Saturday, December 31, 2011


Things you may not know about me: One of my all-time favorite movies is Disney's Pollyanna. I LOVE that movie (and you should too...I also love the black-cast musical version, Polly, that Debbie Allen made in the 1989 that seems to have vanished into the Disney vault). Anyway, Hugo really reminds me of a gender-swapped Pollyanna. In that movie, Pollyanna is an orphan who moves to town to live with her aunt and ends up bringing life and wonder and magic to the whole town, particular the elderly. But that takes time. Initially she's isolated and lonely...until she befriends a boy named Jimmy Bean (note: in Hollywood in 1960 a boy and a girl could actually be friends). His friendship helps propels her forward into the situations that help her help everybody else.
In Hugo, the titular boy is an orphan who goes to live with his uncle in a train station, where he meets Isabelle (a positively irrepressible Chloe Grace-Moretz, not unlike Pollyanna herself) who pulls him out of his isolated existence and into the greater world where he can bring magic and life and romance (it is Paris after all), especially to the aging Papa Georges. So, yeah, watch Pollyanna. And Hugo.

Hugo's doggged determination to reassemble the automaton is heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting because he feels its his life's work. Whatever you think of its usefulness as an endeavor, it is his animating passion, and seeing it work out for him is heartwarming, perhaps even life-affirming, in a world where so few people get to work at anything that means anything to them, trudging through one rote day after another. Here's Alyssa Rosenberg on the subject:
We may not face the same dire circumstances as orphans in the pause between the World Wars — or filmmakers who have fallen out of vogue and been reduced to clever tinkering. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for work that is spiritually as well as materially sustaining is the stuff of fairy tales...Not everyone is going to work in a creative industry, or fight for the disadvantaged in court, or run a thriving small business that operates like a genuine family rather than a corporate facsimile of one. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to do work that feels in some way meaningful, and that they believe themselves not just qualified for but suited to. And even if economic reality is harsh, you’re not a flake to want those things and to strive for that sense of meaning.
In the movie, Hugo and once-popular filmmaker Georges Melies are flip sides of the same abandoned coin. Melies retreats into the role as tinkerer, feeling forgotten when people turned (briefly) away from movies in the aftermath of WW1. Hugo keeps winding the clocks after his uncle leaves him but he does so discreetly hoping no one knows and lives all alone. When Hugo is locked up by the station master and the clocks aren't wound, it's clear that he has a purpose, just as the discovery that Melies is still alive allows him to return to the life of the cinema as an icon and instructor. As Self-Styled Siren writes:
Hugo scurries around the station and maintains the clock that keeps everyone on the hop, but he’s apart from it all...Hugo is as isolated from Paris as a prince in a tower; or, say, as isolated as a boy in bed with asthma while his schoolmates play in the truant officer comes to see why Hugo isn’t in school, no station worker knows Hugo also labors there, let alone tries to feed or shelter him. Scorsese knows that a child’s fears of abandonment, the reality of his neglect, are close kin to the fears of age--that no one cares anymore, that your accomplishments won’t even survive as long as you do.

Toward the end of this picture, we see a montage of the early years when Melies and his wife and their collaborators were at the top of their game working on their movies. It's ideal that it's Martin Scorsese filming these scenes, as the most prominent advocate for film preservation to be able to make his own version of filmmaking in the first decade of the 20th century had to be the joy of a lifetime. If we see those films today, the "special effects" look crude, but without the aid of computers or big-studio budgets, they had to be both incredibly clever and incredibly disciplined, so it was fitting that Melies had a background as a magician/illusionist. What must it have been like to be there, essentially creating the medium that we know today as the cinema? It's maybe my favorite sequence in anything I saw this year. Glenn Kenny expresses the effect well:
And when the film flashes back to Melies' glory days as a filmmaker, his glass-house studio and the magnificent and magnificently eccentric costumes and sets for his films (which were often adaptations of the man's stage magic act), the sense of wonder becomes practically intoxicating. Cinema, Scorsese is saying explicitly here, is the re-creation of dreams into moving images to be wallowed in and cherished, and the resolutions of the film's varied story lines represent a very humane recognition of the way our dreams mirror our hearts.

