Over 80 years after the Belgian artist Herge first conceived him Tintin the plucky journalist-adventurer whose stories have sold over 350 million books worldwide has finally got his own big-budget Hollywood movie. The Adventures of Tintin is already a runaway hit in Europe where it opened in late October (some eight weeks ahead of its U.S. release) and where the character enjoys the bulk of his popularity. But while most Americans have never heard of Tintin they’re undoubtedly familiar with the name of Steven Spielberg who after directing 24 live-action features makes his 3D-animation debut with the rollicking action-adventure.
The film is set in the early-middle 20th century in an unnamed European town. Though his spiked widow’s peak and baby-faced visage peg him at no older than 16 the titular Tintin (Jamie Bell) is already a respected newspaper reporter and something of a neighborhood celebrity. (He also lives alone and owns a handgun -- quite an accomplished young lad indeed.) The chance purchase of a model boat leads him to a mystery involving a treasure-laden ship that was lost at sea over three centuries prior. Together with his trusty dog Snowy and a drunken sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis) he embarks on a globe-trotting adventure that pits him against a nefarious figure named Sakharine (Daniel Craig).
Like the Indiana Jones blockbusters it’s so clearly crafted to evoke The Adventures of Tintin is cutting-edge filmmaking with an old-fashioned ethos. Spielberg’s gift for spectacle hasn’t diminished one iota with his transition to animation. The inexorable march of technology and the constant bar-raising of the 3D-animated genre has schooled us to expect dazzling color and detail and Tintin dutifully delivers on that front but what impressed me most about the film is the cinematography which is nothing short of astounding. Liberated from the physical constraints of the live-action realm Spielberg and his longtime director of photography Janusz Kaminski deliver shot after shot of breathtaking scope and complexity.
Such freedom of imagination has its drawbacks of course. I grew tired of the filmmakers’ fondness for reflected images. They’re found everywhere in the film -- on mirrors windows eyeglasses bottles and anything else translucent or shiny. Moreover story is reduced to a secondary role in service of the film’s elaborate set pieces. And Tintin himself for all his exploits is an unremarkable protagonist his only distinguishing features a determined optimism and a MacGuyer-like ingenuity.
The Adventures of Tintin was made using a “performance-capture” approach of the type pioneered by Robert Zemeckis which might bring alarm to those who recall the infamously dead-eyed characters of Polar Express with disdain. The technology has come quite a long way since those rueful early days. The characters in Spielberg’s film possess a vitality and expressiveness that signal the much-maligned “uncanny valley” could soon be a thing of the past.
Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.
Gillian Anderson is Lily Bart a woman of shaky means for who parties are business and the pursuit of marriage has become a constant vocation. She falls in love with Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) but quickly realizes she can't seriously consider him since he actually works for a living. Still her efforts to marry for money instead of love are so half-hearted that she sabotages her chances with a wealthy prig and continues her flirting gambling cigarette-smoking ways. This in turn puts her out of favor with her rich aunt and a tragic demise waits in the wings. Bribery extortion and character assassination rear their scandalous heads as the wrong men make improper plays for the desirable Lily. Intriguing as it may sound revealing letters that have been tossed into a fire are all that smolders in this film.
Leaving the realm of supernatural phenomenon ("X-Files") for the spookier world of Victorian society Gillian Anderson plays the ever so wronged but resolutely brave Lily. Anderson's self-righteousness and wretched desperation fail to endear her leaving her tragic long-suffering Lily somewhat remote. But it's Stoltz's opaque inert Lawrence who truly irritates. A once-likeable actor he has begun to play all his roles with a tad too much smugness. Sincere but utterly passive the character is annoyingly subdued. Laura Linney is refreshingly vital as the dangerous Bertha. Dan Aykroyd fails to impress as a villain in sheep's clothes and Eleanor Bron is a caricature of a stern sour aunt.
After seeing one too many Merchant Ivory films one might tire of the convention in which a woman of meager means falls for a poor working man while searching for a rich husband. And for those who haven't seen any you just might tire of it midway through Terence Davies' languid dour drama. Davies ("The Neon Bible " "Distant Voices Still Lives") doesn't do for Wharton what Martin Scorsese did in "Age of Innocence " namely bring her words to lively engaging life.
Organized by a powerful pharmaceutical company a scientific expedition is sent into the deep dark jungles of Borneo to search for a rare blood-red orchid which may or may not unlock the secrets of youth and immortality. "Bigger than Viagra!" states one company exec. No kidding. The thing is the flower only blooms every seven years and it would take about 100 orchids to yield just a small amount of juice. Doesn't sound very practical if you're talking about the fountain of youth here. Imagine the demands…but I digress. What the group--which includes an obsessed scientist (Matthew Marsden); his money-hungry business partner (Morris Chestnut); the scientist's beautiful assistant (Kadee Strickland); the company's bitchy representative (Salli Richardson-Whitfield); the tough-as-nails (but very hunky) river boat captain (Johnny Messner); the comic relief (Eugene Byrd); and a couple of others--doesn't know is that these flowers have been pumping up the local fauna namely the anacondas (who are actually only native to the Amazon but hey Borneo works) as they derive their super strength and vitality from the orchids not to mention their appetites. Uh-oh. We've just got to get these crazy kids together.
You know you're in trouble when the only name you recognize on the marquee is Morris Chestnut. Not to say Chestnut best known for supporting roles in films such as Half Past Dead and Two Can Play That Game isn't a capable actor; he's just not really a name. Apparently Anacondas producers wanted to go with unknowns to separate itself from its predecessor. That and the fact most of the original cast bought the farm in the first Anaconda except for Jennifer Lopez who for obvious reasons wouldn't touch this sequel with a ten-foot pole. So. What we are left with are some pretty green actors who do their very best (which isn't saying much) to act horrified and deliver such stellar dialogue as "Everything gets eaten out here. It's a jungle" or "We are young single and in Borneo." Byrd (8 Mile) stands out slightly as the wisecracking techno geek who does some of the better freak-out scenes. But if you really want to know it's the river boat captain's pet organ-grinder monkey who steals the show; you can just feel his tension as he's running away from the slithering predators.
A sequel to a cheesy snake movie that only made money because it had a seriously disturbed cult following? What's next Showgirls 2? Anacondas classic movie monster set up is the only thing its got going for it and director Dwight H. Little (Murder at 1600) utilizes this structure to the best of his abilities showing a lot of snake some swallowing of humans and very little else. And nothing can get better than a giant snake orgy. Oh you heard right. The reason there is a plural on the end of the title (and trust me I'm not giving anything away) is that it's mating season for those frisky anacondas--and all the males have come running to find the delicious female in heat chomping on the flowers and getting huge. This is Borneo after all where apparently snake lovin' is a must. Beyond this bit of salaciousness the plot holes logic and just about anything else in the film are so appalling you actually wish the campy Jon Voight from the original movie would pop up as the mastermind behind the whole operation explaining how he was the one who brought the anacondas from the Amazon to Borneo. Now that would be a twist.