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The Adventures of Tintin movie review, Uncanny Valley and the Limitations of CG Technology

The Adventures of Tintin has all the passion and visual ingenuity missing from Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It also has the enthusiasm that has been missing from Spielberg films for too long. Unfortunately it’s also a paint by numbers cartoon and while its combination of motion capture technology and visual style avoids the uncanny valley, the motion capture can’t invest the figures with a soul.

Indiana Jones didn’t work because cliched pulp stories were such a brilliant concept. It didn’t work on Spielberg’s skills alone. It’s actors who bring a story to life, and while The Adventures of Tintin manages to invest Captain Haddock with human characteristics, all the technology can’t seem to make him something more than a one-note character stumbling into another punchline.

The Adventures of Tintin is visually frantic because its characters are so stiff and the world is so flat. Snowy, Tintin and Haddock are constantly rushing and stumbling and flying over things in Bugs Bunny style, but they are Bugs Bunny, one-note characters pretending to be human in a story that was a cliche even when it was written.

The Adventures of Tintin is a passable movie, but it works best for those who want to see the characters in the comics come to life. Remaining audiences see Spielberg doing what Zemeckis did, being seduced into believing that the power of complete control over an environment means unlimited creativity. The Adventures of Tintin is more polished than most of Zemeckis’ efforts, only during the concert scene does the CG look truly tacky, but all that effort is still wasted.

3D cartoons work best when the characters are drawn simply and cartoonishly. The Adventures of Tintin teeters between photorealistic fidelity and the simple lines of a cartoon. Its opening gimmick, echoes the one from Team America World Police, but without the sense of humor. The technology being shown off is impressive, but it never manages to lift The Adventures of Tintin beyond its limitations.

Unlike Zemeckis’ efforts, Tintin’s failure can’t be blamed on unready technology. Tintin is as ready as the technology will ever be. Its characters are a world away from the nightmarish wooden puppets of Polar Express. But they’re not people and they never will be. Uncanny Valley doesn’t make them creepy, just limited.

Cartoonists always knew that simple lines can capture more depth than detail. It’s something even DC and Marvel know, which is why every issue doesn’t look like an Alex Ross painting inside. There are comics that try that, going for photorealistic paintings and they combine badly with a fast moving story.

The real loss here is that Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg have wasted their time trying to create their ideal movie in 3D CG, instead of making it the way they used to.

From 1980 to 2000, Zemeckis made the Back to the Future movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Cast Away and Forest Gump. Since then he made a bunch of disposable CG movies like Polar Express, Beowulf and Christmas Carol. Coming up next is Yellow Submarine.

The loss of Spielberg as an exciting director can’t be completely blamed on CG, but the difference between the first three Indiana Jones movies and the last one, is the difference between a director who went places to tell a story and one who went behind the Green Screen. Tintin isn’t lazy, but that’s because the artists are doing most of the work. It’s visually ingenious, technologically innovative and hollow. There’s action without momentum and visuals without impact. It’s clever without being alive.

Cabin in the Woods movie review

When Scream kickstarted the return of the slasher horror movie, it did it by being clever and sharp. Cabin in the Woods wants you to think it’s both of those things, when mostly it’s neither. Instead it comes packing the same late 90’s self-consciously smartass teen dialogue that sounds like it was written by Kevin Williamson, and a twist that’s not twist at all because it’s served up to us from the start.

Cabin in the Woods’ only real twist on the slasher movie is to put in a team of people who make the horrors happen, while breaking the fourth wall as a Greek chorus representing the audience and the production team. It’s a clever concept on paper, but the cleverness ends at using it to explain why things implausibly happen in horror movies. That makes it a punchline, but not much else.

After setting up its fourth wall, Cabin in the Woods has nothing else to do. The characters are one-note, the dialogue has been done before and the cabin, that the poster teased as some M.C. Escher construction, just has a fake mirror, a remote controlled trapdoor and that’s it. The team injects rape drugs and subliminal voices to try and make the four college students act out their parts, and that’s as unconventional as it gets.

Strip away the fourth wall and two-thirds of Cabin in the Woods is a weak and lame repetition of a dozen slasher movie reboots. And that’s the problem. The movie is constantly waiting until the team comes in contact with their victims, but that just means most of the movie is a waste. Cabin in the Woods is more entertaining when it’s done in the deep with the team, than when it’s with the four students who are just going through the motions.

