Our 2011 Christmas Weekend Movies Guide + Reviews Unwrapped!
by Marco Cerritos
December 24, 2011
Continuing our annual tradition of posting Thanksgiving and Christmas Movie Guides every holiday season, our resident San Fran contributor, Marco Cerritos, has again put together a movie guide for Christmas 2011, providing a recap and rundown of what's playing and what's truly worth seeing. Marco has seen almost everything out there, and while you may not always agree with him, he provides the best reviews he can to make it a bit easier for everyone to choose. There are some great films currently playing in theaters (average grade is a B+), so if you're still a bit unsure of what to watch this Holiday, then look no further!
This is an alphabetized list containing 10 films that, as of today, are playing in most theaters nationwide.
The Adventures of Tintin
Marco's Rating: B+
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones, Hook, War Horse)
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones
Review: The first of two Spielberg directed films on this holiday list is the animated Adventures of Tintin. Based on the popular Herge comic series, this epic adventure borrows from several Tintin stories to create its own narrative instead of sticking to one linear plot structure. This works to the film’s benefit as Spielberg selectively brings all major characters and action sequences from the series to one gigantic story. At its core, Tintin is an elaborate treasure hunt adventure, territory that Spielberg knows well. It’s this experience that elevates what could’ve been a run of the mill Spielberg ripoff into a true thrill ride helmed by the master himself.
Shot with performance capture technology, the digital look of real actors transformed to animated form is getting better and better with each passing film. Long gone are the wooden eyes and block surfaces that plagued earlier motion capture films like The Polar Express and Beowulf. In Tintin's assured storytelling you forget the technological aspects altogether and enjoy the carnival ride for exactly what it is. Tintin is the safest bet for true family entertainment this holiday weekend.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Marco's Rating: A-
Directed by: David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network)
Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård
Review: Director David Fincher has two major obstacles to overcome in order to please fans of the insanely popular source material from which this American remake is based on. First is to top the novels and Swedish films that have come prior to this adaptation and second is to top himself. It’s a good thing that the novels and Swedish films based on the Millennium trilogy aren’t that great to begin with. Even die-hard fans of the novels will admit that the books are poorly written and the film versions diminish in quality with each passing chapter. The hardest of these obstacles then lies in Fincher himself. How do you top yourself when you’ve continually pushed the boundaries of filmmaking with each new project?
To Fincher’s credit, he doesn’t try to outdo his own work and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a better film for it. Outside of the film’s flashy credit sequence which will draw obvious comparisons to Se7en, Fincher's camera work is very restrained and cold, much like the titular character herself. There is a murder mystery at the center of Dragon Tattoo which focuses on family secrets and betrayal but is merely a setup for the meat of the film, a character study between a blackballed journalist and a rebellious hacker loner. These two leads are respectively played by Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara and while the film oozes atmosphere, it’s these two actors who dominate the entire film.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Marco's Rating: B
Directed by: Brad Bird (Pixar's The Incredibles, Ratatouille)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton
Review: A review of an action film deserves a description that cuts to the chase. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a good action-adventure film with moments of brilliance in its elaborate set pieces. However, to fully enjoy the thrill ride it’s best to seek out a true IMAX theatre and enjoy it in that format, as about 25 minutes were shot on IMAX cameras.
Why am I urging you to only see this film in the huge IMAX screen that is mostly known for nature documentaries? Because unlike the 3D fad, IMAX is a true immersive experience and having several key sections of Ghost Protocol filmed with IMAX cameras literally puts you in the middle of the action. This isn’t to say that if you see Ghost Protocol in a traditional theatre your enjoyment will suffer. Not at all. The film is a fun popcorn adventure story regardless of how you see it. But there’s a difference between seeing Tom Cruise dangling off a building and feeling like you’re right there with him. The difference is worth the extra cost, and if you can find an IMAX theatre near you I’m sure you’ll agree.
Marco's Rating: A
Directed by: Dee Rees (Eventual Salvation)
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis
Review: Pariah was one of the runaway hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has sadly gotten lost in the holiday movie shuffle. It tells a small story of a lesbian adolescent finding the courage to accept herself amidst a society of prejudice and insecurity. While not exactly the kind of material that draws huge crowds, its power will hopefully be embraced when it slowly opens in limited release this Christmas weekend.
With limited resources, writer-director Dee Rees adapts her own short film to feature length by tackling the subject head-on like a seasoned veteran. Most filmmakers would want to waste time padding the film with unnecessary exposition and justifications for a lesbian heroine to take center stage. Instead, Pariah has a lean running time of just under 90 minutes but packs an enormous emotional blow.
Described by critics as the anti-Precious, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or insult. While it’s true that both films deal with African-American heroines in difficult situations, they are very different stories. I guess if you had to set them apart even further you could say that one wallows in racial stereotypes and the other is grounded in reality, exploring what it feels to be a true outcast in today’s society.
Marco's Rating: A
Directed by: Steve McQueen (Hunger, Twelve Years a Slave)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Review: The NC-17 controversy surrounding Shame may sell tickets but the film isn’t all talk. Director Steve McQueen and lead actor Michael Fassbender bring the goods to prove their movie is more than just some cheap ploy to get media attention. For the uninitiated, Shame focuses on the downward chronicle of a sex addict. That’s all you really need to know going into this movie. If that description turns you off, watching the film will not change your mind. If the opposite is true and you are now curious, know that you are in for a brutal and poetic cinematic journey. The last time McQueen and Fassbender collaborated was on 2009’s Hunger and that film felt like an emotional endurance test, too.
