GOODFELLAS. For Kids!

28 11 2011

I’m counting AVATAR, the highest-grossing film of all time, when I say that Martin Scorsese’s HUGO is the only 3D movie that actually matters. Like, ever. (Yes, that also includes ‘Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses.’) In fashioning a tribute to the birth of cinema and its spectacular roots while using state-of-the-art modern technique, Scorsese’s put up another magnum opus on the board, but it’s one that’s unlike anything he’s attempted before: a PG-rated children’s fantasy that’s as ambitious as it is satisfying, as stylistically intricate as it is basic in message. Leave it to the man to reach so far – and yet nothing, it seems, is beyond his grasp. Ladies and Gentleman, presenting Martin Scorsese, master of family entertainment. No shit.

HUGO opens with a high angle shot over 1920’s Paris, which whooshes us down into the Montparnasse train station, and then into its inner-workings and the boy who lives in the gears and cogs of the place. Yes, it sounds like the Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS times a crillion, and yes, it is every bit as dazzling as it might be. Set to Howard Shore’s melancholy-waltz main theme, the first ten minutes of HUGO are as thrilling as that legendary entry to the Copa – which is not to say the two hours that follow won’t melt your eyeballs with marvel after marvel. Will they ever, brother.

Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, and robot actor Richard Gear, in HUGO

Played by Asa Butterfield, young Hugo is first seen looking out from within a clock, observing the regulars of Montparnasse (a moment that evokes REAR WINDOW, by a director who also notably experimented with 3D during its initial heyday.) From out of his hidden vantage, Hugo is drawn into an adventure involving a mechanical automaton left to him by his father (Jude Law,) a mysterious toymaker (Sir Ben Kingsley,) and sharp young Isabelle played by the formidable Chloe Grace Moretz, who may or may not secretly be 40 years-old like Emmanuel Lewis… Hugo & Isabelle’s journey not only enriches their understanding of themselves and their place in the world, but of the history of motion pictures. To give away more would be rude; let’s just say HUGO is a film about film that’s reflexive in a way that feels sincerely reverent, not self-indulgent. This is Scorsese the student and Scorsese the auteur in perfect harmony of vision. That he literally re-creates the special effects of silent films in digital 3D is an achievement that may or may not bring tears to your eyes. It did to mine… I mean, uh, it was those damned glasses, I swear!

Remember: inside every clock there is a tiny child, and he is WATCHING EVERYTHING YOU DO.

AVATAR, the world-conquering blue oaf, presented a planet that intoxicated crillions not with of its story, (ahem, ‘Unobtainium,’) but with the depth of its visuals. The conceit that narratively justified its use of 3D – that we were experiencing the world through new eyes, the eyes of a Na’vi – is dwarfed by Scorsese’s conceit. In HUGO, we’re presented with a rich metaphor in which we viewers are participants in the machinery of what we’re taking in. Our interaction with the 3D environment of the film is the very purpose of it. HUGO is about the power of movies to shape human beings and the way in which that makes human beings inseparable from them. In the world of HUGO, people are cinema, and cinema – the viewing and the making of it – is a pure extension of what it is to be alive.

Martin Scorsese's Yugo

All this theorizing would be empty if the film didn’t have a palpable emotional effect,  but HUGO made me feel truly alive. OK, that sounds drippingly sentimental, but the emotional appeal of HUGO is aligned totally with its thesis: it is a machine to make you feel – like activating an automaton – and that it does, more than any other film this year… and maybe more than anything Marty’s ever done.

If you care about cinema, about its past or its future, you really have no choice but to see HUGO, in a theater, in 3D. And if you miss your chance to see HUGO in a theater in 3D, all I can say is, I’m sorry.

HUGO

Arclight Theater, Hollywood

Sunday November 27, 4:45pm showing





MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: Sundance Darling, Spielblog Kindling

31 10 2011

To say what I really want to about Sean Durkin’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, I’ve got to reveal some SPOILERS. But for those who choose not to read on, let’s just say that the biggest problem with the film is that ultimately, it doesn’t reveal much.

MMMM jumps back and forth in the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen,) taken in by charismatic/monstrous Patrick (John Hawkes,) who keeps young women hostage on his dilapidated rural farm, renaming them as he sees fit – hence ‘Marcy May.’ (I won’t spoil ‘Marlene.’) After escaping Patrick’s cultish group and returning to her estranged family, Martha is forced to confront her demons, and we piece together just what happened on Patrick’s farm, as she does.