But even once worlds collide, Cabin in the Woods blows its ending. The final dilemma could have joined both storylines together had Dana pulled the trigger and taken her place working with the team, instead the world seems on the edge of being destroyed in an ending that’s more awkward than apocalyptic.

Cabin in the Woods has one clever idea, but unlike Scream, it doesn’t bother to understand the materials it’s working with or to make the best of them. It thinks that one idea is enough, but it doesn’t develop it and it doesn’t bother trying to make a good movie, instead of a good gimmick.

Captain America movie review

Captain America movie posterThese are the things that Captain America doesn’t have. A plot, compelling characters or any reason to care about what’s happening on screen. But what it does have is charm. Director Joe Johnston brings the same retro sensibility to Captain America that he did to the Rocketeer, but he can’t being a semblance of order to a script that lacks momentum and a movie that exists just to promote The Avengers.

Johnston tries and when skinny Steve walks up to the desk and stares fiercely at the doctor, defying him to reject him, it almost seems as if he succeeded. But Steve Rogers’ drive to be a little man who contributes to the war is the only thing the movie has going for it. And once Steve gets his wish, Chris Evans reverts to his usual blandness and the movie dies even as it’s just supposed to be taking off.

It’s not really Evans’ fault, by then he’s been upstaged by a rush of action scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but have no impact, by a hastily introduced band of commandos that we didn’t really need to see, by raids that don’t matter and a relationship with the abrasive and irritating Agent Carter who has no chemistry with him.

Movies are often defined by their villains and Captain America has a generic villain with a generically pointless plan to blow up the world. The Red Skull is only briefly interesting once he belatedly pulls off his face and not even then. Johnston does a good enough job of grounding Captain America in a nostalgic period haze that the portrayal of a ridiculous Hydra Nazi splinter group just looks silly and spoils the balancing act between the real war and the comic book version.

Until its second half, it still almost seems as if Captain America might recover, but that’s when the script drops Captain America as a character and rushes into a hyperactive storm of attacks and action scenes that kill it as anything but a bunch of video game cutscenes. There’s barely any order to them and no real reason to watch.

Captain America works best when it sticks to the atmosphere of a 1940’s New York (the one that can only be found in England), the World’s Fair, the bond drives and the movie theaters. It’s where Joe Johnston is strongest, joyfully coaxing period life out of the streets and scenery. But it’s weakest once Captain America is running around in costume punching a long line of men in motorcycle helmets.

It’s hard to say who gets the blame for this mess. Bringing in the Narnia writing team was probably a bad idea. This is not a very good script, though it has a few good ideas. But the overall scrambled feeling can probably be blamed on Marvel’s insistence on wrecking Iron Man 2 and Captain America to set up Joss Whedon’s Avengers. But Johnston has to take some of the blame. The second half of the movie is just a mess and Hayley Atwell needed better direction. He wasn’t in a strong enough position to walk away from the franchise, like Jon Favreau did, but it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t have done anything to make it a bit more watchable.

The Spirit movie review

The Spirit film posterThe Spirit is one of the odder comic book movies ever made, but its spirit is much closer to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s one of the few comic book movies that actually is a comic book, not just in the way it looks, but in its crazy energy, unfulfilled ambition and pulp traditions.

Sit through the whole thing and you come away with a completely different experience than the modern comic book superhero blockbuster. The Spirit has nothing in common with Nolan’s Dark Knight or Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the movies that define the 21st century comic book blockbuster. It does its awkward horrifying best to be a comic book on film. And it’s the closest thing to seeing Frank Miller on film.

Like most first time directors, Miller is way over his limit and doesn’t realize that he hasn’t yet learned how to tell a story. But there are glimpses among the ruins of what The Spirit might have been if Miller had been given a reality check by a producer who knew his stuff.

The worst thing about The Spirit is Samuel L Jackson as The Octopus, a monster of crime who’s all Id with no Superego. It’s not Jackson’s fault that he’s been set loose with no tether and mugs for the camera like mad. What else is he supposed to do. Especially when he’s being dressed in a Nazi uniform or a Samurai scalplock. There’s nothing Jackson could have done to fix this mess. That was Miller’s responsibility and he blew it.

