Thursday, March 29, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max Von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell
Running Time: 129 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Sometimes you hear so much about a movie it's difficult to approach it with a clean slate. In the case of Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it's practically impossible. Considered by many as one of the weakest Best Picture nominees in years, just the announcement of its shocking inclusion last February elicited a chorus of gasps and groans. Whether its dissenters even actually saw the film or not, you'd have to figure much of that had to do with its 9/11 subject matter. And that's exactly what this comes down to since the picture isn't nearly awful enough on its own terms to provoke such a passionate response. And it certainly isn't controversial. Did it deserve to be nominated for Best Picture? Of course not. There are some problems with it and it's emotionally manipulative to a point. But at the end of the day it's a mildly successful examination of how an eccentric, intelligent young boy with an emotional spectrum disorder deals with death. Featuring some really strong performances and a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, that's all there is to it. A mixed bag, but 2 hours mostly well spent.

Based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, it tells the story of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), son of jeweler Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, a date Oskar frequently refers to as "the worst day." Through flashbacks we see the special bond between the two up until his father's death with Thomas often sending Oskar on wild scavenger hunts to find hidden objects throughout New York City. Following 9/11 Oskar emotionally withdraws from his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) with any discussion of that day ending in a shouting match. After working up the courage to explore his father's untouched closet 8 months later, he discovers a small envelope marked "Black" with a mysterious key inside. Assuming his dad left it there for him to find, Oskar looks up everyone with that last name in the the phone book sets out on one last expedition to find the lock it fits. His sole companion on the trip is the The Renter (Max Von Sydow), a mute old man living with his grandmother whom he befriends. With maps in hand and routes planned out, the quest is as much Oskar's way to extend time with his deceased father and make sense of what happened as it is to find the lock. He won't stop until he solves the mystery, but in doing so he may be forced to come to the realization his father's actually gone.

This is a strange film and for all the criticisms leveled against it at least it presents a type of protagonist we've never seen before but whose patterns of behavior will be immediately recognizable to some. During Oskar's voiceover narration in the first hour he states he was tested for Asperger's but the results came back inconclusive. Maybe in an effort to drum up some ambiguity for the character or fear that officially diagnosing him would create a pity party, Academy Award winning screenwriter Eric Roth lets the viewers speculate as to whether something's wrong with him. Well, there clearly is. He's either a really high functioning autistic or suffers from Asperger's. It's more likely the latter and I kind of wish they had just come out and said that as it would have quelled many of the complaints against the film and Horn's performance, which is remarkable if you're able to separate the actor from the character. Oskar's supposed to be annoying, over-emotional and overbearing, so Horn, a child Jeopardy winner with no previous acting experience, often narrates the story as if he were rattling off  facts on that game show. It becomes uncomfortable when he gives extremely detailed descriptions of of every tiny aspect of the "worst day" but it's supposed to be and it's in line with the character. As for the 9/11 scenes themselves all I can say is that they feel terrifying rather than offensive or emotionally manipulative. Nothing seems to come off as disrespectful, even though that doesn't even address the real issue here. Despite a handful of films having already been released handling the topic, the question of whether it's "too soon" will keep coming up and while it's up to each individual viewer to decide that for themselves, those against the idea would still be against it regardless of how this was presented.

The first hour of the film literally lives up to its title as we probably spend about as much one on one time with this kid that is bearable, but luckily the flashbacks with his father work and Tom Hanks is his usual likable self. Bullock, in her first post-Blind Side role, is affecting too, with nearly all the uncomfortable 9/11 scenes falling squarely on her lap. It isn't necessarily a large part, but it's challenging and she delivers a nice, low key performance. Her character won't be winning any "Mother of the Year" awards as the film's biggest flaw is how she'd let a 11-year-old just wander the streets of New York. There's an attempt at an explanation for this later but it's a weak one that does little to erase a huge gap in logic that could have easily been fixed by having him just run away instead.

