My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh

In late October, Forbes published their annual look at the “Top Earning Dead Celebrities for the year.” Michael Jackson topped a list that also included Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain. According to the magazine, the estate of Marilyn Monroe (the subject of this film, My Week with Marilyn) ranked number 3, taking in an estimated $25 million in the last 12 months. In this R-rated drama, Monroe (Williams) and a film assistant (Eddie Redmayne) develop an on-set romance during the shooting of Laurence Olivier’s (Branagh) The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957. The Plus: The players. There is already Oscar talk for Williams (The Station Agent, Blue Valentine), who’s been nominated once before for Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain. Plus, it should be fascinating to watch Branagh (Henry V) tackle real-life acting legend Olivier, Redmayne (The Other Boleyn Girl) tackle author Colin Clark, Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall) and actress Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind), Dougray Scott (Mission: Impossible 2) tackle playwright Arthur Miller, and Judi Dench (J. Edgar) tackle actress Sybil Thorndike. The Minus: The competition. The early odds indicate there will be a lot of strong contenders for Best Actress this year (Viola Davis, The Help; Glenn Close, Albert Dobbs; Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady; Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia; Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Charlize Theron, Young Adult), which slims Williams’s chances of taking home an Oscar. Films like this get their second box office wind once the nominations get announced. Otherwise, they tend to be forgotten.

War Horse

Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson

In the film biz, filmmakers have long adopted a one-for-them/one-for-me approach, which basically means that a director churns out a studio-approved potential blockbuster for every personal project that they produce (Steven Soderbergh, for example, followed the hit Ocean’s Eleven with the artsy Full Frontal and the smash sequel Ocean’s Twelve with the quirky experimental release Bubble). Legendary director Steven Spielberg seems to have kept to this regimen for years. 1993 was the same year that dinosaur popcorn blockbuster Jurassic Park broke box office records and holocaust drama Schindler’s List swept the Oscars. In 1997, audiences got the hit sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park and the historic slavery drama Amistad. 2005 brought both the Tom Cruise sci-fi adventure War of the Worlds and the Israeli revenge drama Munich.

This year – hell, the same month – sees the release of family film The Adventures of Tin Tin and War Horse, an adaptation of the heart-tugging novel by Michael Morpurgo. In this PG-13-rated drama from Spielberg, a young man (Irvine) and his horse Joey find their bond broken when the latter gets sold to the cavalry and sent to the trenches of World War I, where his owner goes to find and rescue him. The Plus: The legend. If you look through the list above, you’ll see that Spielberg’s personal projects were, for the most part, also successful at the box office, which speaks much in the way of quality. Morpurgo’s novel was turned into a smash play that ran for years on London’s West End and on Broadway. The Minus: The competition. Opening amid one of the box office’s most crowded times of year could prove troubling for a heart-tugging drama, especially when Sherlock Holmes 2, M:I IV, and Spielberg’s own Tin Tin are the big contenders.

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Voices of Jaime Bell, Daniel Craig

Though not nearly as unforgettably excellent as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg’s latest shares many of the cinematic trailblazing and cliffhanging suspense that made Indiana Jones a film legend. On film, European storybook icon Tin Tin is not exactly a swashbuckling archaeologist, but he is cut from the same jib. The revered director of Temple of Doom and Last Crusade seems to ape himself, borrowing liberally from the Jones series’ Saturday afternoon matinee cinema style. Best yet, the art of motion capture has finally caught up with the medium now that this master storyteller is at the helm, progressing beyond the dead-eyed passengers of the Polar Express to an incredible live-eyed canvas of near-endless excitement. More caricature than character-based, the story plays out as more of an actioner than detective story. Still, whatta adventure!

In this PG-rated animated family adventure based on Herge’s illustrated children’s books, an intrepid young reporter in pursuit of a good story (Bell) gets thrust into a treasure hunt involving Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and a nefarious pirate (Craig).

Spielberg has dabbled with animation before, producing Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the TV program Tiny Toon Adventures. For his animated directorial debut, he’s assembled a phenomenal talent tool that includes Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), screenwriter Steven Moffat (BBC’s Doctor Who). These visionaries, along with the ace vocal talents of Bell, Craig, Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Toby Jones, give a rousingly fantastical thrill-ride that’s more in debt to boyish American adventures than the actual source material. Bottom line: So nice they named him twice.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig

Cinema in 2011 may’ve come in like a lamb but, thanks to a stylishly smart crime thriller, it may soon become known as the year of the Dragon. The Girl in question can’t help it, however. She’s just that good. It helps that serial killer stories and a meticulously punk-infused style are in the wheelhouse of director David Fincher, who’s already given filmgoers marvelously edgy multiple murder detective stories Se7en and Zodiac. It’s not as aesthetically in-your-face as the former but it’s also not as ridiculously detailed as the latter either (excusable since Zodiac is based on true events). Rather, this brilliant suspenser is just right. More than a Who-Dunnit, it’s so much more, impossibly going beyond the solution and giving a complete and darkly beautiful portrait of the troubled twosome on the case.