But the best thing about The Spirit is the Spirit himself. Macht isn’t a great actor, and the narration is usually over the top, but the Spirit’s mad race through the city, his pratfalls and escapes, capture the pulp energy that once made comics so exciting to generations of kids. There’s a freedom here that’s completely missing from the summer blockbusters. A freedom that goes beyond the panels. That says anything is possible.

The encounter with Sans Serif in her hotel room, The Spirit riding up in a transparent elevator past falling snow and gargoyles captures the quintessential urban pulp noir feel. But Miller doesn’t know when to stop. Most scenes with The Spirit’s allies go on way too long. The Octopus is so far over the top that it’s unwatchable. There are too many women around The Spirit and all of it runs in a comic book story which doesn’t work on film.

Then there’s the mismatch of art styles, a problem that crippled The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it’s not as bad in The Spirit, but it’s a major problem. Playing with art styles in comic books is one thing for a pro like Miller looking to test the boundaries of the medium, but Miller doesn’t realize that he’s not a pro here. He’s an amateur director and when you’re an amateur, you need boundaries.

There are some beautifully lit and shot moments, but the movie feels like browsing through DeviantArt at random. There are some gorgeous scenes, and plenty of amateurish ones, and none of it hangs together as a consistent whole. The Spirit needed dramatic reediting and a few reshoots. Had Lionsgate done that, The Spirit wouldn’t have been a major success, but it wouldn’t have been a punching bag either.

Still what The Spirit has is valuable. In a summer when there are a ton of comic book superhero blockbusters that all feel the same, it’s a reminder of something undeniably different. The spirit and energy of the comic book living faithfully on screen.

Paul movie review

I liked Paul better when it was called American Dad. Except I never liked American Dad much either, but it’s pretty sad when what the Pegg-Frost team comes up with is the premise of Roger on American Dad, except Paul isn’t gay. So what if Paul isn’t original? Well it’s also unfunny and that’s a bigger problem.

The first quarter, the whole idea of these two superfans driving around America and encountering an actual alien, is a good one. But where do you go from there? If you’re Pegg and Frost, you drive around encountering the brand of wacky Americans you usually encounter only on Family Guy or the BBC while making some hackneyed points about religion that are third rate Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. What follows plays out like a Saturday Night Live skit written by a fan of Monty Python, it’s not funny or really anything.

In that way, Paul reminds me of Gervais’ The Invention of Lying. Comedy that aims for philosophical statements but isn’t as deep or as funny as it thinks it is. Paul is the first Pegg/Frost collaboration that’s somewhat aimed at an American audience, but also hostile to it. Pegg and Frost could have set this back in England, with a Paul explaining to them what happened to Stonehenge, and they would have been on safer ground.

Unknown movie review

With “Taken”, Liam Neeson was anointed as the new Harrison Ford, the grim unsmiling seeker of personal vengeance whose humorlessness is proof of his righteousness. It makes sense that Unknown rips off Ford classics like Frantic and The Fugitive, along with Neeson’s own Taken and the entire Bourne series.

Unknown was filmed to cash in on Taken’s success, but it can’t even decide if it’s an action movie or a thriller. In a plot lifted from a dozen movies, Neeson wanders around Europe in search of his memory and on the run from a generically evil corporation. The entire implausible story is just convoluted enough so that you won’t care about its ridiculousness, but there isn’t enough action to give you anything else to care about.

Unknown isn’t bad, it’s just bleakly mediocre. A thin copy of a copy of Hitchcock. A weak stab at doing Bourne. Where Taken felt fresh, this feels like the oldest movie in the book. The miscasting borders on the comic. A blank January Jones plays a human mannequin. Diane Kruger plays the world’s least plausible taxi driver. The final confrontation fizzles. Neeson is the only thing Unknown has going for it, but the movie has nothing to offer him except a few lines that even Bruce Willis would have winced at.

I Love You Beth Cooper movie review

I Love You Beth Cooper movie posterI Love You Beth Cooper does one thing right, it gives moviegoers one of those rare believable female characters in a movie dedicated to a teenage boy’s fantasy. Unfortunately while Beth Cooper may have some dimension, I Love You Beth Cooper is nothing more than a weak remix of 80’s high school movies, with a plot so predictable that you can guess what comes next before it even happens. And besides Beth, every single character in the movie is another annoying two dimensional cliche.

