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.

The Day He Arrives – Hong Sang-soo (2011)

If there is a director who has essayed the uncomfortable randomness of meeting someone on the street — or the soju sit downs that so often follow it — better than Hong Sang-soo, I’ve never seen it. In The Day He Arrives, he’s boiled the film down almost entirely to that: walking, talking and drinking. But in not blazing a new stylistic path, he has almost redefined himself in the way Kim Ki-duk did with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring, stripping away everything that wasn’t at the very core of his idea, even the color. The Day He Arrives is a lean film, running at just 78 minutes, and shot in black and white, the fat trimmed off entirely. It is a whiskey-and-soju-soaked play on the ideas of déjà vu, coincidence, human contradiction, and the way we often live our lives at two different extremes.

Not to break with the familiar territory theme, Hong has set his story in a world populated by filmmakers, or at least the filmmaking adjacent. Seong-joon (Yoo Joon-sang) is a once-successful director who used to be based in Seoul but now teaches in Daegu. He’s made four films, but has run out of creative steam since. Likely a middling talent, he seems to now only be known by fellow filmmakers and critics. Luckily — or unluckily — for him, he is surrounded by filmmakers, actors, and film school professors. He is back in Seoul to meet up with his old friend, Yeong-ho (Kim Sang-joong), but more likely it’s to see an old girlfriend, Kyeong-jin (Kim Bo-kyeong), with whom he is still obsessed. After suitably embarrassing himself in her presence, he goes on drinking with his film friends who mention his work in passing, but never in depth. He nods appreciatively, but would like to talk about anything but, especially with Joong-won (Kim Ee-seong), the leading man of Seong-joon’s first film, who was replaced at the request of the producer in his second film and has since fallen on hard luck. More than having been replaced, it seems to be the act of cowardice that Seong-joon had his assistant call Joong-won to tell him that he’d been replaced instead of doing it himself that looms like a sulpher cloud over their drinking excursion. Seong-joon squirms and evades, eventually escaping outside to smoke, hoping the bar hostess (also played by Kim Bo-kyeong) will join him. She does, but she also doesn’t.

What I mean by that is that the film seems to fall back on itself throughout, repeating scenes of street meetings and drinking sessions, while simultaneously striding forward: repeated scenes seem to take place in consecutive days, but there is never a true marker, and everything is ever-so-slightly different to the point that you’re never actually sure of the film’s timeline. By the end, even Seong-joon can’t remember how many days he’s been in Seoul for or how many days he has left.

In that fog of the time-space continuum, Hong allows his characters to muse on in rambles about whether or not reality has a special force behind it, or whether the brain is trained by our own insecurities to create a through-line for life out of the random threads of passing time. It’s a question that could be readily overheard in any college dorm room (especially the ones with the funny smell wafting from under the door), but that may be part of the joke. The thing about Hong’s films is that, though they seem to be heavy dramas, it is okay to laugh at them, especially the characters. More often than not, it seems that Hong is torturing his characters for our benefit. They are often selfish and pathetic, people who once had promise in life, but did not fulfill it, especially the men. They are past the point of redemption with their habits or the ways they’ve hurt their friends and lovers, but there is a tongue-in-cheek element to his films. Hong never explicitly winks at us with his camera, but he sometimes gives us the hint of a barely contained laugh as they flounder or a forehead slap when they wound. He does seem to care for his characters, even – or especially – the unlikable ones, but still creates an environment for them that is harsh, in which they lash out in ways that they don’t seem to be in control of, especially here in the scene where Seong-joon visits his old girlfriend and embarrasses himself. He seems to be drawn to her apartment by a magnet set by Hong and doesn’t know what he’s doing there, or why he’s suddenly crying. This scene happens early on in the film though, where it would happen at the end of most films. But in Hong’s world, that’s a much better place to start than end, if only because it leads straight to the whiskey.

Quick Hits on: The Descendants – Alexander Payne (2011)

-I feel like I’m officially an old man now. The lasting impression I will take from The Descendants is that kids are terrible. They’re such assholes. I know why everyone hated my generation now too. We were assholes. When Alex and Matt were in the hospital room  and she confronts her comatose mom, which was clearly the wrong time and place, Matt half-heartedly tries to spank her. He was justified. He should have bent her over his knee and spanked her with a kitchen spoon, and he should have washed Scottie’s mouth out with Lava. Seriously, get off my fucking lawn, you brats.