The arrival of Max Von Sydow's mute unnamed renter into the story may as well mark the start of the film as that's when the narrative starts gaining real momentum. From the minute he appears the 82-year-old's Oscar-nominated supporting turn provides the young actor with someone interesting and more experienced to bounce off of during the journey.What's more impressive than Von Sydow giving an entirely silent performance is that it's so expressive that words would have probably been a distraction. He gets his point across so clearly he doesn't even need them and any scene in the film without him seems weaker because of it. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright give small but crucial performances as two strangers Oskar meets on his adventure and elevate their material considerably, especially Wright who figures in huge in the third act. And for a movie centering around a mystery that really isn't "about" the mystery, its payoff is surprisingly satisfying. 

Having carried the similarly controversial Holocaust drama The Reader to a detested Best Picture nomination in 2008, director Stephen Daldry has proven he isn't afraid to tackle tumultuous subject matter through a sentimental lens. He goes all out here, but respectfully and with a consistent tone, resulting once again in a mild success. So far there have actually been quite a few movies that in some form or another revolve around the 9/11 tragedy. United 93 and World Trade Center were dramatic interpretations of the actual event with the former employing a docudrama approach that gave the material a frightening sense of immediacy. 25th Hour and Reign Over Me touched on the aftermath, with the latter controversially using it as a plot device. What all these movies have in common is that no one was particularly comfortable with that day or its aftermath being depicted at all, regardless of their quality. In many ways this is the 9/11 film everyone's been dreading and hoped Hollywood wouldn't make because it involves a child coping with the tragedy. But its tough to argue that's not the most honest entry point. Neither exploitive or inspirational, it's a slightly above average, well acted drama that got too much attention for reasons unrelated to what's onscreen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dennis Has a Podcast: 2012 Movie Preview

I once again joined Dennis on Dennis Has a Podcast to discuss some of our most (and least) anticipated movies of 2012 and a bunch of other fun topics including the Hunger Games craze, Kristen Stewart, Joseph Gordon Levitt, The Rock, the James Bond franchise and The Dark Knight Rises. 

Listen here (51:16)

...And be sure to check out previous episodes of DHAP on itunes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Yorick Von Wageningen, Steven Berkoff, Joely Richardson, Goran Visnjic
Running Time: 158 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's a terrible feeling when a highly anticipated release lets you down. It's an even worse feeling when it's made by your favorite director. But in the interest of looking at the glass half-full, David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake is probably as good as it could possibly be and it's easy to imagine a worse result had another filmmaker tried to tackle it. I haven't read author Stieg Larsson's first book in his "Millenium Trilogy," nor have I seen the 2009 Swedish film adaptation that starred Noomi Rapace in the title role. But what's interesting is how little interest I want to after seeing this. And that's not to say the picture is a full-on failure by any stretch. From a direction, production and acting standpoint it's actually outstanding, which leads me to believe the source material is the culprit here, preventing this project from ascending to a higher level. It feels like a David Fincher film. It looks like a David Fincher film. But the soul is missing. Two intersecting stories are being told and while one is moderately successful the other is unmistakably ordinary. The acting and direction almost save the day, struggling to lift the material out of routine thriller territory.   

Disgraced journalist and co-owner of the Swedish Millenium magazine Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a very public libel case brought against him when he's hired by millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his grandniece Harriet 40 years ago. It's a case full of holes and mysteries in which Blomkvist relies on old photographs, notebook scribblings and feuding siblings to unravel the sordid secrets of the dysfunctional Vanger clan in hopes of finding leads. Upon requesting a research assistant, he's given tatooed, body-pierced computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who has a history of physical and sexual abuse. A ward of the state due to mental incompetency, she's forced to perform sexual favors for her rapist guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick Von Wageningen) in order to receive an allowance. That is until she breaks free. Cold and untrusting, Lisbeth isn't the easiest partner to work with but she and Blomkvist make an effective team as they inch dangerously closer to discovering the truth about Harriet's disappearance.