There’s the prototypical nerd, Dennis Cooverman, who has a bedroom full of Star Wars models, a plastic lightsaber he uses as a weapon and can name the boiling temperature of any liquid. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s played by Paul Rust who demonstrates the scientific principle of negative charisma. There’s his best friend who’s supposedly in the closet, but is nothing more than a series of gay jokes, right down to him joining the cheerleaders in one of their routines. Beth Cooper comes with her own collection of stereotypes, including a slutty dumb friend and a psychotic marine boyfriend.

Like most teen comedies lately, I Love You Beth Cooper boils down into a road trip movie in which everyone runs around a lot, stuff gets broken, embarrassing accidents abound and closure comes from realizing that the whole point of things is the journey not the destination, the inevitable coda to any road trip flick. I Love You Beth Cooper isn’t anywhere as bad as Sex Drive or Fanboys, but it’s not as superior to them as it would like you to think. And though directed by Chris Columbus, of easy viewing hits like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, I Love You Beth Cooper suffers from awkward pacing and forced comedy. The gags are set up in plain sight and the only payoff is usually more humiliation for Dennis Cooverman, who winds up in his lucky underpants, bleeding, bandaged with tampons, beaten up repeatedly and saddled with a gay stereotype of a best friend who shoots movie lines at him non-stop.

I Love You Beth Cooper set out to deliver a more realistic female movie lead, and it did, unfortunately everything else about it is stale, worn and awkwardly unfunny.

Terminator Salvation movie review

terminator salvation movie posterDuring the process of making a movie, a rough cut of it is assembled, and the director, producers and editors will moan and wonder how they’re ever going to turn this into a movie they can release into theaters. Then they buckle down to the hard work of reshooting scenes, adding additional footage and in general polishing the final product until it’s theater ready. In the case of Terminator Salvation, they didn’t bother with any of that. Instead they just added the CGI and released it into theaters.

Long on angst and short on plot, Terminator Salvation is Mad Max without any of the fun, a joyless, character-less trip into a post-apocalyptic wasteland that forgets to give viewers any reason to come along. McG is so busy working on aesthetic credibility that he forgets how to edit action scenes or the movie as a whole, which feels like a disjointed collection of footage that has yet to be assembled into a final form. Almost a silent movie at times, perhaps because its foreign leads, Christian Bale and Sam Worthington struggle to produce any kind of convincing American accent, Terminator Salvation is a trip through a wasteland that leads nowhere. And much like another summer killer robots movie, the only thing memorable about it are the special effects.

The Terminator movies, even Terminator 3, focused on a fairly simple plot with a clear antagonist, a straightforward goal and explosive set pieces. Terminator Salvation jettisons everything but the last, sideswiping audiences who expected a good time at the theater only to get an action movie that models itself after a Cormac McCarthy novel. Had McG been less worried about being taken seriously, he might have actually applied the lessons of his work on the audience friendly Charlie’s Angels movies. Instead with We Are Marshall and Terminator Salvation, McG tries desperately to be taken seriously, but all he manages to do is be a downer.

Terminator Salvation is probably the most expensive post-apocalyptic B-movie ever made, that takes itself more seriously than most Academy Award nominees. But not only isn’t it entertaining, unlike the previous Terminator movies it doesn’t even have anything to say about human condition. Having aimed too high, Terminator Salvation doesn’t deliver on either front. Its absurd premise of a Terminator who thinks he’s human and dies when his heart is removed is an absurdly literary metaphor that not only makes no sense, but is painfully stupid to boot, leading to an ending with some trite observation about the human heart. An ironic preoccupation for a movie that bypasses both the heart and the mind entirely, for a final product that is as inhuman and cold as the machines who are its antagonists themselves.

Lakeview Terrace movie review

lakeview terrace movie posterThe difference between a provocateur and a filmmaker is that a filmmaker’s movies are about something, while a provocateur’s movies push buttons to hide just how little content they really have. Neil LaBute’s career has been that of a provocateur, but none of his movies have been more hollow than Lakeview Terrace, a generic thriller coasting off the wake of Crash and pretending to be something more than it really is.

