Hugo – Martin Scorsese (2011)


I have no idea how this fell through the cracks, but it’s been sitting here as a draft since November, 2011.

Late on in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) stands upon the stage in his tuxedo, drenched in spotlight, a mix of nerves and excitement in his face and in his voice, and welcomes the wizards and magicians in the crowd.

Despite coming towards the end, it’s a fitting welcome to this film too. It’s a film which was seemingly handcrafted entirely by wizards and magicians, made for people in awe of the kind of magic and wizardry that the camera can be used to compose. The camera may not be made of gears and sprockets anymore, it may not print onto celluloid anymore, or even have the same dimensions that the original film magicians, but the spirit is the same, and so is the magic — especially from Scorsese and Bob Richardson’s hands.

Adapted from the children’s novel by Brian Selznick (grandson of the legendary David O. Selznick), Hugo tells the story of a little poor boy (Asa Butterfield) in 1920s Paris who goes to live in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station after the death of his father (Jude Law) in a fire. Barely more than an orphan, Hugo is stuck tending to and winding the station’s clocks for his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk and a scoundrel who has been off on a bender for weeks by the time the film starts. Hugo has nothing left of his past life, except an old mechanical man that he and his father were trying to fix, his father’s notebook about how to do it.

When he is caught stealing parts in aid of that purpose by Papa Georges, an old toymaker who keeps a booth in the station, an adventure is set before Hugo and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the toymaker’s goddaughter who may literally hold the key to unravel the mystery behind the mechanical man. It’s an adventure that traces through the origins and history of the cinema as well both of their family histories, one that radically changes each of their lives, and maybe even the world as we know it today.

Early on, though, I had a tough time getting past the idea that Scorsese had decided to jump onto the bandwagon and make a 3D film — and a kids’ movie no less. How do you get blood and Catholic guilt into a kids’ movie, and why does it need to be in my face about it? But not only is Hugo enjoyable in 3D (and 2D as well), it turns out to be the best use of the format to date. It’s the first time that I’ve seen where 3D was used genuinely, not as a gimmick to pad the box office receipts like so many others.

Of course none of that would mean anything without the tender story to take a piggyback ride on. Selznik’s original, and John Logan’s adaptation are beautifully crafted and seemingly tailor made for Scorsese’s historian sensibilities. You can feel every bit of Scorsese the skinny, bed-ridden boy in the ragamuffin Hugo, who is so alone and afraid of being sent to the orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) that he doesn’t know what to do when he is presented with a friendship. And Isabelle, the story’s quasi-narrator, doesn’t fall into the trap of Hugo’s information crutch, even though she starts out an expository character. Chole Moretz rescues her with grace and cunning. She’s a bookworm’s bookworm, tough and loyal with a lot more Francie Nolan to her than Hermoine Granger (who needed a fair bit of saving from Emma Watson herself). But it’s Sorsese who is the real wizard here, whipping this all together with a superb eye, a deft hand and a whole lot of heart.

Yi Yi: A One and a Two – Edward Yang (1990)


Let’s be upfront about this: Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two is a masterpiece. It was a masterpiece when it was released in 2001, it was a masterpiece when Criterion released it on DVD in 2005 and it’s a slightly prettier masterpiece now that they released it on Blu-Ray on March 15.

Yi Yi is Yang’s most beautiful and touching film, an emotionally complex visual poem of the struggles of a family in Taipei after Granny (Ru-Yun Tang) falls into a coma. “The spark that led me to make this film was I decided that I was going to make a film about life, from birth to death,” he told Michael Berry in 2002 for Berry’s book, Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers.

Breaking that lifespan down into three generations of a family allowed Yang to tell the story in a more manageable way, framing it around three family events, and allowed the normally conservative Yang to become the most playful he’s ever been with his cinematic space – a necessity for the film’s youngest star, the inquisitive, introspective eight-year-old son, Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), to 
come to life.

Unlike many other Taiwanese films, the narrative in Yi Yi is not bogged down by a deluge of Taiwan’s tumultuous political and cultural history. The characters live and breathe in their own time, in their own way, and get into their own trouble without the help of the Kuomintang. Yang’s teasing camera, along with the film’s universal themes of love, regret and death allow it to become Yang’s – and probably Taiwanese cinema’s – most accessible film. “It’s not death I’m interested in here, it is life,” he told Berry. “In life, you have to go through these things to test your own boundaries. Sometimes it is only when we are faced with loss that we truly appreciate how 
sacred life is.”

In some ways, it’s what Band of Outsiders is to the rest of Jean-Luc Godard’s work: A wonderful gateway drug that leads you to chase the sensation again, and the deeper you dig, the harder you have to work for it. But unlike some of Godard’s material, Yang’s work is always worth the doing.