It takes almost an hour and a half into the almost 3 hour film before Lisbeth and Blomkvist even meet with much of the preceding time allotted to setting up the mystery and getting to know the leads. With Lisbeth's situation it's time mostly well spent but Blomkvist's investigation and the case is a drag, too often playing like a poor man's Zodiac. It just isn't interesting at all and at times seems completely indistinguishable from a missing persons TV crime drama case. Even more alarming is that none of the plot developments caught me off guard despite having zero familiarity with source material or the original Swedish film. It's also odd the revelations would be so dry, especially considering how cool and edgy the film has been touted as being. Most of that edginess comes when the focus is on Lisbeth and remarkably I had no problems believing the relationship that develops between her and Blomkvist or how quickly it was consummated. In fact, given how psychologically damaged she is and how bored he must have been from investigating this case, it almost seems inevitable.

Mara's performance is about as great as you've heard, sporting a remarkable, unwavering Swedish accent and doing her best to supply depth where there's seems to be very little coming from Steve Zaillian's script. Though I was still unsure at many points how I was supposed to feel about Lisbeth as a character. Regardless of how she's depicted in the novels or original films, I did sense a play was being made to make her increasingly sympathetic to the point of almost being a lovesick puppy as the film entered its final act, which seems at odds with how uncommercial everything else is. Daniel Craig's miscast as a passive bookworm but turns in typically strong work anyway. If anything, this role really highlights the challenges facing Craig in a non-James Bond project since it's inescapably off-putting seeing him play such a non-heroic part, especially in a thriller. I had to keep reminding myself Blomkvist was just a journalist who can't shoot his way out of any situation. Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and Steven Berkoff are given roles of varying importance and quality to the story.

That the film's sole Oscar win for editing is a head-scratcher, unless the honor refers to the least amount of editing. There were many spots during the first hour where I felt certain scenes could have been chopped and tightened for clarity, as it marks the first instance in a Fincher film where copious details don't justify an exorbitant running time or add depth to the story in any meaningful way. This is especially true at the tail end where there's a perfect point to start wrapping up the picture following a chilling sequence that's highlighted by an unforgettably creepy musical moment. But then proceedings drag on for almost a half hour longer. It's bad enough this coda seems pointless, but it's also presented in a needlessly confusing manner, sucking the energy out of the narrative as the film limps past the finish line. Whether it's true to the source material or not, if it wasn't going to be presented crisply then there's no reason to include it. If the editing is close to being a disaster the opposite should be said of Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' haunting score, both of which  compliment the murky atmosphere. The opening credit sequence (set to Karen O and Reznor and Ross's cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song") looks tremendously cool in a high-tech music video type of way, even if I couldn't thinking that was its only purpose. In any event, I'd be crazy to say the movie doesn't look great.

That this all almost still works despite these flaws is a credit to Fincher, who's slumming it here with pulpy material below his talent level. For the first time he actually feels like a hired gun. Here's hoping he doesn't sign on to film the two sequels and moves on to something else as there's nothing left for him to try to elevate here. But he does remain true to form in managing to provoke a strong reaction, even if that reaction is negative. Given the filmmaker, it's always possible I could return to this down the road and come out with a new appreciation, but a single viewing definitely feels like enough right now. There's just very little depth or subtext to the story, which is especially problematic if an actress is going to be put through what Mara is. She hasn't even looked the same since this wrapped and that she's already contractually committed to continuing this is unfortunate. It shouldn't be too much to ask that a film featuring brutal rape and murder have something to say, especially if it's taking up this much time, talent and money. I knew going in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn't be an amusement park ride and didn't want it to be. But what really surprised me was just how little it amounted to.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Jack and Jill

Director: Dennis Dugan 
Starring: Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino, Eugenio Derbez, Tim Meadows, Nick Swardson
Running Time: 91 min.
Rating: PG

