Saturday, December 31, 2011

We Bought A Zoo

Cameron Crowe continues to explore Men Going Through Stuff in We Bought A Zoo, based on a memoir by journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon). Having covered first love, career crises, and father issues, Crowe movies on here to grief and single parenthood. After the death of his wife, Mee impulsively buys a country house with a zoo attached on 18 rambling acres and brings his two children along in the hopes of forgetting the past. The zoo comes with its own ragtag crew, led by Scarlett Johansson as a zookeeper who coincidentally has no personal life. Mee is another in Crowe's gang of holy fools, quitting his job and charging into a risky new life just with the same focus that Lloyd Dobler first went after Diane. Damon is sneakliy good here; the dialogue that's written for him is recognizable as Crowe's but Damon makes Mee his own man and makes clear how badly Mee needs this change. The plot revolves around Mee and the zoo employees preparing for a pre-opening government inspection, but the best scenes involve Mee and his troubled teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Dylan's angry artwork is the kind that a ten-year old TV movie would have used as shorthand for "future school sniper", and part of Mee's journey is realizing that his son's grief hasn't been properly addressed. Damon and Ford's scenes together have a strong, angry edge. Ford and Elle Fanning (as the zoo's youngest resident) give their scenes an unhurried charm, and it's refreshing to see Fanning not playing a prematurely grown-up kid. We Bought A Zoo doesn't go anywhere you won't see coming, but Crowe is perhaps our most convivial director and it's a pleasure to be in these people's company for a couple of hours. Family, community, and a connection to the earth are all celebrated unironically in We Bought A Zoo; that alone is reason to welcome Cameron Crowe back to movie screens.

Friday, December 30, 2011


Writer/director Dee Rees and star Adepero Oduye talk their coming-out drama Pariah. (Playlist)
"Pariah"'s been compared to early Spike Lee and to titles like "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," but though the location is unmistakable, it doesn't seem to be as specifically grounded in Brooklyn as those films. Would you agree? How did place inform the film? DR: I wanted to show that Alike's family is middle-class, Laura's is working class, to show a cross-section of New York. How Alike's able to find her way is something that could have only happened in New York. In other cities, there are less interstitial spaces where you're allowed to be yourself. New York offers people the anonymity to be themselves without judgment. I do feel that this is uniquely a Brooklyn story in that Alike's able to find this environment with Laura, even though it's not the right place. She's able to go to the club, to change on the bus, to have these moments in between where she vacillates between identities.

Video Store: Daydream Nation

I wish Michael Goldbach's Daydream Nation had more to do with the classic Sonic Youth album with which it shares a name. "Kool Thing" is heard briefly in one scene and a young man named Thurston (Reece Thompson) seems destined to be voted Most Likely to Underachieve at the rural high school where most of the film takes place. Goldbach doesn't give much of a sense of what life is like in the small town, but rather chooses to try to infuse everything (a fire that won't go out, a serial killer) with a metaphysical significance. New girl in town Caroline (Kat Dennings) just wants to fit in, but since almost every other teen in town has already decided they have no future it's no surprise she's drawn to her English teacher Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas). What's good about Daydream Nation mostly comes from Dennings, whose natural coolness is a perfict fit for a girl who's trying on different roles. Goldbach has given Caroline a degree of self-awareness of her own inadequacies, and the most poignant moments in the film come when Dennings lets her guard down. I wish Goldbach had let us sit with Caroline a little longer, but instead he's jumping around between Thurston's drug-addled buddies, his overbearing Mom (Andie MacDowell),and a serial killer plot that never gets moving. There's so much going on that the ending doesn't mean much; Daydream Nation doesn't end so much as stop, there's just Caroline in voice-over telling us how to feel. I'm not any less convinced of Kat Dennings' bright future; wouldn't Thor have benefited from being from her character's point-of-view? While it's good to see Dennings continuing to stretch, Daydream Nation tries far too hard and will end up being no more than a footnote on her resume. This movie has nothing on Sonic Youth.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo boasts the filmmaker's usual impeccable control over his material and a magnetic performance by an actor relatively new to center stage. What Fincher is stuck with however is the hot stew of a plot provided by novelist Steig Larsson: Nazis, private islands, serial killers, rape, and plenty of sociopathic behavior. This time out Daniel Craig is the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, disgraced when an expose he writes can't be proven and happy to accept a job offer from industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, having a ball). Henrik wants Blomkvist to investigate the 40-year old disappearance of his niece Harriet, who vanished on a day when the only bridge to the Vanger's island was sealed off after a car accident. Much of the movie's first act is a long build-up to the meeting between Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the pierced, tattooed hacker whose breaching of Blomkvist's computer sets the story in motion. Any Larsson adaptation is only as good as its Lisbeth, and while Mara is wraith-like and frightening during her final encounter with the abusive parole officer (Yorick van Wageningen) who controls her money she also brings a welcome streak of vulnerability to the role. If you’ve read the book or seen the Swedish film then trying to summarize the plot is pointless. Blomkvist and Salander do considerable detective work involving old photos, codes, and maps and Fincher incorporates all this detail into the narrative without a hiccup. This Dragon Tattoo is a small masterpiece of film editing. Blomkvist also meets a number of the other Vangers; most importantly Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), who is in charge of carrying on the family’s business interests. It all ends in blood and fire.