Up – Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (2009)


It must be freeing to know that you have an audience before you even compose your first thought for a project. It’s a luxury very few people enjoy in the movie business, but an audience is a fait accompli for anyone working with the Pixar logo at the head of their credits. Pixar has the kind of track record that renders bad reviews all but moot, but they don’t take their good standing for granted. They work harder, as individuals and as a company, with each new picture so as not to betray the quality of what came before just to make a cheap buck. It’s the mouse that sells the toys.

Pixar has not failed that legacy with Up, Pete Docter’s daydream follow-up to his nightmare awakening of Monsters, Inc. It follows the story of Carl Fredricksen, a former balloon salesman turned elderly curmudgeon who is slowly being squeezed out of his home, his comfort and his life by a great villain called time.

On the eve of being evicted and sent to a nursing home, Carl does what any rational person would do: He turns his house into a zeppelin with thousands of helium-filled balloons and steers it towards South America, hoping to land on Paradise Falls, a mythic-yet-real spot in Venezuela. It’s the spot that he and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, had always planned to visit together, but they ran out of time before they could get there. He is joined – accidentally, as it were – by Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is looking for the “Assisting the Elderly” badge to fill out his sash.

With WALL-E last year and now Up, Pixar has, oddly enough, grown up a little. It’s not because of the elderly characters or the lack of inanimate objects with speaking parts (animals still talk here, though not of their own accord); there’s a new layer of depth and emotional resonance. That could have been assumed to be a fluke in WALL-E, but not only weren’t these themes a fluke, they’re expanded upon in Up. Now we arethe characters, instead of wishing there were some way that the characters could really exist.

The old yarn that Pixar doesn’t really make kids’ movies has never been more true with Up, yet it’s also their most innocent since Toy Story. Though exploring new depths, they’ve not left the old adventure hat on the rack – the film is all but dedicated to the spirit of adventure. It’s the reason behind Carl and Ellie’s sweet, youthful romance, Carl’s regret in old age and even Russell’s childish naivete. Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes were adventurers. Even the out-of-place moments (doggie planes?) and blunt conceits (the too-literal “life’s-weight-on-his-shoulders” metaphor) can be forgiven, as they perform dutifully in service to the kind of thrilling movie adventures we regular folks can only dream of, but which the wizards at Pixar perform with ease.

Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (2008)


For those born after the incident, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s dramatization of the 1977 interview series between British TV presenter David Frost and then-former President Nixon offers a comfortably Sorkin-esque glimpse behind the scenes of Frost’s landmark grilling of Nixon over Watergate, the coverup and the aftermath that dominated an era of national politics.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is an ambitious TV man whose once-bright star is fading after his American talk show is canceled. He is stuck in entertainment’s second tier, longing for another taste of fame, American-style, and sees the resignation and subsequent pardon of Nixon (Frank Langella) as a way back into his table at Sardi’s. Laying out the hefty sum of $600K to secure the interview with the tough-as-nails Nixon – at the time living in pitiful seclusion and writing his memoirs – Frost and his team of researchers quibble over their goals and are wholly unprepared for the cagey Nixon on the big day; Nixon talks circles around the process, deflecting from the real issues with glancing blows of sentimental minutiae.

If Ali-Frazier was the fight of the century, Frost-Nixon was to be the sit-down of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred tête-à-tête meant to be, whether for redemption or conviction, the real final words of the chapter. Ali lost – he was unprepared for the Champ’s left hook – but Frost comes out the prettier one in this battle. Sheen plays Frost with a dopey smirk that’s off-putting enough to Nixon to lead him right into the eventual sucker punch.

The knockout blow isn’t the star of this picture, however. Nixon is, and what Langella lacks in physical likeness he more than makes up for with the depth of the Nixon spirit, which, 30 years later, comes off like a mean, ugly dog, as repugnant as it is empathetic.

Nixon moved on (and became richer), but the fact that the interview changed nothing – not the Cold War and certainly not corrupt politicians or a tougher press corps – is not the point. The timing ofFrost/Nixon’s release, in these lame-duck last moments of the George W. Bush presidency, won’t be lost on most viewers, and Howard utilizes the Nixon-Bush connection of corruption to create the kind of after-the-fact liberal catharsis that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic sorely missed. As Nixon tacitly confesses, his admission of guilt in the film is more heavily defined than in the original interviews, but it’s a cherry that sits nicely on top of an “Obama won” sundae. What it does is give us some hope, slim as it might be, that there is a new Frost out there waiting patiently for his chance at flustering Bush into a “whoops, sorry” moment, even a tacit one.