★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's usually bad practice to go into a movie with your fingers crossed that it won't be as bad as everyone's saying. But when that movie's the Razzie-nominated Jack and Jill I can be forgiven. And that's coming from someone who really likes Adam Sandler. So much that at the risk of losing whatever credibility I'd built up as a critic I actually recommended the likes of You Don't Mess With Zohan, Grown Ups and, more recently, Just Go With It.  If you stopped reading now I wouldn't blame you, but those films, despite signaling a disappointing direction for his career, were mildly enjoyable, if not anywhere near the disasters most critics made them out to be. This is another story. While Jack and Jill's still maybe not quite as bad as you've heard (though it's really close), it represents a new low for frequent Sandler collaborator and Happy Gilmore director Dennis Dugan. But what's more alarming is that for the first time Dugan doesn't even seem to be trying and I've actually liked most of his stuff. Everyone's going through the motions of a one-joke premise, even as I continue holding out hope Sandler's career choices are some kind of elaborate social experiment or practical joke on the ticket-buying public. But I'm probably being too optimistic.

What we have is the shell of Sandler comedy hiding behind the thin conceit of ( and it hurts to say this) an Eddie Murphy movie. This time he's Jack Sadelstein, an advertising exec who lives in L.A. with his beautiful wife, Erin (Katie Holmes) and two kids Sofie (Elodie Tougne) and Gary (Rohan Chand). Jumping right into things with practically no set-up and seconds after a somewhat inspired opening credit sequence, Jack's needy and annoying twin sister Jill (also Sandler) arrives from New York to spend Thanksgiving with them. Needless to say she's a nightmare and initially a major distraction for Jack in attempting to land Al Pacino (Al Pacino) for a big Dunkin' Donuts commercial spot. At a Lakers game (featuring an unfunny cameo from Johnny Depp who seems weirder as "himself" than any eccentric character he's played), Pacino develops a crush on Jill. Seizing the opportunity, Jack realizes this infatuation may not be such a bad thing, but most choose between his career and the feelings of his boisterous, insecure twin with whom he shares an uneasy love/hate bond. 

With this outing Sandler has now finally released a full-blown, feature-length version of one of those fake bad comedies his character from Funny People starred in with the only difference being he doesn't seem in on the joke this time. It does have its moments, like a couple of great lines delivered from Jack's adopted Indian son and a funny running gag about how Jill can't remember famous movie titles. And even in dreck like this Sandler proves he's a substantial talent who deserves better and can deftly handle both roles, even impressively playing Jack pretending to be Jill in one sequence. The problem is everything else related to Jill, who's too annoying for anyone to root for, which makes Dugan's inexplicable attempt to deliver a warm-hearted family comedy seem that much more delusional. Obviously, she's supposed to be a pain but that doesn't make it any less brutal or repetitive for audiences who have to watch Sandler prove its capable to irritate audiences for 91 minutes, then backtrack and try apologizing. Equally uninspired are the myriad of celebrity cameos than have become a staple in all his films but this time seem more unnecessary than usual. In addition to the aforementioned Depp, are appearances from Christie Brinkley, Shaq, John McEnroe, Jared Fogle, Bruce Jenner, Dan Patrick, Billy Blanks, Dana Carvey, Rob Schneider, Norm MacDonald and Drew Carey. Stuff like this can work in small doses to create well-timed laughs (as they have in past Sandler vehicles) but when there's a cameo a minute just to show off, its novelty wears off fast.

One person who definitely isn't relegated to a cameo is Al Pacino, who's featured in so many scenes it's a wonder he didn't get top billing over Sandler. I'll give him this though: He doesn't phone it in. While Pacino's recent career slide is often compared to that of his contemporary Robert De Niro, at least Pacino has some degree of self-awareness and commits to making each new trainwreck he stars in more entertaining than it has any right to be. He's justifiably been singled out as the best thing in this and the actual Dunkin Donuts commercial is a hoot, but after a while even his presence starts to seem like too much of a good thing. Dugan beats a good joke into the ground, slathering crazy Pacino all over the film to the point of overload when it would have been more effective to just pick the right spots.

