DID YOU READ

“The Adventures of Tintin,” reviewed

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Steven Spielberg loves film. And not just movies, but the actual, physical medium of light projected through celluloid. He’s one of the last directors alive who still edits his work by painstakingly cutting and pasting strips of film instead of manipulating files on a computer. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy to embrace motion-captured animation. After all, there’s no film in “mocap.” There are barely even cameras: just actors in an empty room and computerized sensors that record their movements.

And yet somehow Spielberg, the analog stalwart, has brought out the best in this new filmmaking technology. For years I’ve watched mocap animated movies in a state of puzzlement: not quite live-action, not quite animation, motion capture seemed to offer only the worst of both worlds: characters bound by real-world physics and hampered by weirdly lifeless faces and eyes. It’s worked at times as a tool of live-action filmmakers, but almost always in more fantastical settings (see James Cameron’s “Avatar”). Whenever it’s been called to approximate the real world, the previous results have been dreadful. Maybe the technology’s improved, maybe the caliber of filmmaker using the technology’s improved. Either way, Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” is the movie that really made me understand motion capture’s appeal. Now I see what mocap can do. And what it can do is action.

Spielberg does things with virtual cameras and animated characters inside his computerized world that would be impossible to capture in the real one. Some are elaborate: he builds chase sequences and sword fights and battles at sea on an epic scale. Others are ingeniously simple: with a virtual camera he can follow characters through walls, or under moving cars, or zooming in and around an African town in one continuous take. Anything seems possible in this world and Spielberg takes full advantage of the possibilities.

In a way, “Tintin” is the best “Indiana Jones” sequel he’s ever made. There are treasure hunts and daring escapes and an air of excitement, both from the characters and the director, that’s palpable. One sequence is so spectacular, I literally yelled out “Oh man!” in the movie theater. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was that beautiful and that thrilling. And there are two or three other action set pieces that are just as good.

The plot and the characters are, admittedly, not nearly as memorable, but the movie is so feverishly paced you won’t notice until it’s over. The story comes from the longrunning series of Belgian comic books by the artist Hergé about a crusading adventurer journalist named Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his fearless dog sidekick Snowy (Snowy). In this film, which at one point was subtitled “The Secret of the Unicorn,” Tintin purchases a model ship at a flea market which, unbeknownst to him, is desired by all sorts of unsavory characters. The ship is promptly stolen and must be recovered and then a tiny scroll that had been hidden in its mast must be retrieved as well. That scroll, and several others, point to the location of an incredible treasure.

Tintin eventually crosses paths with a drunken sea captain named Haddock, who becomes his other partner in his quest for the scroll. He is played by Andy Serkis, the chameleonic actor who previously motion-captured the performances that gave us Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, and Caesar in this year’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” His Haddock is another remarkable creation; witty, charming, roguish, and perpetually sauced. Serkis is like the Pixar of mocap; he seemingly can do no wrong. He might be the biggest and best actor in the entire world who everyone loves and no one knows.

Tintin himself isn’t much of a protagonist, or a journalist, for that matter — who does this guy work for? Does he ever file a story? — but he’s an acceptable everyman foil for Captain Haddock and the rest of the colorful supporting cast, including Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as a pair of bumbling policemen and Daniel Craig as a mysterious man who wants Tintin’s ship. Really they’re all just there to drive the action. But let’s not forget, the movie is called “The Adventures of Tintin,” not “The Searing Emotional Drama of Tintin.” On that level, the movie is an absolute masterpiece, maybe the first one motion capture has ever produced.

“The Adventures of Tintin” opens today. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

The best movies of 2011

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The Mayans might have predicted the world would come to an end in 2012, but it’s hard to imagine a more apocalyptic year at the movies, both on and off-screen, than 2011.  This was the year that theater attendance dipped to its lowest level since 1995 and critics played the role of coroners, declaring the film camera — and even film itself — officially dead.  2011 was the year that digital became the dominant medium of the movies, both in terms of recording and distribution.  We still sometimes call them films, but we sure don’t watch them that way anymore, thanks to television, Blu-ray, HD digital projectors, and online streaming.