Elizabeth Olsen, the star of next week, this week

Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson,) who hasn’t seen Martha in two years, doesn’t seem to think it’s fit to pry into where exactly she’s been since last they spoke. Martha claims to be getting over a rough break-up, and leaves it at that. Lucy, either too polite or too self-centered, doesn’t push Martha for details, even as Martha’s behavior turns increasingly bizarre. So while we the viewer watch the depraved conduct of Patrick’s brood in the past tense, every time we return to the present, Lucy fails us, as she fails to break Martha out of her shell.

Because the film opens with Martha fleeing Patrick’s hovel, we can only assume she has good reason to do so. As we jump back again and again, the menacing Patrick comes into focus – but what, with all these flashbacks, do we finally discover about him? Only that he’s a creep, and (surprise!) he has the capacity for violence. In other words, we really learn nothing about him that we can’t already infer from Martha’s escape in the first place. Her whole entire experience with Patrick’s group leads to a senseless murder in the midst of a home invasion. And it’s that violence, evidently, that spurs Martha to fly. But that’s it. If you’re going to construct your indie film on ominous flashbacks, kids, please, let them actually build to something interesting. How many times do I have to say it?!

John Hawkes (left) and members of his FULL HOUSE... Olsen Twins joke FTW!

After much portentous dawdling, the final scene in MMMM, the big twist, is that after two hours of ‘Non-Inquisitive Sister’ not asking ‘Obviously-Fucked-Up Sister’ where exactly she’s been, Lucy convinces Martha to go to a treatment center. And in the car on the way to rehab, we see Patrick’s SUV on the roadside. It pulls out behind Lucy’s car, begins tailing them – and just as Martha turns to look over her shoulder, panicked, we cut to black. The end. No doubt this is the reason MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE received distribution. It’s an anti-climax that will get people talking (even if it’s nothing you didn’t see in the final episode of THE SOPRANOS.) Perhaps the whole point of the film is that Martha’s refusal/inability to discuss what happened is what makes her vulnerable to the vengeance of Patrick; the act of retribution itself doesn’t matter, and so is withheld. If only Martha had told Lucy where she’d been, and what had happened to her, then they could have stayed safe. D’oh.

Except, of course, that Lucy – were she not a frustratingly thin character – would have gotten this information out of her sister already, if not in the moments immediately after picking up Martha in Upstate Nowhere, then certainly after the scene in which Martha curls up at the foot of her bed as she and her husband are mid-intercourse. I mean, if that doesn’t force you to shake the shit out of your kid sister until she comes clean, really, what will? It’s a funny scene – but in a film with zero sense of humor, should we assume it’s intentionally funny?

Sundance hype aside, Elizabeth Olsen, younger sib of Mary Kate & Ashley, turns in an outstanding debut performance as Martha. She’s so good, in fact, she almost makes you forgive her character for being so foolish; not just foolish enough to be taken in by such a foul creep in the first place, but foolish enough to keep her mouth shut for so long after the fact. The film then plays like a sort of indie/arthouse slasher flick, except instead of screaming at the screen “bitch, stay outta the attic!” you’ll find yourself screaming “bitch, seek counseling immediately!” To no avail. If MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a statement on psychic paralysis – the past is never dead, it’s not even past – then point taken. But it still doesn’t mean Martha isn’t a moron.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

Festival Cinemas, Vancouver BC

Friday October 28, 1:45pm showing





THE IDES OF MARCH: Baby Goose Goes to Washington

27 10 2011

Did you know that politics is a corrupting force? No? Then the new George Clooney-penned Poli-Sci 120  essay THE IDES OF MARCH may shock you. Yes, apparently, not even the most hopeful and inspiring of Presidential candidates can make it into office without compromising their ethics. Apparently, (SPOILER ALERT!) American politics is a cynical enterprise – and even idealists have to learn this, sooner or later. Have I just blown your mind? Well then, you probably don’t watch – what’s that called? Oh yes. The news.