Most bothersome to me is the idea of Sandler and Katie Holmes co-starring in a film together and this being the result. As a huge longtime fan of both performers there's no advance buzz bad enough that could have dissuaded me from wanting to see them together as onscreen spouses (and I still say a great comedy or drama could come from the pairing). A welcome presence in any film, the lovely, talented Holmes isn't given a whole lot to do as Erin besides sweetly support and encourage Jill while her husband does the exact opposite. She's essentially playing the perfect wife which, come to think of it, is actually pretty good casting. Her petrified reactions to the insanity sometimes create (un)intentional laughs, like when she's attacked by an in drag David Spade. While I wish she had more to do it's likely no one will remember her or anyone besides Sandler and Pacino were in this, which might be a blessing since the former should deservedly take the blame for also producing it.
I'm not sure Sandler thinks there's a problem here or he if he even cares. He's clearly settled into an auto-pilot mode of making these bankable family-friendly comedies but the formula's become worn and predictable, with the poor box office returns for this indicating audiences may finally be catching on. If he isn't careful he'll soon head into that dreaded Eddie Murphy territory, which would be a shame considering the talent he's previously shown when his strengths are highlighted with the right material.  But what's become increasingly frustrating with these Sandler films is how much wussier each one gets. If he wants to make more family-oriented movies as he gets older that's understandable, but why can't they be smart? Or if he wants to continue cashing big paychecks for low brow comedies that's fine also. But at least extend us the courtesy of making them angry and R-rated, minus a sappy message the film doesn't earn. Either way, playing it safe just doesn't suit him.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Ides of March

Director: George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Is there any better casting than George Clooney playing a liberal Presidential candidate? If the actor ran right now he'd probably win and you'd have problems convincing me he'd be any worse a choice than the other available options. Having also wrote and directed the timely political thriller The Ides of March, he knew the right role to give himself. As expected, he smoothly plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris like it's effortless. But the film's not about him. At least not completely. It's about his press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who starts off as an idealist and ends up as someone else entirely. We kind of know that's where we're going but the real thrill is in how Clooney's airtight script and precise direction masterfully turn the screws to take us there. It's a step-by-step examination of how someone becomes corrupted and why our political system is so broken. It's a stretch, but not unrealistic, and I believed if something like this were to go down, this is how it would and these are the kind of bad decisions people make that allow it to happen.

Two such decisions send the story spiraling out of control and they're easy to justify because the characters making them are smart. The first starts with Gosling's Stephen receiving a phone call from rival Presidential campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) trying to woo him over to their side. And for good reason. He's the best. It's a tempting offer since Morris' Presidential campaign is struggling and they're about to lose Ohio. An Obama-like idealist to his core (or so it seems at first), Morris refuses to compromise his beliefs to get elected, which makes one wonder how he got into politics at all. Topping the list is his refusal to court the potentially election-clinching endorsement of Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), which does come at a price. Stephen's on a sinking ship and knows it but his loyalty to Morris and senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) won't let him jump. But the opposition's interest in him is undeniably flattering, resulting in a fleeting moment of weakness that has disastrous consequences.

The second mistake involves a young, connected intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom Stephen becomes romantically involved. Only that's not the mistake. It's unwise, but the real mistake is hers. And it's a doozy. From there, the plot, with all its twists and turns, unravels and a reporter (Marisa Tomei) threatens to bust it wide open in a welcome return to the days in movies where journalists wielded considerable power. At one point Giamatti's character states that the problem with Democrats is their refusal to be like Republicans. They won't get down in the dirt and sling mud. But corruption crosses party lines.