No matter how good Rooney Mara is as Lisbeth, and she is good, she can’t escape the fact that Lisbeth is a brilliant fantasy object who can only express herself through sex and violence. Mara, like Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film, must play a brutal scene of Lisbeth’s victimization at the hands of a man. It’s a chilling moment for how much Mara commits to Lisbeth’s terror, and despite the intense violence it seems just when Lisbeth later responds in kind. The most surprising and disappointing thing then about Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is how quickly it domesticates its title character. It turns out all Lisbeth needs is some good loving; look at how Blomkvist sets out plates when he comes to Lisbeth’s apartment for the first time, and then note how Lisbeth mirrors the behavior after their first night together,. Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian, with help from Mara, blow up something that I think was implicit in Larsson’s conception of this character. Men are pigs, but if Lisbeth has sex with the right man then she’ll be just fine. Remember how attracted Lisbeth seemed to the woman she brought home from a nightclub? Well by the end of the movie Lisbeth and Blomkvist are practically cuddling (while still working of course). The end of the film is, to my surprise, faithful to Larsson’s book. Rooney Mara gives Lisbeth her all, but the dualities Steig Larsson requires of this character are finally too much to bear. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as well made as we’d expect from David Fincher, but is finally his most shallow film since The Game.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Music: June Christy - "The Merriest"

My favorite Christmas song. Merry Christmas and thanks for reading!

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

No fourth installment of a movie franchise ever arrives without the question, "Why does this exist?" So it is with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol; can Tom Cruise really need a hit this much? Cruise is a producer of Ghost Protocol as well as his upcoming One Shot, based on the Lee Child novel. He has become the Oprah of movie stars, increasingly unwilling to present himself in a way he doesn't control. That aside, what's on screen in Ghost Protocol is mostly good fun. I'm not sure why Oscar-winning animation director Brad Bird was brought on board, but he adds just enough; there's a chase through a sandstorm that's all movement and muted colors, and a sense of not taking things too seriously that helps the plot go down smoothly. I judge movies like Ghost Protocol in part by how silly their villains' objectives are, and here a rogue Russian physicist (Michael Nyqvist) wants to set off a nuclear war in the hopes that afterwards human society will just start over. (Nuclear war as cleansing agent is second only to harnessing the power of the sun on my list of favorite crazy action movie plots.) Ghost Protocol turns into a race, as Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his team globe-trot  through Russia, Dubai, and India in pursuit of stolen launch codes. Paula Patton and especially Simon Pegg provide able support, and the presence of Jeremy Renner as a former IMF agent with a link to Hunt adds some welcome gravity as the movie stops to consider the costs of living an agent's life. It's telling how close the movie gets to a passing-the-torch moment between Hunt and Renner's Agent Brandt before stepping around it; Cruise is keeping this franchise in his back pocket.