-My old man rage may be stopping me from seeing the greatness in this that everyone else seems to be seeing. I thought the film broke down to one fantastic segment (when they are hunting down Brian Speer (see above) and finally find him. Matt, confronted with a few possibilities of what to do, chooses to see if he can make inroads with Speers wife, Julie. They flirt, but he doesn’t seem to have the stomach for it. He seems to be relieved when Scottie comes out of the water to get him. He boils his revenge down to one self-satisfied moment, when Julie goes to kiss him goodbye on the cheek after Matt and Alex have finally confronted Brian. He evades the cheek kiss and plants one fully on her lips. She is startled, but doesn’t pull away. Her suspicions about Brian (and Matt’s visit) may have gotten the best of her, or it may just be frozen terror at his audaciousness. But it still seems like a private revenge. Would Julie tell Brian about this? Would she feel too guilty to? Even after he confesses about his affair? She doesn’t seem the type to use it as a sledgehammer, and it was still an innocent kiss. I find it interesting to see the small ways people take revenge on one another, especially in film, where the unbelievable, broad stroke revenge is usually favored, which is much less interesting.

Quick Hits on: Young Adult – Jason Reitman (2011)

-I was left somewhat surprised by the fact that is a somewhat difficult film to pin down. With Reitman and Cody getting together again, I figured there was to be another relatively soft comedic drama that focused on a simple life crisis. Perhaps it is just that I’m rapidly approaching a mid-life crisis and am pre-planning for it enough to find this a more complex set of problems than I found the childbirth-adoption story in their previous Juno. Of course, Mavis’s problem set is entirely different from mine and I have no idea what my mid-life crisis will look like. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs, so I don’t have that baggage, and I would rather shoot a nail into my baby toe than meet any of my old friends or girls who I had crushes on. But then again, I am relatively sure it will include a lot of ice cream. You know, for a change of pace.

-Still, this was another case of the sum not being as great as its parts. Charlize Theron was terrific, so was Patton Oswalt, and so was Elizabeth Reaser as the girl who got Buddy Slade. Patrick Wilson was a little goofy, but still has his charms, and worked in that way of keeping us not sure if he is worth the trouble now, but still being able to see that spark in his eyes from 20 years ago when he would have been worth the while. And in a decidedly poised, adult way, Diablo Cody even managed to not include cheeseburger phone. But there was an element missing somewhere, a binding element that it needed to hold it together. There was too many instances of dipping into the trite world of the high school reunion cliches, and they came annoyingly in order to cut up and destroy the path cut by these wonderfully light and affecting scenes of Mavis’s aimless drift/wreckless descent.

Quick Hits on: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher (2011)


-I seem to be very much in the minority on this issue, but I preferred Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander to Noomie Rapace’s. Not to knock Rapace’s performance, because it was quite good — she handled the character with a slithery quality worth of her tattoo — but I found Mara more believable and felt she offered the same slithery quality, but with a level of vulnerability that Rapace didn’t have. The great part about the vulnerability is that Mara’s Salander operates like she seem to be aware of it, even though its noticeable to everyone with the possible exception of Micke (Daniel Craig). There is almost a gender reversal in their relationship. Someone (in The New Yorker, I think, but can’t remember or I’d link it) made the observation that Lisbeth fucks Micke like a teenage boy who doesn’t care if the girl gets anything out of the experience, and that’s a dead-on accurate assessment. Lisbeth comes off like Micke’s guardian angel because of her sealed off avenging nature, but it’s really just her way of articulating a crush, which he spurns in the end, of course.

-The problem is the same in the new version as it is in the original version though: the mystery plot is terribly boring, and it only got worse in the original sequels. If they keep the remake series going, I hope they break off from the book series like the Bourne movies did and just come up with new stories to fit Lisbeth and Micke into. I know all of the warnings about the original sequels, how they were made for TV and had no budget, but even for that level they were still dreadfully boring, especially the third one.

Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

(The original title, jokingly because I couldn’t think of a good title, was “Steven Steal-berg”.)