For me, this was, easily, the best movie I saw this year.


This was, for me, the most spectacularly ambitious movie of the year. From it's brilliant painterly prologue, to it's inevitable, cataclysmic finish (that's not a spoiler here, it's in the aforementioned prologue), Melancholia is one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences I had all year. If I were in the business of giving awards, Kirsten Dunst would have the performance of the year award from me for her work here.
I really would love to write more about Melancholia and how beautiful the whole thing is from start to finish, but honestly, Kim Morgan wrote a mini-essay for MSN Movies top 10 wrap-up (expanded and expounded upon at her own blog) that so wonderfully encapsulates most everything I'd say anyway and much more, I shudder to think how much my piece would pale in comparison, so just read hers.
Now here's Kim (excerpted):
Universal and personal, blatant and mysterious, sorrowful and funny, nihilistic and yet, sublimely, romantically, celebratory, Lars Von Trier’s 'Melancholia' takes the black bile of its namesake -- the depression of its heroine -- and transforms the “humor” into exaltation. A planet -- a terrifying, dazzling planet that, true to Dane Von Trier’s inspired swan dive (black swan dive) into German romanticism, is set to destroy life on earth: Götterdämmerung via "Tristan and Isolde" (which he uses in the picture’s rapturously beautiful overture), via Ophelia via Cassandra via Von Trier’s own personal mythology.  
And then comes planet Melancholia, inching closer and closer, leaving stable sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) panic stricken while Justine, calmly, grimly and at times, cheekily, accepts annihilation, not as easy suicide but as a kind of cosmic extension of despair. Yes. Finally. Justine isn’t wallowing in depression, she’s embracing, seducing it, and in one of the picture’s most exquisite moments, lying beneath it naked -- basking in the glow of doom.  
With 'Melancholia' he grants depressives a gift. Taking Justine’s depleted darkness and imbuing her with celestial life through doomsday, he, to recall another German Romantic, creates an Ode to Joy through heartbreaking and gloriously inspirational…woe.

Friday, December 30, 2011


Sometimes its hard to get people to shake the "animation equals kids movie" notion; but seriously, have these people never watched South Park? or Fox on Sunday night in the last 20 years? or heard of Adult Swim
Similar complaints sprang up about Fantastic Mr Fox a couple years ago, which was also most excellent and decidedly not a "kids movie" (though I'm sure plenty of kids enjoyed it while their parents unnecessarily squirmed, wondering if their kids were "getting it")

Rango was so very good. The obvious antecedents here are Chinatown, Sergio Leone, and Hunter S. Thompson, which would be strange starting points for a kids movie, but once again, it's not really a kids movie (not even in the sense that Pixar makes kids movies). 
When the mayor shows up in those overalls talking about "The future, Mr Rango" I was jumping outta my seat, but also knowing the many kids in the theater (and probably most of their parents) had no idea why I was laughing. And that's ok with me because I was laughing because it's a good joke. As is a joke that heaven involves "eating Pop Tarts with Kim Novak".

Rango had, for my money, the best villain in a movie this year: Rattlesnake Jake. 

A terrifying beast of unmatched size, strength, and smarts with a gatling gun at the end of his tail! Rango had to attempt to outsmart him. He is impossible to defeat, and thankfully, unnecessary to defeat in the end, because anything they could've done to kill him off would've felt like a cheat. 

Rango is a classic example of what Joseph Campbell would call a "reluctant hero". He's not interested in saving the day, he just wants to go home. Until he finds himself so enmeshed in the local drama that its impossible to stay away. "The spirit of the west" tells him no man can run away from his own story.

The animation is gleefully cartoonish. Gore Verbinski and his animators make no attempt to create "real-looking" animals. The characters ride ostriches in the desert of the American West (why not?) and everyone and everything is about the same size (save Rattlesnake Jake). The film is bright, colorful, and fast. What's not to love?