When Robert Towne was brought on board (after numerous failed scripts by others) to write the second Mission: Impossible, he was presented with action sequences already worked out by director John Woo and instructed to write a script that connected them. I don't know if the same task was presented to Ghost Protocol writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, but the big action set pieces here are ingenious and have a welcome dash of comedy. A bit involving the use of a projection screen inside the Kremlin is a little long, but the scene involving Hunt on the side of a Dubai skyscraper is superb. The recurring theme of the IMF not being able to rely on its technology gives the movie an almost old-fashioned feel at times, as the agents have to rely on bluster and brawn at key moments. Ghost Protocol is diverting enough to be a worthwhile holiday pleasure; it's also proof that Cruise is still canny enough to know what audiences want. That knowledge may be the greatest gift that our favorite Scientologist receives this Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Throwing Her Weight

NP is the biggest star in the cast of Thor 2, and she reportedly put her status on the line by influencing Marvel's decision to hire Patty Jenkins as director. Now that Jenkins has exited the project, not of her own desires, Portman isn't pleased. (MTV)
At the root of the problem, allegedly, is that Portman herself brought Jenkins into the Marvel fold. THR reports that the "Black Swan" winner was considering severing her ties from Hollywood for a time to focus on her newborn son, but helped bring Jenkins to "Thor" and was "proud that she would have played a role in opening the door for a woman to direct a [comic book] film." With Jenkins out, Portman is still contractually obligated to appear in "Thor 2," states THR, and Marvel is reportedly "working overtime to smooth over the situation by including [Portman] in discussions about whom to hire as a replacement."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Homeland (spoilers!)

(Heavy Homeland spoilers. Be careful.)

Homeland concluded its first season last night with a finale that seems to have satisfied a large portion of the audience, judging by early returns from comment sections and Twitter feeds. The tense 90-minute episode didn't leave much hanging in terms of plot threads revolving around the planned attack by Brody (Damian Lewis) and Walker (Chris Chalk) at the campaign kickoff of Vice President Walden (Jamey Sheridan). Yet as any good season finale should, last night's Homeland put plenty in play for Season 2. Brody, now ex-CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes in a titanic performance), and Carrie's mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) were all sent into different orbits as Brody's plans for revenge on Walden end up becoming a "long game."

A few thoughts and questions:

1. I'm happy Brody wasn't killed off, but I would have understood if he had been. Some reviews have suggested that the malfunctioning suicide vest (a plot device that turned off some viewers who found it too random) and Brody's frantic attempts to repair it were about how willing Brody was to die in order to carry out the plans of master terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). I suppose that's true, but after last week's episode, last night's opening involving Brody's confessional video, and the way Brody says goodbye to his kids, I'm not sure think Brody's willingness to die needed to be reaffirmed or restated. I can live with the faulty vest, but I don't think we needed it since the phone call between Brody and his suspicious daughter Dana(Morgan Saylor) was so fantastic. The Brody-Dana relationship is one I'm really looking forward to following next season. My biggest question about the vest scene was why a room full of Secret Service and military officers didn't notice a sweaty man flicking a trigger in their midst.

2. My biggest question about the Homeland finale is one I haven't seen brought up elsewhere. What happened in the time between Carrie's final unhappy meeting with Brody and the concluding scene in which she receives electroshock therapy? We've known since the pilot that Carrie secretly receives drugs from her physician sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) in order to control her mood disorder and conceal it from her bosses at Langley. After Carrie's breakdown and impending ouster from the agency, why wouldn't Carrie and Maggie seek out another opinion or different treatment for Carrie's condition? Are there any consequences for Maggie's treating a member of her immediate family, and (I assume) falsifying prescriptions? How did we get to ECT so quickly? I think it's very unlikely that Maggie is somehow working with Abu Nazir (though Nazir could know of Carrie's existence since she spent time in Iraq) but I wonder if we'll return to that time gap in Season 2.

3. The question of if there's a mole at the CIA and who it is wasn't answered exactly, but we learned much about the relationship between Saul and his one-time subordinate and now boss David (David Harewood). David may not be a traitor in the strictest sense, he doesn't hate his country or serve Al Qaeda, but we learned last night how far he is capabale of selling out for the sake of his own career.

4. What was the job title of Elizabeth Gaines (Linda Purl), the Washington party-giver who offers Brody a chance to run for Congress? (Brody is told by Abu Nazir's agent that he will be drafted for office.) Gaines is presented as some kind of Pamela Harriman-like social mistress, but if that's all she is I didn't understand why she'd be interviewed before the Vice President's announcement or why she'd be so close to the VP at the moment Walker begins his attack. It was no accident that Walker missed Walden and shot Gaines; I suspect we'll find out she was (perhaps unknowingly) doing Abu Nazir's bidding.