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a vacationing screenwriter working on a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. That a screenwriter would have this notion seems about par for the course, as Hollywood has almost completely turned itself into just that: a nostalgia shop. Comic books, toys, cartoons, amusement park rides, old movies and now even board games – it’s all fair game for a cinematic rendering in a way that didn’t exist, or at least not with any real quality, a decade ago.

Gil, of course, magically goes back in time and visits his favorite writers in 1920s Paris, falling in love. For most of today’s directors, it’s not nearly as far a journey. Many just can’t get past how rad the ’80s were, or get over how wizard the ’70s were, when Steven Spielberg made their favorite movies. But in these re-tellings, the memories they are reshaping are too often secondhand themselves, memories that directors like Spielberg, George Lucas, the Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) or Martin Scorsese originally got from the B-movies, serials and television of their own childhoods. Like the ever-worsening quality of a cassette tape, the further down the generational line you get from the original, the more fuzzy and shapeless things get.

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“Hugo”, Marty, Papa Georges and 3D

Being so busy last week, I didn’t get to see Martin Scorsese’sHugo until Monday afternoon, and I didn’t finish getting my thoughts in order until today. Initially, I was cold on the whole idea of Scorsese making a kid’s film, and in 3D.

3D?! Marty? Et tu Brute?

However, I stand corrected. I stand flogged with my own anti-3D conviction, honestly. I started to warm up to the idea of Hugo a few weeks ago and tried extremely hard to avoid every single review from the NYFF screening, and any subsequent screenings (despite dutifully gathering the links for the Roundup).

What I saw on that screen (and in front of it) was magic. The kind of magic to which you can only reply, “guh”, while sitting slackjawed in amazement. It was the same magic that Melies coaxed out of his camera 100 years ago, just in an extra dimension. How Melies would have loved this extra dimension. It was such a soft, deft, often subtle use of the medium, one that ran contrary to every other 3D film I’ve seen in the past. There was no shit flying in your face, despite many opportunities — none greater than the train stopping short of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield).

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Melancholia – Lars Von Trier (2011)

As published at 629 words:

The original, unedited draft at 1,243 words:
Von Trier’s Melancholia is new and the same, but brilliant either way
By: Rob Boylan
Stars: 5

T. S. Eliot wrote that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. In Melancholia, Danish director Lars Von Trier’s latest ode to the triumph of the human spirit, it ends with both. In it, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters facing the end of the world, as an onrushing rogue planet threatens to pass through Earth’s orbit and the Earth itself.

Dunst, in a breakthrough performance, plays the pretty younger sister, Justine, a newlywed with a building tide of emotional problems threatening to capsize her life, and, in the immediate, her wedding reception. She’s been like this before, but is warned “not tonight”, and throughout the reception people try to buy her off, buy her happiness: her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), gives her an apple orchard where she can go sit to feel happy when she is sad; her brother in law, John (Keifer Sutherland), with the stupidly lavish party that would cost a normal person an arm and a leg (something that he constantly reminds us of). John goes so far to ask her for a deal: he will consider it money well spent if she agrees to be happy. Happiness doesn’t work like that, though. When an attempt is made to buy happiness and it fails, it makes the sadness grow even deeper and distort itself. In Melancholia this sadness happens to manifest itself in the specter of a planet on a collision course with the Earth. It seems to be no coincidence in timing that the planet Melancholia blots out Antares on this night, and surges towards the Earth, growing bigger as Justine falls deeper into her widening depression.

In the second half of the film, the focus turns to Claire (Gainsbourg), the sensible older sister who tries to keep all of their lives together. She is fighting a losing battle. Eventually, even Claire has a moment of weakness when she tries and fails to buy Justine’s happiness with a sentimental favorite dinner, meatloaf, which only makes Justine cry when it tastes like ash.

If you could say that the first half is about Justine’s building dam of depression, you would have to say that the second half is about Claire coming undone by fear. By now, Melancholia is just days away Earth, and even though John insists it will miss, Claire has fallen victim to the doomsayers. It’s just as vicious an uncontrolled spiral as Justine’s depression, though it’s based in a logical reasoning, not a chemical one. To quickly break the difference down, you could say that fear is something that is easily manipulated, while depression is a reinforced brick wall. The logic of seeing a planet come so close to Earth that it steals part of our atmosphere and makes it snow during the summer can naturally cause one to become very illogical.