While pundits eulogized the death of film, a few directors celebrated its birth.  Michel Hazanavicius made “The Artist,” about the forgotten magic of early silent cinema; Martin Scorsese made “Hugo,” an impassioned plea about the importance of film preservation masquerading as a children’s film about an orphan who lives in a train station.  Both became critical darlings, maybe because in a time of great technological upheaval it felt appropriate to look back, with awe and admiration.

Looking ahead with anxiety, though, was a far more popular theme.   In 2011, filmmakers envisioned the start of our investment banker-led economic collapse (“Margin Call”) and imagined the start of an ape-led social collapse (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).  They put big name movie stars up against cataclysmic viruses (“Contagion”) and cataclysmically shitty employers (“Horrible Bosses”).  As more and more movies foretold the end of everything, more and more treated the end like a foregone conclusion rather than a point of suspense; in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Earth didn’t even survive past the opening credits.  My own list of the best films of 2011 is bracketed by two movies about men haunted by dreams of impending Armageddon.

Ah, top ten lists. So fun to read, so excruciating to make, so contentious to discuss. “These are the greatest movies of the year.” “No, these are the most important movies of the year.” I’ve never been good at drawing those kinds of distinctions. All I can do is tell you honestly which movies affected me the most and try to explain why.  That’s what I’m going to do here. Film may be dead, but cinema is alive and well.  And here is the proof.

10. “Bellflower”
Directed by Evan Glodell

“DIY” doesn’t feel like a strong enough term to describe Evan Glodell’s “Bellflower” so I’m going to call it “DIAY” — do it all yourself. Glodell had a hand in editing, producing, writing, and directing this film; he also played the lead role of Woodrow and actually built all the gadgets and weapons his character uses in movie, including a flamethrowing muscle car called The Medusa. It’s an impressive accomplishment — and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he also designed the custom camera he shot the movie with yet — but “Bellflower” is a lot more than a hollow technical exercise; it’s also a beautiful and tragic account of what it feels like to fall in and out of love (plus flamethrowers). It’s the best directorial debut of the year and the subject of my favorite movie trailer of the year to boot.


9. “Margaret”
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Is this movie a mess? Yeah, kind of. But that’s also kind of the point. “Margaret” is about a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) who accidentally causes a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Allison Janney, devastating and unforgettable in just one scene). Afterwards she’s left searching for answers; the only one she ever finds is that life is messy and rarely makes any sense. Neither does this film’s tortured backstory, which involves untold numbers of cuts and lawsuits spread out over half a decade. It sounded like a disaster on paper, but it’s actually a magnificent film about people living in the aftermath of a disaster, and scene after scene hit with the impact of an oncoming city bus. Playing “Margaret”‘s spoiled, confused, angry protagonist, Anna Paquin gives the performance of 2011, creating one of the most fully and complexly realized teenagers in movie history.


8. “Win Win”
Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Our perpetually recessed economy has a lot of people asking themselves how far they would go to provide for their family. Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” is not only one of the best recent films about the search for the answer to that question, it’s also also one the smartest and most unusual underdog sports movies in ages. New Jersey lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, as good as he’s ever been) is in danger of losing his feeble legal practice when he makes a sensible but morally indefensible choice: he has himself declared the guardian of one of his elderly clients, dumps him in a nursing home, and pockets the monthly $1500 stipend that comes with the guardianship. Mike’s decision bears unexpected consequences for his family and his wrestling team, all portrayed wonderfully by a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, and newcomer Alex Shaffer as Mike’s client’s grandson, a troubled teenager and wrestling savant. McCarthy’s film is full of astute, unsentimental observations about life in modern America and features an ending that is just about perfect.


7. “Poetry”
Directed by Lee Chang-dong

An elderly woman named Mija (Yun Jung-hee) learns she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and tries to keep her memory sharp by taking a poetry class in this heartbreaking film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong.  Inspiration proves elusive, and only comes along eventually at great personal cost, one involving her grandson Wook (Lee David) and his role in the death of a girl at his school. Lee’s “Poetry” is about the connection between pain and beauty, and how the worst experiences sometimes spur the greatest works of art.  Or, as Mija’s poetry teacher puts it, “It’s not difficult to write a poem, but to have the heart to write one.” It’s not hard to make a movie, either. Making one with this much heart is the real challenge.