5. Who has the memory card that contains Brody's justification of his planned attack on Walden? The two most likely candidates, Walker and Gaines, are now dead. I'm surprised Brody didn't search Walker's body when he had the chance, but in any event we'll learn more about how deep Nazir's network goes as the series progresses.

I hope it's clear just how good I thought last night's episode, and most of the Homeland first season, was. The show is an honest, searching look at the fact that we're still figuring out how not to lose ourselves in fighting this new war. I look forward to Season 2; with lead actors like Danes and Lewis I'd follow this show anywhere.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Music: Spoon - "The Way We Get By"

Thank You, Hitch

It's good to know Christopher Hitchens saw this video before his death, and to know Band of Horses made the cut....

On Being Carlton

NBA players' new taste for "nerd" attire is a response to David Stern's dress code; oh, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a much more important show than I thought. (Grantland)

When David Stern imposed the league's reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn't seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today's Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern's black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

It's not a complete transformation. Being Carlton wasn't just code for nerd, it was code for gay, and the homophobia these clothes provoked still persists, even from their wearers. Once last year, Dwight Howard, of the Orlando Magic, wore a blue-and-black cardigan over a whitish tie and pink shirt to a press conference. When a male reporter told him it was a good color on him, instead of asking the reporter "Which color?," Howard spent many seconds performing disgusted disbelief: Whoa, whoa. A moment like that demonstrated how hopelessly superficial all this style can be. The sport can change its clothes, but, even with Dan Savage looking over its shoulder, will it ever change its attitude? If Howard thinks compliments about his cardigan are gay, he probably shouldn't wear one.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Young Adult

Jason Reitman may have directed Young Adult, but this riveting, scathing chamber piece should of course be discussed with the possessive "Diablo Cody's" in mind. If ever a film deserved to be associated with its writer then it's the latest effort by the Oscar-winning author of Juno. Young Adult distorts and rearranges any ideas you may have had about Cody and her work and replaces them with something complicated and entirely new. The small Minnesota town where most of Young Adult takes place might be one town over from the place where Juno grew up; there are no roving cross-country teams. here Reitman and Cody take care to pick out the fast food restaurants, big box stores, and interchangeable sports bars. When Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) returns from Minneapolis for the first time in years she suggests meeting old boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) at a familar dive bar, but time and suburban sprawl have done their work and the two wind up reuniting in a place that looks like a Buffalo Wild Wings knockoff. We know Mavis has (at least on the surface) left her hometown behind because when she's offered popcorn shrimp in a restaurant on her return it almost works as a laugh line.

Mavis, the ghost writer of a series of young adult novels that is being discontinued, has returned home after learning of the birth of a child to Buddy and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). Charlize Theron has never been afraid to run away from her beauty on screen, and knowing she has a good role here she embraces all of Mavis's flaws. A divorced, unhappy, alcoholic mess, Mavis views a reconnection with Buddy as the key to finally living the life she thought she'd have after high school. Finding that life at home consists of civic responsibility and a lot of dull evenings, Mavis makes an unlikely friend in former high school classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt is disabled after a high school beating, and the pairing of a physically impaired man with a woman so obviously wounded on the inside feels a bit neat at first. Oswalt and Theron make such fine companions though that it doesn't matter; Young Adult is at one level about what happens when the outlets for our pain stop working. Cody is unsparing in the way she paints small town life as the place where all our disappointments are magnified, and she nails the details; this is the kind of town where Mavis's mother (Jill Eikenberry) would keep up a picture of Mavis and her ex-husband.