From left: Evan Rachel Wood, George Clooney, and Ryan Gosling in THE IDES OF MARCH

Forgive my cynicism, but to this wannabe-wonk, THE IDES OF MARCH seemed featherweight, especially for those of us weaned on the 24-hour news cycle, in which national topics are dropped in an acid bath and decomposed daily to make room for the next. To the CNN-initiated, IDES is bound to be metabolized as quickly as any given headline. The ubiquitous and chiseled Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers – no relation to Stephenie Meyer, sadly. Stephen’s a staffer on Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney’s) campaign to be the next yadda yadda of the yadda, and he’s an idealist, we’re told – until he becomes embroiled in some top-tier trickery that hurries his metamorphosis into the ruthless Machiavellian player he never intended to be.

"There's no easy way to say this, kid. You've got IDES."

IDES, which Clooney co-wrote and directed, is a morality play that for all its peppering of realpolitik bon mot, is simplified to the point of silliness. Case in point: towards the end of the film, Gosling, who begins as a charmer, is forced to wear a series of haunted, blank expressions to convey, apparently, that this campaign has taken his very sooouuuul. In the recent release DRIVE, the image of Gosling deadpan in a close-up tracking shot walking into a nightclub with leather gloves and a hammer to do some dirty business – that was in keeping with the heightened reality of that film. And lo, it was rad. Take the same deadpan, the same tracking shot, and leather gloves too, as Baby Goose walks into his rival’s campaign headquarters in IDES to talk tough to Paul Giamatti – it just comes off as needlessly theatrical. Yes, the film is based on a play, FARRAGUT NORTH by Beau Willimon, but in its condensation, (and it is mighty condensed; one of the best things about the film is its run-time,) Clooney hits the mark for succinctness, but falls short of authenticity. For that, you’d be better served watching 2009’s IN THE LOOP, a political film of a lot more substance. Plus, it gets bonus points for being fucking hilarious.

The staginess and predictability of IDES would be forgiven by the Spiel-gods if any of it felt like it were shedding the smallest sliver of light on the national discourse. Politics breeds politicians. Now that we’ve established that again, let’s talk.

THE IDES OF MARCH

The Park Theatre, Vancouver BC,

Wednesday September 26, 7:00pm showing





TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPIELBLOG

11 10 2011

Europe. Let that sink in. Europe. There is a place called Europe, and not only is it separate from the United States of America, (see?) but it was actually around for many hundreds of years before the USA was. I had never believed this until I finally visited Europe for the first time recently. Until I see something with my own eyes, I’m not going to go on my blog and vouch for it – that’s my aforementioned ‘Objective Truth Guarantee.’ But having been there now in person, I can say for a fact: Europe exists.

Not only does it exist, in some cases, it’s superior to the USA. For instance! We here in the States have to wait until Christmas to see Tomas Alfredson’s megastar-packed TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY – but in Europe? That motherfucker’s been out for weeks. And on my Euro-Trip, you’d best believe that rather than go see some “ancient rune” or “actual Magna Carta,” I had my ass parked in a cineplex so that I could get the jump on reviewing this potential awards season contender – and brag about it.

Ha ha ha, ha ha.

What's with all these 'people touching their glasses with their right hand' movies coming out all of a sudden?

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is the second adaptation of John LeCarre’s seminal spy-versus-spy novel – but unlike the 1979 television miniseries, this new version actually attempts to pack the entire plotty thing into one feature film. It’s a steep condensation of material and, I’m literally the first to report, it’s not entirely successful. This TINKER moves fast, but for a film that sits squarely at two hours, it might have actually benefited from another twenty minutes. Blasphemy, yes. But when there’s so much to savor and the buffet’s already closing down for the night, that’s going to make for an unsatisfying evening, regardless of the quality of the beef & broccoli.

And the quality is high. Alfredson, whose LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is (not to oversell it) one of the best vampire films ever, is clearly in command of the chilly Cold War aesthetic of TINKER. Much of the film is shot from perspectives outside, looking in, through windows and doors, underlining a creeping, constant sense of l’espionaggge. Alfredson gets fine performances out of his first-rate cast as well. Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, John Hurt, (my hands hurt from typing,) Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth all contribute solid British-accented backing for Gary Oldman, who, as protagonist George Smiley, has begun to garner award buzz – at least in Europe. As a longtime Oldman freak, I’d love to see the man get him some statue don’t get me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath… Gary – and I call him Gary because he’s my new best friend – has long been one of cinema’s most gifted mimics.  His Smiley plays to his strengths in that it is largely indebted to Alec Guinness, who played Smiley in ’79. This is likely a calculation on Oldman’s part, consciously leaning into the Guinness legacy instead of running from it – but it still never adds up to a performance that feels wholly like Gary’s. (Not like his best and wildest.)