A while back Clooney revealed his 100 favorite movies and now he's directed one that's an interesting companion piece to that list, recalling similarly themed political/conspiracy thrillers of the '70's like The Parallax View and All The President's Men. It's not surprising a smart, engaging film for adults would underperform at the box office right now, but that critics would use it as a punching bag is, with more than a few disparagingly referring to it as a glorified TV movie. I don't get that at all, even if it may be more a compliment considering the healthy creative state of television these days. It could be because it covers a topic that's often explored on the small screen or that the revelations in the film aren't shocking per se (though one did blow me out of my seat), but instead meticulously constructed and executed, like a chess game with its pieces moving across the board. And all the players are perfectly utilized.

Given the banner year each had it's no surprise Gosling facing off against Clooney on screen yielded such successful results, making Gosling worthy of competing against himself for a Best Actor Oscar if that were allowable (and now I'm thinking it should). In a way what he does here is similar but completely different to his more muted, intense performance in Drive in that he's playing a cool, calculated character suddenly rattled threatened by circumstances exceeding his grasp. It's a difficult role, but he expertly sells the tricky transformation from idealist to cynic. Giamatti and Hoffman are two of our finest contemporary actors, but they could have easily been marginalized in an ensemble like this. Neither are, with each at the top of their games making essential supporting contributions on which the entire foundation of the story rests. Evan Rachel Wood is tragically tremendous as the doomed intern in way over her head.     

I'll admit to laughing a little when Clooney's script (adapted from Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North) was nominated for Best Adapted screenplay thinking it was just another way for the Academy to pat their favorite movie star on the back. But he deserves the praise, streamlining a complicated narrative into a clean, concise cinematic experience free of any excess fat. Technically speaking, it's perfect. Consider it the Michael Clayton of political thrillers, right down to its chilling final image. If that film marked the turning point for Clooney as an actor then this is his as a director, easily surpassing all his three previous efforts behind the camera which were solid, but dry. There's nothing dry or slight about this. Here's a movie with something important to say. The political system may be broken but those engulfed in it should look no further than the mirror to determine what's most in need of fixing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's this theory that the last two months of each year are reserved exclusively for "adult" movies. Arriving last November, Martin Scorsese's Hugo seemed at least on the surface to be an exception. Based on an acclaimed children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and filmed and released in 3D, it felt exactly like the kind of giant family feature that would clean up at the box office, with parents taking their kids in droves to the theater as if it were an early Harry Potter installment. But they didn't. Maybe too sophisticated for children and too kid-friendly for adults, it ended up as a critically acclaimed commercial flop that racked up a healthy number of Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and wins. All those wins came in technical categories, which is ironic considering that wasn't even the most impressive aspect of the picture for me. I'm always weary when someone tells me something "has to" be seen in 3D. It actually makes me less interested in seeing it, so in the case of Hugo where my interest level was already minimal, the decision to wait for a home viewing was an especially easy one. My mind won't change on 3D overnight or even with Scorsese's endorsement, but this is still a magical film with or without it.

It's 1930's Paris and a 12-year-old boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station with his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) following the death of his father (Jude Law) in a museum fire. When his uncle suddenly disappears Hugo is left on his own to maintain the clocks and continue working on his father's final project: Fixing a broken automaton robot he believes contains a secret message from him. While stealing parts to repair it he's caught by the station's grumpy toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) and attracts the unwanted attention the Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), who catches orphans and locks them in cages. His only friend turns out to be the toy store owner's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who joins him in unlocking the mystery surrounding the automaton and discovering its strange connection to her godfather's hidden past. It isn't until the full nature of the mystery is revealed that the film really starts to take off as up to that point everything is visually spectacular (deservedly winning Oscars for Robert Richardson's cinematography and Dante Ferretti's art direction), but ordinary from narrative standpoint. That doesn't last long though. 