There's a deep and abiding anger in Young Adult that we haven't seen from Diablo Cody before, and it will make you think again about your expectations of the rest of her career. The lacerating climax of Young Adult feels deeply personal, as though Cody were tapping into a creative source that's closer to the bone than ever before. Yet just when we think Mavis has turned a corner Cody pulls a switch yet again, in a quiet conversation that turns Young Adult into a sarcastic shout-out to every American work of art about small-town life. It's hard to get more specific without spoiling the plot, but this feels like a movie Cody had to get out of her system. She's fortunate in her collaborators, from Reitman (who pretty much stays out of the way) to Oswalt and a brave Charlize Theron. When Mavis drives back to Minneapolis at the end of Young Adult it's more than the end to the movie. Young Adult feels like the way that Diablo Cody has chosen to say goodbye to all that.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn is the story of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, what was supposed to be a frothy romance between (director/star) Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe (Michelle Williams) was already an internationally known star who had just married Arthur Miller and Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was regarded as a peerless actor but wasn't a movie star. We view Monroe and the making of Olivier's film through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who talks his way into an assistant director's job as a means of escaping what he perceives as a stultifying upper-crust life. How does one make a film about an icon? Director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges keep Monroe at a distance early on; we see Monroe through the eyes of Olivier and fellow cast members like Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), who fume at Monroe's tardiness even as they attempt to coddle her fragile ego for the sake of the film. In the early scenes Monroe is a puppet of her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), whose devotion to the "Method" is anathema to Olivier's exterior-based acting. Michelle Williams plays these scenes haltingly; Monroe's confidence was thin and her Olivier all but writes her off as just pretty face. Kenneth Branagh doesn't look much like Olivier to my eyes, but behind his clipped speech and mannerisms he gets at how Oliver was both fascinated by Monroe and what she represented and appalled by her lack of craft. Olivier gets a couple of speeches that are a little too on-the-nose regarding his feelings about Monroe, but Branagh (who appears to be having a great time) acquits himself well. As Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh, Julia Ormond is no-nonsense and angry; Leigh views Monroe as a threat and has no illusions about where her own stardom lies as compared to Marilyn's.

Marilyn Monroe was afraid of people leaving her, and her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is only onscreen for a few minutes but is written as a selfish monster who returns to America at the first opportunity. Once Colin becomes Marilyn's confidant we get to know Monroe better, and the character becomes another volume is Michelle Williams' study of fragile women. Marilyn is every bit as broken as the women Williams played in Brokeback Mountain or Blue Valentine, though she of course has it much worse since the people around her are doing everything but feeding off her. Williams gets at all that while still managing to be magnetically sexy and nailing how badly Monroe wanted to be normal. The most heartbreaking moment in My Week with Marilyn occurs when Colin's godfather (Derek Jacobi) gives Marilyn a tour of Windsor Castle, and a dollhouse suggests a life that it was already too late for Monroe to have. Of course there was only one way My Week with Marilyn could end, but even though we know Monroe's story there's still a sadness in seeing how close she comes to a genuine attachment. Most of the movies Marilyn Monroe made during her life aren't remembered; we think of the smile, the face, the voice. My Week with Marilyn has something to offer beyond Williams, but in the end its her performance that justifies the film's existence at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Music: Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, & Edgar Meyer - "Attaboy"

Four giants of acoustic music play a tune off the new Goat Rodeo Sessions album.

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's The Descendants arrives laden with early year-end critics' awards and with the presence of George Clooney, an actor unafraid to forgo his movie-star status and dive into serious material even when the results aren't guaranteed. When we last saw Alexander Payne he was leading Paul Giamatti through the joyfully cranky Sideways, and as Clooney shambled through The Descendants I found myself wishing Giamatti's wine-lover would show up and get things moving. Try to imagine a car spinning its wheels in the mud and you'll have an idea what the first few minutes here feel like,. The already much-critiqued voice over in which Matt King (Clooney) explains both his wife's coma and his family's long connection to an unspoiled tract of Hawaiian land is indeed dreadful; it saps the movie of energy and shoves exposition down the audiences' throats in an unaccountably clumsy way. Couldn't Matt's inadequacies as a husband and father have been revealed through behavior? I'm stumped as to what Payne was after here, unless he felt that dull voice-over was the best way to somehow reveal Matt's resignation about his own shortcomings. (It wasn't.) I can't say Clooney's performance in The Descendants is "bad" by any objective standard, but I also can't deny that watching him strain to be a regular guy is unintentionally hilarious at some badly timed moments. Clooney wasn't built to play men who are bad at things, and the screenplay schematically puts him in a reactive position. Also, there are no jokes. Talk about a perfect storm.