LITTLE KNOWN FACT: In England, all children are originally born with the name "Benedict Cumberbatch." (See: Benedict Cumberbatch, above.)

In spite of the seriousness with which this adaptation has clearly been handled, there’s one more underlying flaw – maybe the killer one. While the ‘79 miniseries drew out the mystery of discovering the mole in MI-6 – and back then, at the height of the Cold War, this was worthy of real suspense – the new TINKER is approached with a grayer, politically relativistic, outside-the-dog perspective. The hunt for the mole is treated, finally, as an unfortunate witch hunt – one that sadly tears apart friends and colleagues in MI-6. But when the whole witch hunt is being coolly condemned, well, that kind of takes the fun out of hunting witches, doesn’t it?

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY

London England, 7:30pm showing





MONKEYBALL. Sorry. I mean-

26 09 2011

In case you couldn’t tell from my movie blog, I’m not into sports. In fact, the closest I come to organized sports is watching films about organized sports. Bennett Miller’s MONEYBALL is a sports film, and one strong enough not only to merit its own Stevensporstblog.com review, but strong enough to actually make me care about baseball! In fact, right now I’m heading over to, uhh, ESPN.com, to check out some sports statistics, and… ah nevermind, I don’t care again.

But even in the eyes of an apathete, MONEYBALL scores in telling the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, a losing ball team turned all-time record-breaker by general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt,) whose unorthodox methods turned traditional baseball on its head. MONEYBALL covers this extraordinary season for the A’s, in which their new m.o. raised institutional hackles even as they up-ended the odds.

Steven Spielblog sez, "MONEYBALL keeps you laughing, from the bottom of the Pitt to the top of the Hill!"

As odds-up-ender Beane, Brad Pitt gives a terrific performance that’s believable and loose. Through flashbacks featuring a young Pitt-alike, we learn that having turned down a ride at Stanford for a Major League contract, Beane had an abortive career on the field; he describes himself as having made one decision in his life based on money, and so it’s from a solid character-based standpoint that we come to understand his determination to lead the A’s to success, in spite of stacked financial odds. Billy Beane’s a real guy, of course, but to provide him a sounding board off which to bounce the many ideas at play in Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book MONEYBALL, Beane’s given a fictional foil in the form of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill,) a young Yalie economist. As the fabricated Brand, Hill’s on deadpan duty, thankfully (the louder Hill gets, the less funny) and that Hill/Pitt rhythm is the key ingredient of the film, particularly as it goes into extra innings around the two-hour mark. Yes, MONEYBALL, like actual baseball, is a fairly slow game.

But, when you’ve hired both Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin to write your sports movie, you want to get your dollar’s worth, right? I mean, hiring both Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin for your sports movie is like hiring both Bill Clinton and Keith Richards to DJ your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. But even with a couple high-priced ringers on script duty, MONEYBALL’s ex-wife/daughter subplot feels out of an old, dusty playbook; for the story of a man determined to think and operate outside-the-box, Beane’s B-story is ironically box-y. But this year’s Sorkin ain’t THAT OLLL’ SOCIALLY NETWORK, which was far too self-serious to ever have a character lay out its central metaphor, and then quip “it’s a metaphor,” as Hill does here. The 2011 Sorkin-Zaillian vehicle’s got an upgraded metaphor, unforced charm, increased laughs, and it features Philip Seymour Hoffman. And on the Spielblog roster, PSH = MVP.

MONEYBALL

Vista Theater, Los Angeles

Sunday September 25, 5:15pm showing





DRIVE: Baby Goose, Grown-Up Fun

22 09 2011

The first thing to be said about Nicolas Winding-Refn’s DRIVE is that for all its fancy fancy motoring, it covers no new ground. The second thing to be said about Nicolas Winding-Refn’s DRIVE is that you should go out and see it, more or less immediately. True, it’s a fine line between an exercise in style and an empty exercise in style, but even as it downshifts into its forty-seventh Michael Mann LA nighttime helicopter shot, or ninety-fourth super-slow-motion refrain, DRIVE comes across as substantial. And in spite of its modulated retro cool aesthetic, (and its director’s accolades for it,) the credit for the film’s surprising soulfulness doesn’t rest with Refn, but with lead Ryan Gosling. After all, it’s a tightrope act for anyone aiming for ‘strong/silent loner-type,’ and nothing’s worse than a pretty boy over-selling ‘tough.’