John Logan's screenplay takes its time for a reason, and since trailers and reviews have been liberal in revealing the secret, so will I. Isabelle's godfather is really legendary A Trip to the Moon filmmaker Georges Melies who's now washed up and embittered, forced into retirement following World War I, with his life's work seemingly lost and legacy long forgotten. Film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlberg), who's written and lectured on Melies even believes him to be dead. What happens next shouldn't be spoiled other than to say Scorsese merges actual biography and fantasy in a way that needs to be seen to be believed. For about an hour straight this film enters what I like to call "the zone," where you're completely swept away by the story to the point that you forget you're even watching a movie. It's a level of perfection few films reach but Scorsese gets there, at least for the last third of the picture.  The extended middle portion of The Tree of Life played in that area earlier in the year, but there's a flashback section here taking us through film history that's emotionally moving in a way I wasn't completely prepared for going in. It'll probably play best for film buffs but I can't imagine anyone else watching it wouldn't also be affected by how beautifully it's presented.

Having heard about this flashback section beforehand, my biggest worry was Scorsese turning the story into a public service announcement for film preservation (which admittedly wouldn't be the worst cause to force on us anyway) and shoehorning the rest of the movie into that. This doesn't happen, as the biggest relief is how well all the the narrative pieces fit together and tie into the central theme of broken people in need of fixing. It not only extends to Hugo, but Georges' wife and former actress Jeanne (Helen McCrory), as well Sacha Baron Cohen's comical inspector. There's a sub-plot involving him and the station flower girl (Emily Mortimer) that could have seemed completely cornball in another director's hands, but instead comes off as genuinely touching and organic to the story.

For some strange reason a lot of criticism has been leveled against the performance of young Asa Butterfield as the title character and I'm kind of at a loss as to why. He's mainly called upon to look in wide eyed amazement at everything with his expressive eyes and turn on the waterworks when necessary and does that just fine. What's strange is that despite playing the protagonist and being the driving engine behind the narrative, the film doesn't live and die by his performance like you'd figure it would. He's important, but ultimately just a cog in the machine, which is fitting considering the film's central theme. He doesn't give a poor performance at all but if he did or Scorsese picked a less talented child actor, a part of me thinks the picture might not have suffered much at all. It's about Hugo, yet it isn't. Butterfield does good work, but it kind of perfectly blends in, possibly causing an understandable reluctance from many to praise it. Moretz is better but that's completely expected given her experience, and if she looks and even acts a little old for the role (despite being exactly the same age as Butterfield) it's understandable since the Isabelle character seems to be written as slightly older. But this is Ben Kingsley's movie, giving a career-high supporting performance that went surprisingly overlooked during awards season. It isn't off base to claim he's the actor most responsible for the film's success, bringing an uncommon amount of depth and gravity to a bitter man simultaneously running from and toward his past.

Chalk this up as yet another entry in the nostalgia craze that swept through theaters in 2011, joining the likes of The Artist, Super 8, War Horse, Drive, Midnight in Paris and many more. But give this credit for at least depicting a relationship with the past that isn't completely full of the warm and fuzzies, even if does end that way. It only suffers in having a section so powerful that the rest of the film has trouble holding its ground with it. And while it seems we were obligated to honor Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen for just releasing anything, this (unlike 2010's Shutter Island) feels as if it would still be garnering massive praise without the knowledge Scorsese directed it. Yet he's inseparable from it anyway. Given its size and scope Hugo still manages to feels almost embarrassingly intimate and personal. It doesn't at all feel like the work of a filmmaker pushing 70, but one still trying new things and pushing himself in different directions. I may not always agree with those directions but it's impressive he would try something this unexpectedly ambitious when he clearly doesn't need to and could just pump out the same stuff he has been. The nicest surprise accompanying Hugo is that it wasn't listed among the nine Best Picture nominees as a favor to the person who made it, but because it actually deserved to be.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dennis Has a Podcast: Oscars Recap and The Artist

Once again I join Dennis on Dennis Has a Podcast to discuss a wide variety of film topics such as our reaction to the Oscar telecast, how previous Oscar winners have held up over time, The Artist, George Clooney, Alexander Payne, Adam Sandler's career choices, upcoming 2012 releases and why you never seem to see a "Best of" list from me at the end of the year. As always, it was a lot of fun.

Listen here (54:41)

 ...And don't forget to check out previous DHAP episodes on itunes.