The Descendants is about too many things. The question of to whom and for how much Matt and his family will sell an enormous tract of land is a complete bore unless you're a fan of movies where people learn how rich they're going to be. Clooney and a large band of cousins (led by Beau Bridges) dicker over competing buyers and prices, and it all winds up with a decision that isn't very surprising and a Clooney speech that someone is hoping will get played on awards shows this winter. The fact that native Hawaiians barely figure in the film's world and that most of Matt's cousins could be cast in a movie about a Des Moines Rotary Club is probably true to the source material (a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) but it doesn't help the movie's sense of place. Matt King may feel deep ties to his land, but Alexander Payne is a tourist in Hawaii. Payne is more interested what happens when Matt and his daughters travel the state to update relatives on his wife's medical condition and track the man (Matthew Lillard) with whom she was having an affair. Even here the film is built on a creaky foundation since these scenes are really one long, sustained note of fury at a woman who can't speak for herself. Much of what happens in The Descendants comes out of a kind of emotional ugliness that's not becoming of a director who made us feel something for Tracy Flick in Election. The expected moments of healing come, but this strand of the movie trails off as opposed to resolving itself.

To the degree that anything redeems The Descendants, it's the performances of Amara Miller as Matt's youngest daughter Scottie (an elementary schooler crying out for attention) and especially of Shailene Woodley as older daughter Alexandra. Alexandra's revelation of her mother's affair sets off the film's journey and the self-possessed Woodley walks away with The Descendants as a young woman whose anger at and love for her mother will both never have a chance to be properly expressed. A different director could have made something messy and human out of Alexandra's story but Payne is after bigger fish for better or for worse. It's an astonishing performance and one that heralds great things for Shailene Woodley. I very much wanted The Descendants to be better, but too much of it left me sour and uncomfortable, as if Alexander Payne had turned in a film constructed to impress critics as opposed to one that he felt he couldn't not make. Payne reportedly has several films in the offing, and I hope this one was just a case of shaking off the rust.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Any adult with ounce of sensitivity and a respect for the way life can toss and buffet our dreams will find something to latch onto in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a film which finds the director in a reflective mood but not without playfulness. Hugo is being described as a "family" film but its concerns are so adult (the value of both work and of outlets for creative expression) that I wonder if many of the children who see it might only fully appreciate it with the passing of time. Hugo (Asa Butterfield, who looks like a miniature Elijah Wood and acts with great dignity) lives in a Paris train station sometime between the wars. Hugo's father (Jude Law) has died and other family have deserted him. His life is circumscribed by the needs of the station clocks he maintains and by what he can steal from the station's cafes and other vendors. One such vendor is a grumpy man known as "Papa Georges" (Ben Kingsley) who threatens to turn Hugo in for stealing until he reads the boy's notebook, which contain mysterious drawings of a mechanical man. With the help of Georges' godchild Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz in a wonderful performance), Hugo learns Georges identity after a detective mission that feels like something from a great children's book. Indeed, Scorsese and writer John Logan based Hugo on a young adult novel by Brian Selznick. It's not spoiling things to reveal that Georges is actually the early French filmmaker Georges Melies, whose work had been forgotten in Melies' own country. This subject matter is of course meat to Scorsese, who manages to toss in a generous helping of information on Melies as well as recreations of some of the director's work.

The look and feel of Hugo are among the best of any film this year. Scorsese presents the train station as Hugo perceives it, an outsized home filled with spy holes and escape hatches for when Hugo runs afoul of the station's police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). The station is populated with a cast of eccentrics that don't get enough screen time, especially Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee (NOT playing an evil wizard), and Emily Mortimer as a flower girl. Scorsese isn't afraid of letting the film sprawl, and while the early scenes may feel slow it's worth it for the resulting world that the film builds. The warm and fascinating Hugo has children at its center but a lifetime's full of love in its heart.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