In this R-rated thriller, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) is aided in his search for a woman who’s been missing for 40 years by a young computer hacker (Mara). Those who thought that Niel Arden Oplev’s 2010 Swedish adaptation of this novel couldn’t be topped are in for a rousing surprise. Steven Zallian’s screenplay embraces the full breadth of the book with a keen eye on character (this version goes the distance, leaving the full ending intact). Flawed protagonists Blomkvist and Salander are the heart of the ­film – not the supposed murder. Thankfully, Craig, Stellan Skaarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, and Christopher Plummer melt seamlessly into Fincher’s, Zallian’s, and – most importantly – Larsson’s tapestry. It’s Mara, however, who deserves singular praise for her hypnotic, wholly immersive, and starkly naked performance. Bottom line: Tattoo W00t!

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

Jason Lee, David Cross

Three times the charmlessness, Chipwrecked washes up more tired castaway jokes than the umpteenth rerun of Gilligan’s Island. In this PG-rated family tail, the Chipmunks (voices of Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCarthy) and Chipettes (Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, and Christina Applegate) must survive on a Polynesian island by themselves after a cruise ship mishap. Chipmunking more potty jokes and auto, er, animal-tuned jukebox ditties than any rational animal can withstand, this Squeakquel sequel is so bad that’d make the Swiss Family Robinson swim away from their hideaway.

Yes, it does teach life lessons about the importance of individuality and instilling confidence, but these messages are spoon fed … with a slingshot. Even though no one could tell the difference once the voice is sped up, this second deuce needlessly shells out for marquee names. Bottom line: Nuts to yule.

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner

Despite accepting the ridiculously challenging mission of re-invigorating a franchise that’s had its ups and downs, Ghost Protocol proves so impossibly good that it’s actually the best of the series thus far. In this PG-13-rated spy thriller sequel, the IMF gets shut down after being implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin, leading Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team (Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg) to go rogue and clear their organization’s name. Selling through some of the most heart-racing stunts in the history of film, Cruise wholeheartedly hammers home why he’s still the biggest movie star in the world – couch-jumping be damned. Director Brad Bird’s live action directorial debut is a blazing fuse of whip-smart flag-smashing adventure that keeps igniting action-packed set pieces at a furious rapid-fire clip that doesn’t let up until the end credits roll. Bottom line: Mission: accomplished.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law

A shadowy Game that sadly turns two of literature’s most iconic detectives into plastic swivel-armed battle-gripped action figures, Sherlock 2 is mostly elementary, dear Watson. In Guy Ritchie’s PG-13-rated more smudges than smarts sequel, detective

Sherlock Holmes (Downey) and Watson (Law) meet their match in Professor Moriarity (Jared Harris), whose nefarious plot of war profiteering leads them on a path of death and destruction through France, Germany, and Switzerland. Laden with more chopsocky than mystery, the screenplay actually has the structure of an action movie – a villainous lair, money-grubbing conspiracy, and fight to the death at the end included. This overlong follow-up – with it’s many explosive set pieces and total lack of a who-dunnit – finishes the job begun by the first film, successfully turning Holmes and Watson into a second-rate Murtaugh and Riggs. Bottom line: Sure crock.

We Bought a Zoo

Matt Damon, Scarlet Johansson

The beat goes on for Cameron Crowe, whose latest can buy you love. In this PG-rated dramedy, a recently widowed father (Damon) moves his young family to the Southern California countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo. With Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, he gave filmgoers a wit and rock-infused warm and fuzzy style that just happened to come with an adults-only R rating. Truthfully, Crowe’s zingy dialogue has always talked with, not down to, filmgoers of all ages, especially children (Exhibit A: Maguire’s Jonathan “D’ya know the human head weighs eight pounds?” Lipnicki).

Though there are a bit too many strategically placed feel-good moments and young kid precociousness to completely ring true, this solid charmer only proves that Crowe didn’t buy the farm with his below average dud Elizabethtown. Indeed, Simon and Garfunkel said it best. Bottom line: It’s all happening at the zoo.

Young Adult

Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson

The unexpectedly pitch black reunion of Juno’s writer and director doesn’t exactly ignite the same sparks, but Young Adult still proves to be a great performance piece for its star. In this R-rated dramedy, a newly-divorced fiction writer (Theron) returns to her small-town Minnesota home, looking to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend (Wilson), who is now married with kids. With three critically hailed films under his belt (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air), director Jason Reitman exudes the confidence of a much older filmmaker. Here, he’s on top form – as is Theron. Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s script, however, ends up being 90 percent drama and 10 percent comedy. This is bad odds for a dramedy, but even worse odds for Cody, who’s celebrated for her razor-sharp wit.

Still, the whole she-bang makes for an interesting character study. Bottom line: Young Turks, be bleak.

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