REVIEW: War Horse

War Horse
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (screenplay), Michael Morpurgo (novel)
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and Niels Arestrup

In his second movie of 2011 (released only a few days after The Adventures of Tintin), Steven Spielberg has made one of the most quietly beautiful films of the year and his career.  War Horse may lack the grand narrative spectacle that follows much of his other work, Tintin included, but its imagery is truly captivating.

From the pensive beginning and ending on the same British farm to the desecrated terrain of World War I battlefields, Spielberg films War Horse with the kind of steady hand that only experience can bring.  Instead of embracing new motion capture animation technology like he did with Tintin, here he meticulously recreates explosive battles without using special effects.  As if that weren’t enough, he has placed a horse at the center of his story, and it does not talk like it might in an animated film.

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REVIEW: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (screenplay), Hergé (comic)
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig and Nick Frost

Steven Spielberg is back in rollicking good form after his three-year break following the unfortunate fourth Indiana Jones escapade with the jaw-dropping animated epic The Adventures of Tintin.  It comes as somewhat of a surprise that Spielberg aims a directorial rebound with motion-capture animation, and yet while you look at the gorgeously rendered surfaces and the extraordinarily lifelike human characters, it appears he has achieved his goal.

Like Martin Scorsese did with Hugo, Spielberg utilizes the latest 3D technology to adapt a family-friendly story of a young boy solving mysteries while at the same time paying homage to the art he loves so much.  Tintin is less a tribute to filmmakers past than it is to this directors’ past adventures, though, which is egotistical but nontheless pays off.

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REVIEW: Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Josh Applebaum & André Nemec (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg

Tom Cruise commits his body completely to a role, often at the expense of character.  Many of his most iconic performances, including this long-running gig as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series, have him performing all the major action hero duties at a break neck pace.

In this latest installment, tacked with “Ghost Protocol” instead of the number 4, Cruise performs the biggest stunts of the series yet.  Brad Bird, director of Pixar films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille as well as lesser known ones like The Iron Giant, makes his live action debut and is tasked with controlling this chaos.

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REVIEW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Steve Zaillian (screenplay), Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer

Everything surrounding this American adaptation of a best-selling Swedish book seemed like a perfect fit.  Who better to chronicle a dark story about a serial killer that involves a clever computer nerd than David Fincher?  It’s a combination of everything he’s done so well as a director, from Zodiac to last year’s The Social Network.

Add in a cast full of talented character actors and a breakthrough star performance from the unknown actress Rooney Mara, and it sounds like a filmmaking and financial grand slam.  Though Fincher weaves his distinct visual pleasures through Steve Zaillian’s condensed/slightly altered version of Stieg Larsson’s bulky narrative, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a long movie filled with many names, twists and bursts of violence.

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REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney (screenplay), Arthur Conan Doyle (novels)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace and Jared Harris

Almost nothing goes right in the second installment of Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes, but it’s at least consistent.  His insistence on style over substance is so heavy-handed that it’s hard to see how exactly Robert Downey Jr. can overact, and yet they both find a way to coexist.

As we hop around Europe at the end of the 19th century, Ritchie throws slow motion action sequences at us as Holmes (Downey Jr.) plans them out in his head, and then repeats roughly the same thing when he actually does them.  This kind of overly-stylized repetition shows just how little creativity was brought to the table for this sequel.  Holmes is allegedly facing his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), yet much of their battle of the wits contains as many explosions as a Michael Bay movie.

In between the frantically edited action sequences is a conspiracy plot to start a war so that Moriarty can sell both sides weapons.  Harris brings some welcome menace to the role, but the script, written by Michele and Kieran Mulroney, has this feeble-looking academic fist-fighting with Robert Downey Jr. by the movie’s end.

The grey-tinted European streets are chock-full of atmosphere for the characters to fight in, at least.  As with the first Holmes, the scenery, costumes and music belong in a much better movie.  Downey Jr. manages to deliver his rapid-fire take on the world’s greatest detective and still look bored, and Jude Law as his assistant/bromantic relationship Watson did far more with his one scene in Hugo.

Hopping around Europe with the happy couple is the gypsy Serza Heron (Noomi Rapace), who is there to find out what Moriarty has done with her brother.  Rapace injected what little life there was in the Swedish film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Here, like in the first Holmes, many of Ritchie’s other films and Hollywood studio releases in general, she is the female character that mostly sits and listens.  She gets a couple of good punches in, which is more than can be said of Watson’s new bride (Kelly Reilly), who does little more than bat her eyelashes and be offended at nudity.

That bare bottom she winces at belongs to Stephen Fry, who plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft.  Fry is the most authentic British presence in the movie, and adds a few welcome sardonic digs.  Had the movie included him for reasons other than to offend the lady, it would have at least been more bearable.

Game of Shadows is Downey Jr.’s show, though, no matter how little he or anyone else wants to actually be here.  He moves from disguise to disguise, building little on the character from the first movie and wearily avoiding the homoerotic tension that Rapace was called in to detract from.

Some of the scenes do connect in spite of the lackluster whole, though.  There’s a slow motion escape from a German prison that would’ve been dead-on had Ritchie stopped frantically toying around with the speed.  In addition to that, a sequence in Paris where Holmes is tricked by Moriarty into thinking a bomb has been planted on a stage production of Don Giovanni when it is actually in a hotel across town also stands out.  As Holmes hides under a stage prop, he finds a King piece from a chess board, and sees Moriarty’s sinister glare looking at him from a private box.

Moriarty is a villain that is described by Holmes as doing evil simply because he is capable of it.  The Dark Knight was a movie with a villain like that, and in 2008 it reached heights in quality that few imagined a big studio could still reach.  In the end, Game of Shadows‘ greatest asset is a new trailer for the next movie in that Batman series.

Grade: D