left with no relatable protagonist, only a damned horse running purposelessly toward a conclusion we can't wait to arrive. Previously a novel and a Broadway play. * [PG]
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir: Tomas Alfredson). Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones. Adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel stars Oldman (in heavy make-up) as George Smiley, a veteran British secret intelligence officer who returns from a forced retirement to catch a double agent working for the Soviets. The twists, turns, and details quickly accumulate in this Cold War-era espionage drama. It's entertaining for about an hour until you reach a damning realization: the pot is on the stove, but the water ain't boiling. The film presents each revelation so somberly that you can't get jazzed about the web of lies uncovered by Smiley, who escorts us through the events like a beaten down tour guide, not the ideal personality to carry a film heavy on details. Films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy only succeed if the constant misdirection grabs our attention or if there's a grand payoff that makes the waiting worthwhile. Alfredson's film has neither. It's in permanent anticlimax. ** [R]
We Bought a Zoo (Dir: Cameron Crowe). Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins. Recently widowed and "sick of sympathy," journalist Benjamin Mee (Damon) decides that he and his kids need a fresh start. And they get one, moving onto 18 acres of rolling California real estate that features a broken down zoo that he's required to maintain. This development thrills Mee's seven-year-old daughter (Jones), annoys his moody teenage son (Ford), and shocks his older brother (Church), who advises Mee to stop making life changes "just before you get to zebras." Damon and Johansson, as Mee's no-nonsense zookeeper and inevitable romantic interest, are the reason to watch. Their stripped-down, stirring performances rise above the cutesy material, and maintain our interest amidst the self-help maxims disguised as dialogue, Jones' insistent mugging, and Higgins's tired self-serious nimrod routine. Crowe, who apparently has forgotten everything since making Almost Famous 12 years ago, does everything but include shots of puppies and babies in a non-stop attempt to make us ooh and aaah and remember to call mom. Damon and Johansson help him dodge a bullet. Based on a true story. *** [PG]
Shame (Dir: Steve McQueen). Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale. Stoic, successful New Yorker Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) lives in an upscale, minimalist bubble. Driven by an insatiable appetite for sex, the only people that enter his realm are the women who give him momentary pleasure, a pursuit that keeps him occupied and isolated. When Brandon's younger sister, a needy, wayward singer (Mulligan, excellent as always), whirls into town, a major dilemma arises: How does Brandon respond to a woman who wants him for an emotional connection, not just sex? Critics have properly raved over Fassbender's anguished, gutsy performance, but McQueen's deliberate (the man loves long takes), deliberately unsexy direction provides the ideal stage for Brandon's moral torture. The director doesn't frame New York as some twinkly cosmopolitan wonderland, but as an anonymous, impersonal landscape that can amplify loneliness, the kind of place that warrants Mulligan's haunting, forlorn rendition of "New York, New York." ***1/2 [NC-17]