Ms. Couric, line one.

Lou Reed’s Berlin – Julian Schnable (2008)


(My first ever film review)

There are few genuine musical happenings anymore. The world has evolved into the kind of interactive place where the musical happening should thrive, but instead it’s succumbed to the corporate clenched fist. Now, instead of Axl and Elton rocking a wet Wembley to bed with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the closest we get to an event is a demand for a public apology to the Jonas Brothers for ridiculing their purity rings.

Lou Reed pisses on that apology. In 2006, the rock pioneer dusted off Berlin, his 1973 rock opera album telling the story of Jim and Caroline, two strung-out lovers and their inevitable downward spiral, and brought it to the live masses with a small orchestra and choir. The Brooklyn concert, Reed’s first in a tour series, was documented by Academy Award–nominated director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the resulting film was recently released on DVD. It was a musical happening as pure as the driven snow, honest and without corporate hindrance, and it was done just because he felt like doing it.

“[The album] didn’t really get a chance for people to hear it,” Reed says about Berlin’s original release during a Q&A at New York City’s Film Forum in July. Coming off his first solo effort, 1972’s breakthroughTransformer, Reed should have been bulletproof. But Berlin, released the following year, was an unmitigated flop, critically and commercially failing to live up to the still-unflagging popularity of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song musically dissimilar to his other work.

“It’s the other side of ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’?” Reed says. “It’s the real one. Maybe no one wanted to hear or see that. It was in the middle of glam rock and it was a dose of reality – a certain kind of reality.”

Thirty-five years later, Berlin is a cult classic. Reed’s voice isn’t as steady as it used to be, but he easily commands the stage.

“I’d performed a couple of the songs out of context [in past concerts], but the way it really works, for me anyway, is in context,” he says. “I always thought of it as a whole piece.”

Berlin is a concert film at first blush, but as it proceeds, it becomes something closer to the theatrical production Reed intended to produce in the early ’70s. Thanks to the loving orchestration of sequences shot by Lola Schnabel, we see the lives of Jim and Caroline and their struggles with drugs, abuse and suicide coming alive to the pace of the songs. The enchanting Emmanuelle Seigner (also of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as Caroline, the heroine of heroin. The years it took for this project to be fully realized were well worth it in the end, as Berlin digs out a new spot in the conversation of best concert films.

The Wrestler – Darren Aronofsky (2009)


A few years ago in Sin City, it was said that Mickey Rourke’s character, Marv, had “the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century,” that he would be right at home “in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.” Underneath the makeup and prosthetics, perhaps, it was just as true for Rourke as it was for Marv.

In The Wrestler, the Coliseum has morphed into a squared circle, and Rourke looks perfectly at home on the canvas even as he takes folding chairs to the head. He plays Randy the Ram, an aging ’80s wrestling superstar still clinging to the last, lingering particles of limelight in small, untelevised wrestling shows.

After a heart attack forces him to retire, Randy flounders around aimlessly, unsure of how his life should commence now. He picks up extra work at the supermarket deli counter, the only suitable retirement home for the self-identified “old, broken-down piece of meat,” to fill the time. Sensing his loneliness, a stripper friend, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), suggests he try bonding with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he barely knows.

Pro wrestling is not an easy subject to take seriously, but director Darren Aronofsky displays it well as a spellbinding muscle ballet, sweaty and bloody, but graceful and addictive all the same. He avoids the ubiquitous camp elements associated with the “sport,” instead focusing on the human elements within the dressing room where these mountains of men are just as fragile and soft as everyone else.

But the rousing comeback of Mickey Rourke is what the film is about, if you listen to common theory. And while that’s mostly true, that conversation unfortunately omits Tomei, who, like Rourke, is rising from the ashes of a career never quite fulfilled after the promise of My Cousin Vinny.

To that point, she gives an absolutely sterling performance here, baring all by night as Cassidy, a stripper at the end of her career, and by day as Pam, the mother of a 9-year-old boy looking for a new life. The dichotomy mandated by her job mirrors the Ram’s in some ways; both are trying to figure out which life is more important. The film gives Tomei some of the heaviest lifting as Randy gradually makes his way through Cassidy’s barrier and into Pam’s life.

Aronofsky, too, had some knocks to recover from after The Fountain. He elevates the film above script level with the small touches of genius that are all but expected of him now, a well that seemed to have run dry.