6. “A Separation”
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Like “Win Win,” this is another movie set in a universe of fascinating moral complexity. Like “Win Win” it’s a bit of a genre hybrid: part legal thriller, part family drama. It begins when an Iranian couple requests a divorce. The wife (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country in order to keep their young daughter from growing up in the oppressive atmosphere of Tehran; the husband (Peyman Moaadi) can’t leave behind his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and requires constant care. After the wife moves out, a situation arises that explains her concerns. To watch the father while he’s at work, the husband hires a pregnant woman as a housekeeper, but after a few days on the job, there is an incident in the house, and the father blames the housekeeper. Who is legally at fault? Who is morally at fault? Farhadi’s outstanding film explores how hard — or sometimes impossible — those questions are to answer, with subtle writing and brilliant performances.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” reviewed

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One word describes the tone, setting, and pacing of David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larson’s wildly popular novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” That word is glacial. Its portrait of modern Sweden is bleak and bitterly cold, its story is sad and sordid, and its opening and closing scenes are extremely distended. Will fans of the book like the new movie anyway? As someone who’s never read Larson’s work or watched the Swedish films based on his Millennium Trilogy, I’m probably not the best person to ask. Based on my conversations with readers of Larson’s books, Fincher’s film seems like a fairly faithful adaptation. To this neophyte observer, “Dragon Tattoo” plays as an effective and stylish, if someone bloated mystery and that’s about it. It’s not a particularly dynamic film — by Fincher’s standards, the direction is positively restrained — and it’s not a particularly compelling character drama. It really only works as an absorbing detective story, one which I feel like the last person on earth to absorb. Attendance isn’t in doubt; the film will be a big hit. But will the people who come like it? Is it fun rehashing a mystery you already know the solution to?

That mystery begins when a magazine editor named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is found guilty of libeling a prominent Swedish businessman. Desperate for an escape from his crumbling professional life, he receives one in the form of an invitation to a remote private island, where another powerful Swedish industrialist makes him an offer. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) will hire Blomkvist under the guise of writing his memoirs; in reality, he wants him to solve a decades-old family mystery involving the death of his beloved niece Harriett. Eventually Blomkvist’s investigation requires a research assistant, which is where the titular heroine, an antisocial bisexual goth biker hacker ward of the state named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), comes in. To this point, Lisbeth’s been caught in her own side story involving abuse and exploitation, one which makes her particularly enthusiastic to help Blomkvist catch what he calls “a killer of women.”

The plot, adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, takes a long time to put its two main characters in a room together and until it does, the whole film — save two infamous and brutal scenes of violence — moves sluggishly. For a while, I was at a loss to understand the material’s worldwide appeal. Then it becomes clear: a badass feminist heroine who strikes back with merciless gusto at her abusers, and an odd couple of investigators as deliciously mismatched — and as resourcefully inventive — as Holmes and Watson. Craig and Mara makes a feisty, funny team, and they both show a knack for making the minutia of historical research look absolutely riveting. Their interplay brings this whole chilly endeavor to life, and even brings the faintest hints of warmth to the film’s arctic color palette. The beautiful way the cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s icily gorgeous imagery slowly morphs from blues and grays to yellows and browns is a subtle and clever way of representing how ‘hot’ or ‘cold the serial killer’s trail is at any particular moment.

The raw materials of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” provide Fincher the opportunity to revisit many of the themes that have defined his stellar career to date: the inner workings of a serial killer’s mind from “Se7en;” the anti-capitalistic impulses of “Fight Club;” the sprawling, obsessive investigation of a seemingly unsolvable crime in “Zodiac;” the alluring godlike power of hackers from “The Social Network.” Too bad Fincher doesn’t use that opportunity to say anything new about any of those subjects, maybe because he was expected to treat the novel so reverently that he never really could. Whatever the reason, he handles the material competently, but not exceptionally. As creepy as it might be to say, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is David Fincher working in his comfort zone (for him, it could be called a discomfort zone). I enjoyed the film to an extent, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. Odds are, you already do.

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