Like students swotting for exams New Zealand film distributors seem to have run out of year for all the films they have to release so there are some really big names being squeezed into the next two weeks. If you can’t find something to watch on — the inevitably wet — Boxing Day next Monday, then I suspect you don’t really like movies at all. And if that sounds like you, why are you still reading?
The biggest of the big names this Christmas has got to be The Advenures of Tintin. Despite Steven Spielberg’s name on the tin, it’s almost a local production when you consider the technology and skills that went into its manufacture, so we all have a small stake in its success. Luckily, Europe has embraced it so a second film has already been confirmed — and will be made here.
But enough of the cheerleading — what did I think of it? It’s good, really good. The performance capture and character design works better than ever before, Spielberg has embraced the freedom from the laws of physics that animation allows and throws the camera around with gay abandon — but always with panache and not to the point of motion sickness. Many of the visual gags are terrific and Andy Serkis as Haddock proves that there is no one better at acting under a layer of black dots and ping pong balls.
Where it falls down is in the story — or rather how the story is told. There’s an awful lot of talky explanation — some of it quite repetitive — and the desire to cram in so much original Hergé might please the purists but it baffles people like me who only read the books once. Tintin — the character — is also an unsatisfying protagonist, bland to look at as well as a one-dimensional character. There’s not much there for Jamie Bell to grab hold of.
The Mission: Impossible fanchise has always been Tom Cruise’s “Get out of jail free” card, there to rescue his career whenever it hits the doldrums. Last year he stank the place out with Knight and Day so it makes sense that MI4 — Ghost Protocol should arrive about now. The series gets a good kick in the pants from Pixar director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and the set-pieces are fairly astonishing. Apart from the crash, bash, wallop I found it almost impossible to care for either the characters, their predicament or — by the end — even the planet they were attempting to save.
The battle between talking furry creatures doesn’t look like a fair fight this Christmas. I have a soft-spot for the Alvin and the Chipmunks films but Chipwrecked really should have skipped the big screen and gone straight to video. There weren’t even any kids at the screening I went to which says a lot about the state of the franchise.
Meanwhile, The Muppets have returned (re-booted is the technical term) and it’s jolly to see them back. My ear for voices prevents me from truly letting go and wallowing in the nostalgia because I can tell that it isn’t Jim Henson as Kermit and Frank Oz as Piggy. For all the care and attention Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen devote to their roles — and the puppetry is first rate — they just ain’t the same. The story is fairly standard Hollywood redemption territory and the songs aren’t as great as everyone is making out.
Grown-ups have a few options, too, this Christmas. The Salt of Life is Gianni Di Gregorio’s gentle follow-up to last year’s Mid-August Lunch and mines similar territory — a retired man surrounded by eccentrics and oddballs. In this film Di Gregorio himself plays Giovanni, bossed around by his wife, his mother and his daughter. His best friend suggests he take mistress — like all red-blooded Italian males. Maybe the beautiful neighbour whose dog he walks? I’ve done pretty well to remember that much plot as the film passes the time pleasantly enough but is fairly forgettable.
The only reason for seeing The Iron Lady is to witness first-hand the alchemy of Meryl Streep. There’s been no other performance this year — male or female — that so completely transcends the source material. Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, once the most powerful woman in the world now hollowed out by Alzheimer’s. The film treats Thatcher like the greatest Englishman ever — a cross between Boadicea and Churchill — but fails to adequately portray the toxic nature of her politics and the damge she did to her society and the nation she professed to love.
Anyone looking for a restful stupor on Boxing Day won’t find it in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia — but you will find oblivion of a different sort. The strange new star Melancholia is going to pass very close to Earth. Meanwhile, depression-sufferer Kirsten Dunst is getting married but isn’t sure why, frustrating her family which includes Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Charlotte Rampling.
Melancholia deserves a whole column — but won’t get it — but I will say that it is one of the most amazing, thought-provoking, profound and frustrating films I have ever seen. Everyone should see it and — as an antidote to the Christmas season — it might as well be now.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 December 2011.