His usual bag of camera and editing tricks is left backstage, but Aronofsky allows for one soulful flourish: a crushing, one-take Steadicam shot as Randy walks from the back of the supermarket into his new life behind the deli counter. The whirring purrs of refrigerator motors are his only cheers on this new runway, and Randy even fools himself with it for a moment before the reality sinks in that he’s traded the sharp spotlight for flat fluorescents. To complete that sobering splash of cold water, his nametag doesn’t read “The Ram” or even “Randy,” but his given, decidedly unexciting name: “Robin.”

Waltz With Bashir – Ari Folman (2009)


When Israeli writer-director Ari Folman was 19, he enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a regiment that invaded southern Lebanon. Like all soldiers, he saw and did unspeakable things – the kind of things that would mark any man for life.

But then he forgot.

That’s where Waltz With Bashir opens: the forgetting. On a stormy night in Israel, two old friends, Ari and Boaz, get together for a drink to discuss Boaz’s recurring nightmares. Twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets on a nightly basis. It stems from a scarring incident during the war and when they begin to talk about it, Ari realizes he’s never dealt with any of his war demons in his films because he simply doesn’t remember them.

The lone memory that remains from the incursion into Lebanon is a stark image of Ari and two fellow soldiers bathing in the ocean as illumination flares gracefully drift to the earth, shedding light on bombed-out apartment buildings and all below them.

But it never happened. Not like that, anyway. And so, 24 years later, he sends himself off on a new mission: one to remember. What he discovers are different versions of the same horror story about the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila by the Christian Phalangists as revenge for Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.

Naturally, it’s impossible to disentangle politics and history from a film like this, no matter what conflict is at its heart, but that’s where we get lost as noncombatant viewers. To get heated about the real incident and whatever came before or followed is to miss an opportunity to heal the wounds.

It’s true that most modern war films are imbued with the lofty goal of showing us the folly of war – that even in the best of circumstances, war is an unbelievably useless endeavor. No film has yet succeeded, nor can they, but that’s no reason to give up on them.

Waltz invites you to make your own decision about the military brass, but shows a deep compassion for the rank and file, Palestinian and Israeli alike, proving at last that there is no such thing as a best circumstance in war. At first bloodshed, all sides are wrong.

The real unavoidable argument, for our purposes, regards the animation.

Because of that device, a certain poetic license is allowed. As much as the film is about war, it’s also about the mutability and self-distortion of memory, and that makes animation the ideal medium to paint battle as the surreal experience it is. Waltz never pulls punches on the hard stuff, either. The trembling hands and beads of sweat before the kill remain, an effect as beautiful as it is terrifying.

The titular (and literal) waltz itself is breathtaking in a way that someone aiming a camera could not have captured. But it’s unlikely that’s how it happened in real time. To put a filter of 20 years over a millisecond of a memory is to forge its authenticity. The animated rendering doesn’t quite say, “This is a dream,” but it nudges the idea that war may be remembered in soaring poetry and dime-novel prose alike.

In the Loop – Armando Iannucci (2009)


It’s safe to say that there will not be a funnier film delivered to theaters this year than In the Loop. My bladder hasn’t been at such a high risk of succumbing to gasping hysterics since the relentless assault of the Uncle Fucker scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, during which I literally fell out of my seat laughing. I was able to comport myself a bit better during this film – instead of a single scene, the entire film is relentless – but just barely.

In the Loop is something of a continuation of the BBC TV seriesThe Thick of It. The utterly fantastic Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins revive their roles as Malcolm Tucker and Jamie MacDonald respectively in this farce about the lead-up to war in the Middle East.

After a disastrous radio interview in which the unlucky British minister of international development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), slips up and calls the war “unforeseeable” – quite against the government’s established media line, Tucker assures him – Foster and his staff are unexpectedly tossed into the middle of an international imbroglio with both the doves and the hawks. Foster doesn’t help matters with a second disastrous interview attempting to fix the first, in which he says the British government must “climb the mountain of conflict.”

The haplessness of politicians (and their equally hapless aides) is a universal truth, it seems, and there is no better time than now to run them through for their mealy-mouthed tendencies and their ineffectiveness as thoroughly as Iannucci and company do here. The wit and skill on offer don’t quite make up for the lack of brains and balls in power seats in government, but it does make it all right for two hours at least.

