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Wednesday, December 21,2011

Ho, ho, holiday movies

This week, you get Steven Spielberg times two, while Matt Damon buys a zoo and Rooney Mara becomes 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

by James Sanford

The cineplex has already welcomed Sherlock Holmes, Charlize Theron, the Muppets and the Chipmunks. But there is even more to come this week, with the arrival of two Steven Spielberg epics and the eagerly awaited David Fincher remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” What will make your spirits bright?

Opening today

“The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn” — If you are an 11-year-old boy, “The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn” may end up being your favorite movie of the year; if you´re not, you´re likely to be less enchanted, even though director Steven Spielberg´s slam-bang adventure (filmed with the motion-capture process used in “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf”) is certainly not short on action or colorful characters.

The movie is adapted from a series of comic books by Belgian artist Hergé that have been popular in Europe for 70 years. It´s no mystery why they appealed to Spielberg: Young Tin Tin (Jamie Bell) is an adolescent Indiana Jones, springing from one perilous situation to the next while collecting information and eluding the bad guys. He´s accompanied most of the way by his faithful, resourceful terrier Snowy and the boozy, clownish Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is more often a hinderance than a help. A dose of additional comic relief is provided by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thomsen and Thompson, a Laurel and Hardy-style pair of clueless detectives.

Taken for what it is — a lavishly produced Saturday matinee designed for kids — “Tin Tin” is enjoyable enough, but adults may lose patience with its rush-rush pace and one-dimensional characters.   

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — Let’s start with the question everyone wants to ask: How does Rooney Mara compare to Noomi Rapace, the actress who became an international sensation in the trilogy of Swedish thrillers adapted from Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster novels?

Astonishingly, Mara finds some qualities in the brilliant, turbulent and deeply troubled Lisbeth Salander that even Rapace didn’t manage to unearth. Rapace’s Salander was a walking time bomb in black leather, full of fury and feistiness. Mara sees Salander as something closer to a hunted animal, not necessarily looking for confrontation, but possibly ferocious when cornered. Rapace had a vigilante spirit that gave her a scary, unsettling aura; Mara is a bit more circumspect, although no less tenacious: You get the sense she’s the kind of predator who sinks her teeth into her victim and hangs on until her prey collapses from exhaustion.

Director David Fincher doesn’t have as much luck when it comes to reinterpreting Larsson’s clever, complex shocker, which ties together disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, whose Swedish accent seems to fade away before the movie’s halfway point, although his performance otherwise remains thoroughly credible), computer queen Salander, a missing woman, Nazi sympathizers, religious fanaticism and a basement full of unsavory secrets. While Fincher’s film is slicker and more polished than director Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 adaptation — the credit sequence alone is almost worth the price of a ticket — it’s not stunningly different. Aside from the inclusion of extra sex scenes and an all-too-curious cat, most of Fincher’s version is a fairly straightforward retelling of Larsson’s now-familiar tale (although screenwriter Steve Zaillian does deliver one last-minute surprise).

The highlights of the material are retained and effectively enhanced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ volatile, tingly score, which combines ghostly piano, churning electronics and bursts of white noise. Fincher does not gloss over the brutality, which means that Salander’s repeated humiliations at the hands of a perverted “guardian” (Yorick van Wageningen) are horrifyingly vivid and stomach-churning.

Unfortunately, nothing can be done to save the awkward sequence in which the villain thoughtfully explains every detail of his sick scheme to a captured Blomkvist. It’s still like something out of a third-rate TV crime drama, and it looks even sillier in the midst of Fincher’s otherwise stylish and absorbing film.

Those who already know the story can focus on the movie’s mesmerizing contrasts between its stars, the weather-beaten, jagged-looking Craig and the deceptively delicate, almost bird-like Mara, with her wide, anxious eyes and a face that could have been fashioned by Modigliani. They’re a riveting pair.

“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (opening in non-IMAX theaters): Apparently, nobody ever considered offering Tom Cruise the role of James Bond, which is why the star launched the “Mission: Impossible” line. Based on a TV show that was more memorable for its urgent theme song and its tagline (“This message will self-destruct in five seconds”) than its content, the “Mission” movies have always seemed like afterthoughts in Cruise’s career: They are what he makes when he needs a sure-fire international success to reinforce his box office bankability — or when he wants to collect a major-league check for playing with cutting-edge gadgets, driving dreamy cars and strolling through exotic locales.

That’s precisely what he does in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” the fourth and probably best installment in the 15-year-old series. Ever-cool and always up for a physical challenge, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (of the Impossible Mission Force, naturally) maneuvers his way from a Russian prison to Dubai, Mumbai and Seattle while trying to prevent a terrorist known as Cobalt from detonating nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. Assisting Hunt is a dutiful pair of fellow agents, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), as well as Will Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who has more skills than he originally admits to. 