Another Earth

As I wrote in my earlier piece on Attack the Block, so often sci-fi is imagined on a grand scale. Here is another movie that takes a sci-fi backdrop (a new, mirror Earth has appeared in the near cosmos) on which to hang an understated tale of grief and redemption.

The movie has one of the most awesome (not to be confused with AWESOME!) scenes I saw in a movie this year, in which one of the characters plays a musical saw, which I had never seen/heard before and if you haven't  either, prepare to be dazzled:

The things people can do astound me. Who first pulled out a saw and a violin bow and thought, "Yeah, this'll work"?

The other earth in the sky is not just a mirror earth, but the people on the other earth are the same as the people on this earth (that is, the scientist trying to make contact from this earth makes contact with the same scientist on the other earth, etc). The notion of another you on a mirror planet living the same life is interesting, but another you living a different life is the more fascinating because it means you have choices/free will, and your life if what you made/make it. You are not destined to live any one life, but you only have one life and what you do matters in that your life would be different if you did different things. You could be a different person entirely. In which case, is the person on the other earth really another "you" at all?

The ending is a perfect neo-Twilight Zone moment.

Midnight in Paris

The #1 thing I remember about this picture is the warm glow of the lamp-lit interiors and exteriors in the 1920s and 1880s scenes. The elegant beauty of the pre-flourescent era when wall sconces and colored bulbs painted a room in amber. That and the gratuitous, leering shots of Rachel McAdams.

                                                         (At least mine is from the front!)
The great thing about the screenplay here is that the movie serves as both a romantic fantasy and a pinprick in the fantasy balloon. A tough balancing act, but one Woody Allen manages capably, probably because he's done it before (please tell me you've seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, about which, more later).
Gil's problem (if you can call it that) is that he wants to write "the great American novel" in the age of glistening vampires and dragon tattoos. If you wrote a truly great (whatever that means) novel today, who would know?
His fiancee's problem (if you can call it that) is that she is the least romantic person in the most romantic city in the Western civilization. It's not her fault she would rather go dancing than walk the storied streets of Paris.

Michael Sheen plays a pretentious, loquacious history buff masterfully (as ever) and Marion Cotillard is, brilliantly as always, equal parts magic and tragic as Picasso's mistress Adriana.

Now back to The Purple Rose of Cairo. If for some reason you haven't seen it, here's a quick run down. Cecilia is a lonely housewife in the Great Depression. She loves going to the movies, and the movie playing in town at the moment is The Purple Rose of Cairo starring Gil Shepherd as Tom Baxter, a globe-trotting archaelogist. She swoons over him each time. One day, Tom Baxter comes down off the screen and asks her on a date. The other characters on screen demand he come back so they can finish the movie but he walks out with Cecilia. Gil Shepherd comes to town with some studio executives trying to track down Tom Baxter to ask him to get back on the screen before other movie characters start doing the same (it's comic fantasy, stick with me here). Now, Cecilia likes Tom and Gil (both played by Jeff Daniels in a great dual performance) and has to make her decision as she finds herself caught up in the middle of the kind of romantic comedy she would love to go see. But being in it is no fun in reality, because reality is not the movies, which she finds out. But that said, she remains in love with the movies. Now, while all of this is going on, the other characters in Tom Baxter's movie that are waiting for him to come back are basically trapped in the drawing room of a mansion unable to move on, their polite society beginning to unravel. OK, back to Midnight in Paris. Gil (the Owen Wilson one) tells Bunuel and Man Ray that they should make a movie about a dinner party, where at the end no one can leave the room. Because they just...can't. Well in 1962 Bunuel made a movie called The Exterminating Angel with just such a premise (a mid-century surrealist arthouse 'comedy', which you should also see, if just for the sheep. And the bear. Like I said, you really should se it). And then in 1984 Woody Allen made a movie that made a joke about it, then in 2011 he made another movie that made a joke about Bunuel making the movie he made an extended joke about in 1984, which also has a similar plot about a character being drawn into the world of fantasy. Wheels within cinematic wheels.