The film is about the political intrigue, of course, but really, its centerpiece is the enduring satanic charm of Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director. The willful exuberance – almost glee – with which Tucker goes on his vituperative rampages, savaging anyone in his line of sight, is one of the most skillful bits of writing and acting seen in ages. It’s a masterstroke of nuance and strategy, not just a string of blind “fuck you”s stuck in for comedy or snarling charm. (When confronted by a female staffer, Tucker unleashes the following: “Where do you think you are, in some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your ‘purview’ and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”) Tucker slowly bends everyone to his viewpoint and manipulates his way through the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

In a way, Tucker is the anti-Ari Gold, his closest American onscreen analogue – the jerk agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage, while all vicious bluster on the surface, is a sappy family man on the side. (Oddly enough, the character of Ari Gold is based on the real-life brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s scream-happy chief of staff and the closest thing we have to a real-life Malcolm Tucker counterpart.) Tucker? You can’t imagine him having a family or even having had a childhood. It’s as if he accumulated out of thin air fully formed and smarter than you on the day the prime minister was sworn in. He is a straight pit bull with the bark, bite and heart that entails.

Sunshine Cleaning – Christine Jeffs (2009)


The bored, middle-aged women taking a break from shopping for an after-lunch sneak preview screening had come to see the girl from Enchanted and the girl from The Devil Wears Prada in their new movie. As the gasps and “Oh-mi-god”s filled the theater during the first scene, it became clear that these women may not have been aware of the film’s premise, that the pristine pair would soon be tidying up the incidental mess after their “clients’” murders and suicides – like the one they just bore witness to.

It’s a ballsy way to start a movie that, despite its low-key indie vibe, is a fairly mainstream comedy, one not shy to tout its Little Miss Sunshine pedigree.

Sunshine Cleaning stars Emily Blunt and Amy Adams as Norah and Rose Lorkowski, two sisters in desperate need of money who start a cleaning service catering to post-mortem cleanup. The idea for the business is suggested by Mac (Steve Zahn), a police detective who was Rose’s high-school sweetheart, but is now married with children. He still sees Rose on the side while Norah thinks she’s at class. Mac’s wife knows the situation, but wears blinders to it out of a suburban fear of loneliness.

Naturally repulsed by the job description upon first hearing about it, they dive into the decay and detritus headfirst when Rose’s son, the rambunctious Oscar (Jason Spevack), is pulled out of an incompetent school and put in the care of their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), until other arrangements can be made.

The delicacy of the blood-and-guts job hits the emotionally fragile Norah hard. When she finds a fanny pack full of pictures of a departed client’s daughter, the guilt of her own family’s tragedy kicks in, the industrial-strength cleaning solvent starts to erode the wall she’s built up between herself and her past, and she cannot help but save them from the incinerator, against the strict rules of the trade, and try to return them to the girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub).

Director Christine Jeffs’ brilliant casting takes everything we thought we knew about the pair’s prim princess and posh career girl personas and turns it right on its head. To see Adams scrubbing blood off a mirror and Blunt vomiting as a (rational) reaction instead of as a weight-loss measure is deliriously funny, but surprisingly not a one-note gag. It’s played for laughs sparingly once we get beneath the girls’ outer layers and dig into their stories.

It’s a concept that most of us can relate to in one way or another – though maybe not in ways as horrifying as cleaning up brain tissue. We’ve all done jobs that went against our personal sense of self because of human need; money is the key to all of our desires as well as our basic survival. Jeffs has crafted a brave, evocative work that fits neatly into the debt-burdened zeitgeist while offering a jarring possible reality, something the down-and-out in this grim economy might actually look into as a possibility. Hey, it beats flippin’ burgers.

Ashes of Time (Redux) – Wong Kar Wai (2009)


It took 14 years, but Wong Kar-wai’s limp and enigmatic Ashes of Time finally has some life to it.

The new version of the 1994 film, now called Ashes of Time Redux (available this week on DVD), is a luscious visual poem set to the masterful images of Christopher Doyle, the graceful fight choreography of Sammo Hung and the unequaled cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a newly recorded score. The story, however, still falls flat.

Wong tells the tale of two swordsmen, Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who will later (in Louis Cha’s 1957 novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes) become bitter enemies, but for now are friends in love with the same woman (Maggie Cheung), whom neither can have.

Feng is estranged from his home and family when the woman he loves marries his brother. He’s set up shop in the middle of the desert, acting as a middleman for passing bounty hunters and killers, and those in need of such services. Yao-shi is just one of his many visitors, arriving once a year like clockwork to catch up, tell stories and, of course, share his bottle of magic wine.

In the jungle of a city, Wong can pull off this kind of small, intimate story of emotionally blocked characters trying to be set free with his eyes closed, but in the desert he’s lost. Weight and depth are sacrificed amid the jumbled story and those long, lingering shots of clouds passing. Wong meditates on every frame in order to extract every droplet of beauty, but it’s akin to grabbing our attention with a shiny object while the plot sneaks out the back door. It sure is pretty, though.

Redux clocks in at a slightly shorter running time than any of the previous versions Wong has offered. The tighter edit is a better fit, but ultimately, it’s not enough.