Melancholia is both a touchdown on new ground and a revisit to old familiar ground for Von Trier. He has never done anything quite so beautiful and visionary, which is something he had doubts about along the way, but some of the more down to earth elements are familiar from his past. Breaking the Waves, too, begins at the wedding of an unstable girl and follows her through her emotional descent. Bess (Emily Watson), a member of an ascetic protestant church in the Scottish highlands, manifests her problems with attachments: to Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), her new husband, to Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), he sister in law, but most especially to God, who she talks to and gets damning replies from. This God is in her head, speaks through her mouth, but to her is as real as the air she breathes.

But where Justine is on her own, circling the drain in her own head, Bess is egged on in her downward spiral by Jan and by her own immense guilt. There is no hint in Melancholia that Justine has ever felt any kind of guilt. She is not crazy or delusional, she’s systemically imbalanced. Still, she says she knows things about life, things she shouldn’t know. Trivial things, like the answer to the bean count contest at her wedding, but also that life on Earth is all there is in the universe, and it won’t be missed. Life, she knows, is evil, and deserving of its fate. Does she know, or is she just insisting? Dunst brilliantly straddles the edge of crazy and childlike in this scene to the point where it’s difficult to get a read of her character. Her demeanor is calm to the point of unnerving, but when she is challenged by Claire over what she knows, she recedes into the guise of a hurt two year old whose mommy won’t believe her wild story. Claire is right to not believe her story, if only for her own sanity, so she doesn’t go to pieces in front of her child.

It’s actually been gnawing at me that the prologue — which features key scenes from the film in a 10 minutes slow motion ballet set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde — is not really a prologue, but a representation of an idea coming into an increasingly despairing Justine’s head. I don’t mean that to sound as simple as a The Cabinet of Caligari, and it’s not a mindfuck movie, but there is a fair case to be made for it. Depression ultimately leads to self-absorption, self-loathing and the loathing of all those around you. Destroying the planet is as natural a thought as any in that state. Justine seems to allude to it most clearly when she says, somewhat matter-of-factly, that “this has nothing to do with the village” as Claire, in her most illogical moment, tries to flee to the nearby village, to run away from Melancholia as it is about to strike.

Claire cannot make out of the family’s grounds, just like her character seemed to be stuck in the idyllic Edenin Antichrist. Being stuck in time and space is fairly common to Von Trier films, in fact. In Europa, Kessler (Jean Marc Barr), cannot escape the odd post-war Germany that he finds himself in. In Dogville, Grace (Nicole Kidman), manages to briefly escape, only to be raped and promptly brought back to the town she is a captive of. Even in Breaking the Waves, Bess is rooted so deeply to her town that, despite excommunicated by her church, she can’t manage get very far away either.

In contrast to Antichrist or Europa, though, the power that controls the world of Melancholia seems to always belong to Justine. She seems to be willing all of this to happen, even though she does seem afraid of it at points too. As the film opens, she literally wields the power, spraying stray electricity from her fingers as the world collapses around her, like the God of her dollhouse world. If a planetary collision doesn’t concern the nearby village, just who does it concern anyway?

The bottom line is that Melancholia isn’t a one and done film. It’s a film that can easily be dismissed on face value, waived off with the intellectually lazy “first world problems” wand, but actually contains complex, rich core deep down. It’s an overwhelming film as a first viewing, though, and Von Trier doesn’t make anything about it easy. Nor should he.

Drei – Tom Tykwer (2011)

Before this, I had kind of given up on Tom Tykwer as a director. A former favorite of mine, the guy who directed Run, Lola, Run, The Princess and the Warrior and the sublime Heaven, had, it seemed gone Hollywood, making the thoroughly mediocre efforts Perfume and The International. Then he’d signed up to do the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with the dreaded Wachowskis. What happened to the psycho-brilliant craftsman and artist I’d grown to love?

Nothing, really. It’s on me for forcing the man into a box and expecting him not to change. After all, who would say no to Dustin Hoffman or Naomi Watts?

But it was still with some trepidation that I went into Drei, Tykwer’s first German film in over a decade. It’s the kind of subtle, naughty black comedy that seems sincere at first, before you suddenly go, “oh!” and slap yourself on the forehead.