Both films wrap the viewer in a long, emotional grip and the key to their success is Fassbender. He is in every scene of Shame and commands the screen with a wounded, false-confidence that reeks of emotional damage. Supporting actress Carey Mulligan plays his sister and serves as the catalyst to his downfall, crushing his grip on sanity when she enters the picture. Shame is one of the best films of the year and should be seen on that merit alone. Not on media hype regarding the film’s rating.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Marco's Rating: C
Directed by: Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris
Review: It took me a while to warm up to Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie and a huge part of that had to do with misplaced expectations. This was not a true retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle books but instead a loud interpretation that turned Holmes into an action hero instead of an intellectual one. After accepting the first film on its own grounds, it was an even bigger surprise to see that the second installment of the popular franchise had switched gears yet again. This time it was neither cerebral or loud. It was something worse, boring.
The sly camaraderie between Holmes and Watson has started to wear thin in Game of Shadows and since that’s the movie’s main trick for most of its running time it doesn’t leave much else on the table. What scraps of a plot it does offer involve a convoluted story of a secret war threatening to destroy London. Noomi Rapace (the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") is wasted as a gypsy assisting our bumbling duo. Jared Harris (of "Mad Men") on the other hand shines as Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. He gets little screen time to save the movie and when the plot finally kicks in with some genuine thrills in the last third, it’s too little, too late.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Marco's Rating: C
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson (Four Shades of Brown, Let the Right One In)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt
Review: John LeCarre’s spy novels are a tough read for even his most dedicated fans so it should be no surprise that the film version of one of his best is just as difficult to sort through. It’s a tough balancing act, try to make the material too accessible and you get John Boorman’s film version of The Tailor of Panama. Remain faithful to the source material, complexities and all, and you get Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Your brain has to be firing on all cylinders to fully appreciate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and even then plot details and characters names will surely pass you by. Despite its layered narrative one thing is crystal clear, Gary Oldman’s lead performance of George Smiley is one of his best, a true successor to Alec Guiness who played the role in an earlier miniseries of the same name. Tomas Alfredson previous directed Let the Right One In, another film with a dry tone that takes its time to get to where its going. That structure was served well in the earlier film, here it just freezes Tinker Tailor completely.
Marco's Rating: B-
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones, Tintin)
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, David Thewlis
Review: Steven Spielberg has never been accused of being unsentimental and his film work bears more than enough evidence to back that up. The problem is sometimes he gets too sentimental for his own good. In other words he has the subtlety of a sledgehammer and in the case of War Horse, it’s a blessing and a curse.
Telling the story of a young boy in the days leading up to World War I, all the usual Spielberg emotional tricks are on full display. There are lingering crane shots on open vistas, sweeping musical cues to signify emotion and even pensive looks on actors’ faces for full dramatic effect. It’s easy for a casual moviegoer to succumb to such easy maneuvers, but for a jaded film writer who knows the magician is holding a trick deck, it’s hard to see past the A-B-C storytelling.
Having said this, the film is not without its merits. There are moments of genuine emotion in War Horse that ironically don’t involve the titular horse at all. Because let’s face it, the idea of a horse in peril during World War I immediately spring an endless array of heart-tugging possibilities. Spielberg goes for a lot of them but gets creative with a few fresh ideas, too. I just wish the film had more of those instead.
We Bought a Zoo
Marco's Rating: B
Directed by: Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown)
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning
Review: A grounded family adventure from writer-director Cameron Crowe is not what I was expecting but it works as a solid movie just the same. Mixing kids and animals will usually lead to an abundance of cuteness and they are on full display in We Bought a Zoo. Based on the novel and true life experiences of author Benjamin Mee, the story centers on a broken family who relocate from the big, bad city to a remote location in an attempt to start over and get over their grief. The catch being that yes, their new property is surrounded by a large habitat of animals.
It’s nice to see Cameron Crowe and lead actor Matt Damon take a step back from their usual serious work and make the unexpected, a sweet family film for all ages. We Bought a Zoo is never groundbreaking, but is always sweet and self-assured, something we really don’t see too much in recent movies.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Marco's Rating: A
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Review: While not a horror film in the tradition sense, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the scariest film of 2011. It’s the exact type of cerebral horror story that will linger in your head days after you’ve seen it and that is infinitely scarier than seeing visceral blood and guts onscreen.
It should be noted that Kevin is anchored by a ferocious performance by Tilda Swinton. She plays the mother of a boy she has never fully understood. And while she has birthed this young man, it's clear through flashbacks that there is a very serious disconnect between mother and son. Instead of a loving bond their interaction is more of a cat-and-mouse game with horrific results.
If Swinton is the anchor that grounds the film in emotional turmoil, young actor Ezra Miller is the catalyst that sets this family’s trainwreck in motion. The less said about the plot the better but it’s safe to say that We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only one of the most brutal films of 2011, but also one of the best.
Have you seen any of these yet? And what are you planning to see this weekend, if anything?