This one is an absolute must for any Woody Allen fan. Or any fan of movies. Or Paris. Or Rachel McAdams.

"Purple Rose of Cairo"

"The Exterminating Angel"

Certified Copy

From Baudrillard's Simulacra & Simulation
"It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real...a hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences."
Yes this is one of those movies. One where the principal action is two characters walking around European cities talking about relationships and art and authenticity for 2 hours. But the really interesting thing about this movie is what Jim Emerson refers to as it's "slipperiness". The way the central relationship in the movie keeps shifting from scene to scence (Are we seeing a married couple? Are they divorced? Are they new acquaintances?) and they shift from speaking English to French to Italian. They move around from the city to the countryside, inside to outside and back in again. Ultimately, it seems the best way to take it in is to accept that THE objective reality of the film is whatever is on screen at the time, and that's all there is (Are we seeing a married couple? Yes. Are they divorced? Yes. Are they new acquaintances? Yes.) In that way, the film makes a kind of perfect, simple, sense. As Glenn Kenny writes at MSN Movies, "..this isn't a riddle film with a solution that, once sorted out, will add up to some sort of "Aha! THAT'S what it's all about!"'s an experience that's intended to keep teasing things out of you, not a Chinese box puzzle yielding a pat solution."
The 'plot', such as it is, is more or less inessential as a unified event, but each moment has its own revelations and truths that may or may not add up to any one thing, and if you just kinda accept that and stop trying to 'figure it out' and you'll be carried along.

The Princess of Montenpsier

I am genetically predisposed to love any movie about royal intrigue. Especially, as in this one, where it also involves forbidden romance, masquerade balls, sworfights, duplicitous family politics and scandals, and, just for kicks, religious wars. It really has it all. And it's set in beautiful, verdant, rural France. And its one of the rare movies that make interesting, purposeful use of color photography, as the yellows, greens, reds, and purples just pop right off the screen.

Lambert Wilson plays a once-ardent religious warrior who has seen too much and decides to lay down his arms and embrace pacifism and a role as advisor in the court of the Prince of Montpensier. He is viewed suspiciously by both sides of war, seen as a traitor by those he leaves behind, and a possible interloper by those he now moves among, but never betraying his core conviction that killing in the name of God is wrong, no matter which side. Between this and his role in Of Gods and Men, he makes the strongest case for real, contemplative faith seen in one cinematic year that I've seen.

                                                     (does this not look like a painting?)
The religious war between French Catholics and Huguenots rages and is filmed intensely, but as with just about every war movie since The Steel Helmet, struggles to balance showing "the absurdity of war" with images of bravura heroism glamorizing it. But the more interesting war rages within the titular princess, trying to fight the urges she has toward her husband's cousin, with his chiseled jaw and flowing locks. She can't help herself, try as she might to stay away from him. That obsessive attraction coupled with an intense desire, and need, to resist is fascinating to watch play out. As Little Richard once sang, "the girl can't help it".

In case you're not up on Little Richard:

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Take Shelter

Something's coming. Terrorists. Climate change. Financial collapse. Something's just not right. Everyone feels it. The world is closing in around us and we aren't safe. Don't say you weren't warned.

In Take Shelter, Curtis' sleep is curtailed by uneasy dreams. Storms of viscous, oily rain, strangers kidnapping his daughter on the road, his own dog attacking him. Then he wakes up feeling the latent effects of his dreams. He feels the dog bite from his dream all day the next day.

The movie not only deals with themes at a subtextual level, it also plays topically with the issue of health care. The daughter needs a surgery and an appointment is scheduled. Curtis has a steady job and good insurance. Then he takes out a large loan, gets fired, loses his insurance. It all seems to happen in an instant. His delusions (or premonitions) have direct, tangible consequences. It's not just his potential mental instability or financial difficulty, but his daughter's ability to hear could be permanently compromised.