When The Music Starts Again

Seeing Fiona Apple, now ... (Grantland)
But it didn’t really matter, because although Apple and Brion spent at least half the set arguing over what song to play next, flipping through notebooks, and eating yogurt, Apple still managed to overpower the theatrics with a vocal performance that I will not soon forget. The woman standing on the stage at the Largo bore almost no resemblance to the Fiona Apple of my adolescence — she was much, much thinner — nearly skeletal — she wore a vaguely Arabian green silk dress and a massive orange wrap that had been lined with sparkles. More importantly, the voice had changed — Apple’s voice on Tidal was deep and carried an air of contempt. The new Apple had less power, but as she sang through a series of very old covers — the sort of songs that are played on 45s in stores that only sell very expensive mid-century modern furniture — her voice bent and cracked and warbled in perfect synchronicity with the lyrics. (At one point, a fan requested new material. "I can't remember [how to play] any of my new songs because they've been done for a fucking year," Apple replied. "Not her fault!" said Brion.) By the third song, I was actively rooting against the past. This new Fiona Apple was so much better, so much more nuanced and thoughtful. At some point, she sang Cliff Edwards’ “Night Owl” with that massive orange wrap tightly secured around her shoulders. When she got to the chorus, “I’m a night owl,” she widened her eyes and spread out her arms, revealing the sparkly lining underneath, and flapped a few times.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Late Sunday Music: Sufjan Stevens - "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders"

Heard this cut from Illinoise today and immediately thought of the first scene of a screenplay I've been mulling over. Thank you, Mr. Stevens.

Chris White's Get Better

GET BETTER \ A Film by Chris & Emily White from Chris White on Vimeo.

Here's a trailer for Get Better, a new film out early next year by my friend Chris White and his wife Emily. I have a small role in the film and you can even spot me in a shot here, though I'm not telling you which one. You can learn more about Chris's work here and here.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I went into Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene having made a fundamental mistake: I expected to see the film I had read about in reviews. Elizabeth Olsen, as notable for her magnetism as for her placid outer beauty (if it's possible for an adult to look not fully formed, Olsen pulls it off), plays a woman named Martha who runs away from an Upstate New York cult in the film's opening sequence. Martha reestablishes contact with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, whose natural reserve is well used) and Lucy's husband  Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Durkin splits the story into Martha's time at her sister's Connecticut lake house and her earlier days with the cult. The transitions between the two time frames are seamless and gorgeously done; Durkin and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier key Martha's memories off such simple acts as jumping into a lake or holding a glass. The idea isn't planted until late in the film that the flashbacks to the cult are Martha's memories, occurring to her at the moment we see them. That fact is critical, I think, to understanding Martha's behavior in the Connecticut scenes and it was wise of Durkin to play that card late.

Martha's time at the cult is humdrum on the surface, but Martha and her fellow residents are at the mercy of the group's leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick's message isn't explicitly religious, but he's a master at raising the self-esteem of his followers while somehow encouraging their dependence on him at the same time. Martha and all the other women of the group are raped by Patrick; the act is referred to as "cleansing". Patrick also doles out access to the women's beds as a means of keeping his male followers in line. In one of the film's subtlest but most effective details, several of the group's men play music but Patrick is the only one whose songs are allowed to have words. Later on Martha will assist in another woman's initiation into the group; the scene is a turning point in the film as we begin to understand the group's true nature and what Patrick is capable of. It's also the point where I began to wonder what got Martha to this point. When we first see her she's sharing an illicit smoke with fellow group member Zoe (Louisa Krause) and there are intimations of wild behavior in her past. There's an emotional beat missing in Martha Marcy May Marlene, it's the moment where Patrick's message becomes more powerful to Martha than any other life she can imagine.

 I don't think Sean Durkin means to suggest that Martha's time in Connecticut is just as stifling as her time with Patrick, and if he does that idea is belied by the crinkly smile of Paulson and by Dancy's dry Englishness. (I was reminded of The Help in the ways that the emotional specificity of actors worked against any consequences - intended or otherwise - of the writing.) There's a moment where a distraught Martha is given a sedative by her sister that parallels something in the cult scenes. The parallel never takes root though, because Martha's family is just too reasonable.  Lucy and Ted, who live a prosperous but childless and slightly sterile life, are well-meaning but baffled by Martha. It's that bafflement that Durkin is really keying on. Lucy and Martha (who seem to have lost their parents early) haven't been close for years, and the tentative connection that Martha begins to forge with her sister is nothing like the connections she had as part of Patrick's "family". That irony makes the ambiguous ending very effective. As Martha Marcy May Marlene comes to an end, Martha's journey is just beginning.