“Ghost” is directed by Brad Bird, who is making his first stab at overseeing a live-action film after a glorious career at Pixar (“Ratatouille,” “The Incredibles”). Bird does an admirable job of coordinating and choreographing the film’s many set-pieces, many of which involve vehicles tumbling through the air or buildings being blown to smithereens.

Even so, it’s the spirited chemistry between Renner, Patton, Pegg and Cruise that gives the movie its zip. Pegg is delightfully funny, Patton radiates a fierce intelligence and the sometimes prickly partnership between Cruise and Renner is compelling.


Opening Friday 

“We Bought a Zoo” — In case you might forget the name of the movie you’re watching, Matt Damon and Maggie Elizabeth Jones kindly remind you once each half-hour: “We bought a zoo!” they routinely declare (even though the property actually looks a bit more like an animal preserve).

This is probably not the kind of branding we expect when animals are part of the picture.

Director Cameron Crowe — who may still be smarting from the debacle of “Elizabethtown” in 2005 — is obviously eager to have a hit, and he may get one, even though this generally sunny, sweet-natured comedy-drama is hardly in a class with his earlier works (“Say Anything,” “Almost Famous”). 

“Zoo” is based on a true story, although writer Aline Brosh McKenna (“Morning Glory,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) has changed the location from the English countryside to Southern California. Considering how the action unfolds in whimsical, only-in-the-movies episodes populated by comfortingly familiar stock characters (the persnickety bureaucrat, the smiley flower-child, etc.), that is probably not the only liberty she’s taken with the facts.

But if “Zoo” is cinematic cotton candy, it’s not indigestible, even when Crowe gets a bit too sticky-sweet for his own good: His soundtrack music, which is often right on the mark in his other films, gets a little overbearing here, and Jones is so achingly winsome she makes Shirley Temple seem like Lisbeth Salander.

Damon (apparently continuing his new career path as the world’s most appealing widower after losing cheating spouse Gwyneth Paltrow in “Contagion”) is first-rate as Benjamin Mee, a former journalist who’s trying to put together a new life for himself and his kids after the death of his wife. Colin Ford brings a convincing brusqueness to Dylan, Benjamin’s brooding teenage son, and his fiery argument with Benjamin is easily the film’s most hard-hitting and poignant moment.

Conversely, there’s a pleasantly mellow tone in Benjamin’s brushes with zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who has to educate her new boss about proper terminology — they’re called “enclosures,” not cages — and the intricacies of attending to animals.

As for Dylan’s furtive flirting with spunky waitress Lily (Elle Fanning), well, those scenes are perfect opportunities for getting popcorn refills or taking bathroom breaks.

Opening Christmas

“War Horse” — If “The Adventures of Tin Tin” represents Steven Spielberg’s lighthearted, fun-loving side, “War Horse,” has been groomed as his entry in this year’s Academy Awards race.

It’s a prime slice of Oscar bait, with its spectacular battlefield scenes and unapologetically sentimental boy-meets-horse story.

But “War Horse” is also a catalogue of Spielberg’s strengths — and flaws — as a filmmaker. It’s a movie that’s much easier to admire than it is to love.

Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is an English farmboy who develops a deep attachment to a colt named Joey, born on a neighbor’s farm. Albert’s sentimental father (Peter Mullan) plunges the family dangerously into debt to buy Joey, then breaks his son’s heart by selling Joey to the cavalry when England goes to war with Germany in 1914. Most of “War Horse” recounts Joey’s adventures as he goes from owner to owner during World War I while Albert joins the Army to continue his search for his beloved friend. 

Spielberg knows how to compose breathtaking sequences, and “War Horse” includes several, as well as some wonderful moments involving Joey’s visit to a fragile French girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens) and a terrific, very funny scene in which an English soldier and his German counterpart have to call a temporary truce in order to save Joey from a perilous situation in the middle of No Man’s Land.

But too often in “War Horse,” the gorgeous images suffocate the emotions. Spielberg spends so much energy on selling the story that he doesn’t do a particularly good job of simply telling it.

Don’t expect the shocking, no holds barred visuals of “Saving Private Ryan”: Spielberg and cinematographer Janus Kaminski have made World War I look like a theme park attraction. Every mud puddle, every piece of flaming debris, every fallen soldier seems to be artfully arranged. 

It’s the same problem that weighed down Spielberg’s screen version of “The Color Purple.” He’s tackling material that’s full of pain and trauma and heartbreak, yet he can’t resist his urge to cook up crowd-pleasing entertainment with manipulative tricks and sumptuous production values. So even the darkest corners of “War Horse” are brightly illuminated and given a glossy coat of paint.

Mary Poppins once told us a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down; Spielberg apparently believes a barrelful of the stuff will make even the toughest tales palatable.

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