This is the second collaboration between star, Michael Shannon, and director Jeff Shannon. Their first movie together was 2007's Shotgun Stories, a family saga about retribution among the estranged sons of a father's two families and it's every bit as good as Take Shelter, so I recommend you seek that one out too. I might even let you borrow it if you ask nicely.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Of Gods and Men

"I didn't become a monk to be a martyr."
"You've already given your life. You gave it by following Christ."
This movie is about faith and doubt. It's also one of the most suspensful movies I saw this year, even when the outcome was never in question.
The plot concerns a group of Trappist monks living in Algeria in 1996. Islamist extremists are terrorizing the surrounding villages, the army is either powerless to stop them or complicit, we are never certain. The powers-that-be want the monks to leave, or at least accept their 'protection' at the monastery. Father Christian, the abbot, puts it to a vote. He asks them if they should leave or if they believe they have been called by God to this place to do a particular work and accept whatever fate may befall them, not to be heroic, but to be faithful. Willingness and want are to different things. No one wants to die for their cause. Even Christ prayed in Gethsemane to not have to endure the Passion:
He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.
"yet not my will, but yours be done." just as he instructs in what's come to be known as The Lord's Prayer, "your will be done". Its one of the hardest parts of the life of Christian faith, to say or pray those words and truly mean it. To give up one's own will to God, not knowing what his will actually is and if it lines up with yourself. But it is required. It is the only way. Father Christian learns that his attempt to impose what he sees as God's will is not the same as allowing the brothers the chance to reflect and come to such a place for themselves if they are indeed to face what is to come willingly and with resolve.

One way the film projects thematic material is through passages of the monks chanting/singing. Its entirely possible that they sing/chant these words regularly, but the situation in which they are now placed gives them a new prism through which to reflect on the words.

Also, the narrative about encroaching Islamic extremism is naturally topical for the world today. Quoting at length from Andrew Sullivan:
There is a Christmas scene in which local Jihadists assault the monastery and demand medicines. Christian insists that he will not speak with anyone with weapons inside the monastery walls. This is a place of peace he insists. He is unarmed and defenseless but his manifest integrity disarms the thugs temporarily.

And outside, he calls the Jihadist leader's bluff by knowing the real Koran as well as he does. The name of Jesus literally defuses the conflict. This is the moment of hope here - before darkness descends again: a mutual Muslim and Christian reverence for Jesus. From that moment on, the monks' faltering, doubt-riddled, fear-ridden, gradual decision to risk martyrdom rather than compromise their faith seems to come from almost outside of them, beyond them.
Here's a great vlog review by Father James Martin for PBS:

The Tree of Life

What I loved about The Tree of Life was the headlong rush of images at times. Terrence Malick & Emmnauel Lubezki's probing camera, looking deep into, around, and through space and time to find a way to make sense and meaning of everything (in a sense, literally).

The discussion around the movie tends to center on its theology, or perhaps, teleology. If  you haven't seen it, the movie features a 20 minute passage near the beginning that starts with the big bang and shows the process of formation of the cosmos, the planet earth, and the beginnings of life from amoeba to aquatic creatures crawling out of the sea to dinosaurs and on to humankind. The argument is whether the guiding force in evolution/nature is grace or random chance/chaos. This is certainly a valid argument, but I think Malick is less interested in this argument, than showing you that whatever the animating force, he wants you to see that life is indeed progressing in a forwardly direction; rushing forward, in fact, which circles us back around to what I loved about the movie: the images. The images of the mother at play with her children in and around the house in Waco. The images of a domineering father struggling to hold his family together. The cold reflective surfaces of the skyscrapers of Downtown Dallas. The waystation at the end of life on a beach where loved ones who've passed away can be reunited. Sartre said "Hell is other people." This film says so is heaven.

The scope here is certainly ambitious. The movie tells the story of existence in the universe through the frame of one person/family. Your one life has Meaning in the grand sweep of EVERYTHING because you were here at all, and if you hadn't been here life, quite simply (simply!) would have been infinitely, and infinitismally, different.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Young Adult

Most people never move away. Statistics show that there is less geographic mobility (that is, people moving from one place to another) in each decade since they started tracking such statistics in the late 1940s. In 2004, only 18% of people moved, and of those 58% moved within the same county; only about 1 in 50 moved to a different state or country. The numbers are even lower as you go down the income ladder.