Race is front and center, but as in Crash it’s a narrative devoid of substance. The one and only thing that makes Lakeview Terrace compelling is Samuel L. Jackson, as always giving his 120 percent as the movie’s Godzilla, the explosive mixture of racial and political tropes, Black, Conservative, LAPD Officer, and emotionally as much of a mess as he is politically. The interracial yuppie couple that moves next door to him may be the hero and heroine on paper and their relationship is meant to be transgressive, but they and even the fires that approach the neighborhood pale in comparison to Jackson’s Abel Turner, part fanatic, part son of a bitch and utterly real.

The problem with Lakeview Terrace is that besides Samuel L. Jackson proving that he can bring to life any character on a script page, the movie has nothing going for it. The script mentions race a lot, but the sum total of those mentions is to suggest that it’s a troubled and complicated subject. Neil LaBute throws in his share of clever visual references to race which add up to nothing more than clever visual references that say nothing. Given free rein, LaBute might have produced something more shocking than the generic thriller format for Lakeview Terrace allows, but there is no reason to believe that it would have worked any better.

Lakeview Terrace’s big selling point is race, but subtract the racial button pushing and you have virtually the same movie but without the camouflage of significance. If all its racial profundity has a message, it’s that racial roles aren’t so simple and yet they are a part of our society, which is the kind of wisdom you end up with from an afterschool special. Over 15 years after the LA Riots, Hollywood continues to try and make movies about racial tensions and the LAPD without actually having anything to say about the subject, and as a sign of Lakeview Terrace’s predictability, Rodney King and the riots themselves are referenced barely halfway through the movie. Bogged down by cliches and featuring a struggle between bland and mean, Lakeview Terrace’s real color is vanilla, a generic thriller trying to pretend to be something it’s not.

My Sassy Girl movie review

My Sassy Girl movie posterMy Sassy Girl is to Elisha Cuthbert what The House Bunny is to Anna Farris, a great role in a fairly bad movie that proves she can be more than Jack Bauer’s annoying daughter. My Sassy Girl though isn’t nearly as bad as you would expect it to be, primarily because Elisha Cuthbert turns what could have easily been another “magic pixie dream girl” character into a real person. Keeping up with her is an awkward Jesse Bradford as a farm boy whose big dream was going to NYU business school in order to get a job for the traditional farm company his father works for.

In that way My Sassy Girl is initially a throwback to the classic screwball comedy with the ditzy dame and the straightlaced bachelor colliding as she wrecks his life but teaches him how to have fun, and that is how the movie is being promoted, but My Sassy Girl’s biggest problem, besides the name, is that it is a remake. My Sassy Girl might have jettisoned everything of the original but the idea and that might have worked, or it might have stuck to a detailed scene by scene and line by line remake of the South Korean original. Instead however My Sassy Girl tries to awkwardly mimic some of the stylistic touches of the original and suffers from schizophrenia unable to make the transition that the original made from a more conventional comedy to a more conventional romantic comedy.

My Sassy Girl works well enough in the first two thirds fueled by Elisha Cuthbert’s brave performance, but by the time the original’s plot twist kicks in turning the movie from comedy into saccharine melodrama and transforms her Jordan from an edgy, wild and bitter person and into a classic romantic comedy heroine crying lonely tears and rejoicing when hope against hope the man she was destined to be with meets up with her again. In a movie that began with a hint of Carole Lombard, My Sassy Girl ends squarely in When Harry Met Sally territory, an uncomfortable journey that reminds us again that some conventions of Asian cinema will just not translate well, especially not when they’re translated as haphazardly as they were here.

My Sassy Girl succeeds as much as it does because Elisha Cuthbert’s Jordan feels all too real in the same way that the carefully lit and spotless New York City subways or every other character in the movie from Jesse Bradford’s ridiculously squeaky clean small town Charlie to his obligatory fat perverted best friend, do not. The reckless pain and wild anger she projects is an all too real and all too human and the emotions and behavior she displays makes her character one you are far more likely to find in New York than the usual heroes and heroines of romantic comedies who have met here on the silver screen. But when My Sassy Girl has done milking it for its comedy value, it assigns a tritely sentimental meaning to everything she has done and the journey then becomes a means to clean all that away and present her as simply another generic heroine waiting to step into the happy ending that had been waiting for her all along. It’s a perfect Hollywood ending and one that shortchanges every real human emotion in the movie in favor of manufactured yearning that magically comes true.

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