The film is about Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper), a modern Berlin couple in their mid-30s. They are well off, but never married, have no kids, and have no real plans to do either. They are the kind of couple, Simon argues, where both parties would fight against having custody of the child should they find themselves getting divorced. As a couple, they seem to be at a crossroads brought on by age and complacency, and both throw themselves into their work to skirt around the subject.

Simon’s life changes within the space of an afternoon when he is told he hast testicular cancer and must go under the knife right away. Simon tries, but is unable to get hold of Hanna on her cell to tell her because she has met another man, Adam (Devid Striesow), and gone off with him.

During his rehabilitation, Simon will meet the same man and do the same.

It’s a somewhat preposterous conceit, that two people could fall in love with the same man without any of them realizing, but Tykwer forces the suspension of disbelief down on the audience through force, filling the screen with every flex of modern fairytale muscle he can summon. In another director’s hands this would probably be a straight screwball comedy, but with Tykwer at the helm the humor is very wry and only glanced upon in passing. You have to find the humor on your own because the film isn’t going to help you find it.

Even with the bit of hard work it asks of the audience, the film does work in stretches. Sophie Rois is great as the manic Hanna and Sebastian Schipper actually does appear to morph right there on screen. But the film too often teeters over the edge with Tykwer just playing with his characters instead of storytelling, like a cat that’s got a mouse by its tail. Hanna, Simon and Adam are tortured for our delight and from time to time it’s a devilishly enjoyable sight, but there isn’t enough behind it to enjoy without reservation. There is enough here to like for Tywker loyalists, but it amounts to little more than a dose of filmic methadone to keep us going. It’s all right, but it’s not exactly the hit that we wanted.

Not one to let a in-joke get away, the number three continually pops up throughout the film. Yes, there are three of them in the relationship, but also there are three children fathered by Adam. Hanna and Adam start their affair during their third meeting. Officially, it’s also the third visit to the pool boat where Adam and Simon become a thing. And, to be blunt, after Simon’s surgery, there are three testicles left in the three-way relationship.

Margin Call – JC Chandor (2011)

I know almost nothing about wall street, and I openly admit it. I have a bit of a mathematical block in my head. Numbers don’t make sense to me. Words do. In fact, it’s a bit like Kelly Bundy disease. Every one thing I learn about English, it pushes one piece of mathematical knowledge out of my head. By the time I’m 50, I may have read the entire Dostoevsky, but I’ll be unable to do 2+2.

I’m kept company by the writer of this article for Exiled Online, who not only knows as little about Wall Street as I do, but cannot, it seems, read fairly basic dramatic structure.

This is the part that drove me the most crazy:

“Its main premise: Sure these Wall Street guys can be a bunch of greedy gamblers, but they didn’t blow up the economy on purpose.”

Uh, yeah, that’s pretty much the opposite of what the films is about. The film is about what happens to the conscience when such huge sums or money are at stake. The conscience simply goes away. The conscience is promoted into feeling good about the evil it is letting go. Zachary Quinto’s character doesn’t stop anything from happening. Stanley Tucci’s character doesn’t stop anything from happening. Neither does Kevin Spacey’s, or Demi Moore’s. They are given bonuses, or simply turn a blind eye, no matter how disturbed a blind eye.

The longest scenes in the film are about how to hoodwink the rest of the firms on Wall Street by flooding the market with the assets that they know to be worthless, selling them to hapless firms, convincing them that they are buying up at a “bargain” to pull the wool over their eyes. Why? Why would they ruin the world like this? $2.7m in bonuses. Don’t feel bad for the hoodwinked firms, though. It’s something any of them would have done themselves if they caught on to the problem first — which is, of course, a pure distillation of evil.

Really, the best scene in the film was the one with Simon Baker and Demi Moore in the elevator talking about what’s about to happen with the cleaning lady standing between them and she has no idea what is about to happen.

Here’s a hint: we’re the cleaning lady.

But is it propaganda? To a certain type of person it it. To the rest of us, not. But to the same kind of person who idolized Gordon Gekko — remember the disgusting scene in Boiler Room where they know his speech by heart? — it might get them drooling a little about the potential bonuses as long as they, too, had an ethical bypass at birth.