Everybody stays somewhere.

For most of the residents of Mercury, Minnesota they stayed in their hometown, took a job their mom or dad probably had before they retired, got married, sent their kids to the same schools they went to, and now watch soccer games from the sidelines of fields they once played on. Mavis Gary moved away, went to the big (relatively speaking) city, became a famous (relatively speaking) author. She was the one that got out. At least geographically. Emotionally, she was stuck at Mercury High (home of the Injuns! [ever interested in details, writer/director team Diablo Cody/Jason Reitman include the point that the mascot had been changed to  Indians in the name of cultural sensitivity to local peoples.).
She is forever 18. Even the once-popular series of YA books she ghost-writes are high school dramas. The movie opens as she struggles to write the last book in the series. How does she write what happens at the end of high school if she never got there herself? How does she show her character has grown up after all this time, is moving on, putting away childish things when she still walks around in Hello Kitty t-shirts?

The idea of being stuck in a rut vis a vis personal development has been a topic of much discussion in our culture, what with the rise to prominence of the Judd Apatow man-child movies. Here’s a movie that reminds us that woman-child is just as possible and problematic, only Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have the conviction of not letting her off the hook with a hunky, responsible white knight who redeems her. Her only meaningful connection in the movie is Matt, a character who, by being not dissimilarly stunted in the area of personal growth, offers her self-reflection. She claims to be in Mercury for Buddy, but she doesn’t have any interest in Buddy. What (not insignificantly, mind you, I wrote what, not who) she wants is "Buddy", the 18 year old big man on campus, the one that inspired the love interest in her books. When she tells him he might recognize the character based on his 18 year old self, you wonder if he would, and if he did if he would do so with the same approbation Mavis does.

There are conflicting impulses for people who leave home, especially when home is a small town: They want to get away and measure themselves against the world, but they also don’t want to feel like they are missing out on what’s going on back home. They want to come home and be a hero, an object of admiration. To come back and find out no one thinks about you much, they aren’t following your every move with baited breath can be humbling. What are they doing that’s so great, that I’m not THE topic of conversation?

In the end, Mavis has no great revelation or growth or change. In the first act we see her on a date with someone she met online; she's bored, barely listening (if at all) to what he says, but wakes up with his pasty arm draped over her just the same. At the end of the movie, she drunkenly, desperately, decides(?) to sleep with Matt. She wakes up with his pasty arm draped over her and maybe for the first time realizes that her station in life might be self-inflicted. This is the scariest thing. It's bad enough when things aren't going your way, worse still when it's your own fault.

Attack the Block

This is the alien-invasion movie people should've been watching this summer instead of Super 8 or Cowboys and Aliens. For my money, this was maybe the most pure fun movie of the year. A gang of up-to-no-good teenage punks in London are in the middle of a mugging when an alien falls from the sky. It attacks one of them and runs away. They chase it down, wound it and carry it off as a prize to their sci-fi loving friend to see if he knows what it is. Soon they see what appear to be dozens of meteors falling from the sky, they figure its more aliens and since they'd dispatched the first one with such ease, figure its time to go alien-bashing (wielding bats mostly, and, in one instance, a sword) they don't take kindly to anyone/anything invading their neighborhood, regardless of species/planet of origin), but things don't go as expected when they turn out to be a pack of pitch black creatures with glow-in-the-dark fangs (see above) which are a good deal more fierce than their initial conquest, and soon they are being hunted, hounded, really. Alien invasion, in the modern cinema, generally involves grand governmental plans to thwart attacks, surging, panicked crowds, momunets being destroyed, breathless TV reports, etc. Attack the Block envisions alien invasion on a much smaller scale. Much like the movie Monsters last year, it is a film where the limited budget requires the scope to be smaller, but the imagination to flourish. Also, those monsters are pretty awesome.