The car may be in 'neutral,' but Baby Goose is in DRIVE.

But Baby Goose owns it, and does so by counter-intuitively playing up the soft-spoken youthfulness of his eponymous Driver. The pleasure of then watching the man-boy snap is proper old-fashioned, Lee Marvin POINT BLANK-style ultraviolent fun. (If that’s your thing, and it’s mine, I mean come on now.) Better still, Gosling’s un-Gos-ly charisma is matched by his supporting cast  – Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks – et voila, all topped by the great Albert Brooks, who’s so sadistically slimy in the villain role that it makes you wonder, “in retrospect, was the problem with THE MUSE just that Albert Brooks didn’t jam a fork into Sharon Stone’s eyeball?” DRIVE may not be anything new, but it is the sum of terrific vintage parts – and depending on your taste for eye-forking, it may be much more.

DRIVE

Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, Los Angeles

Saturday September 17, 1:30pm showing





CAPTAIN AMERICA vs. HARRY POTTER. Whose Cuisine Will Reign Supreme?

26 07 2011

Though not without muscle, Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is mainly ligament. Along with other recent Marvel Studios film properties, THE FIRST AVENGER plays as an origin story that’s meant to tie itself into – you guessed it – 2012’s THE AVENGERS, in which a metric ton of superheroes assemble for… more… of the same… I assume… Like Kenneth Branagh’s THOR, which came to us in early summer 2011, (oh, how I miss you, this May,) CAP is a solid load-bearer, and more importantly, it’s a moneymaker. Under the direction of Johnston, who made the similar-but-better THE ROCKETEER, CAPTAIN AMERICA pulls out all the stops in the tale of puuuuuny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, through a special U.S. Army serum (Serum, y’all! Only in America!) becomes a Hitler-socking super-soldier in the Second World War. That, as we all know from history class, is the cheesiest of all the world wars – or at least that’s the tone of this film… Still, I’ll take cheese over whine in comic book movies any day. Thank god we didn’t get a brooding, super-serious super-soldier in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.

Hugo Weaving as 'Red Skull,' Nazi collector of knicknacks.

The strongest superhero tales are modern myth – but as myth, Captain America doesn’t have much going on. He was a piece of propaganda first and foremost. (This film’s best sequence cleverly tweaks this real origin, tying the false and the real, until we’re watching kids reading actual Marvel comics in a world in which they’re based on a real guy.) But agitprop and connective tissue value aside, the story of Captain America is made of weaker stuff than the real modern classics. It’s weaker than the Batman revenger myth, weaker than the Superman outsider myth, weaker than Marvel’s other weakling-to-strongman myth, Spiderman. Everyone understands the crux of those heroes, the inner conflict that defines them, and through which we identify with them; hell, they’re practically cave paintings, in the age of the soundbite. Not so much Captain America. His origin story doesn’t tap into any great truth, nor is any real attempt made. He’s a patriot, he wants to fight Nazis, so, he does. And though the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely hits its marks, its proportions are less than emotionally epic. It’s just fun. Good fun, even. But it ain’t worth painting on no cave wall.

If this were a Marvel Studios movie, Chris Evans would have to battle Chris Evans. Where is your god now?!

The Harry Potter franchise, on the other hand, has over the past decade-plus proven itself to be pretty clearly cave-worthy. You can’t qualify the triumph of this thing, if only because numbers don’t lie. Harry Potter is now officially the biggest fiction phenomenon of all time. But even as it’s devoured all in its path, the Potter film series has proven a mixed bag. Parts one and two, by Chris Columbus, were kids’ movies, straight up: hard to dislike, harder to re-watch (for anyone over eight.) Parts three and four, under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, promised richer installments to come – but then, the fifth and sixth films of the series were confusing disappointments that bounced over plot points as quickly as possible, barely lingering to examine their characters’ reactions.

The series capper, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, has been wisely broken in two. This allowed the first part, which we’ll call “HPDHP1,” to breathe – GASP –  finally. Its deliberate pace and bleak visuals made it a sort of gothic triptych that promised a finish to the series that was daring, and dark – a piece in which the maturity of its heroes was matched by the franchise’s own maturity. I enjoyed the first part of this final installment, (See? SEE?!) but to say that HPDHP1 is dwarfed by its follow-up, the final final chapter, is a huge understatement.

Seriously, look at this dragon. LOOK at it.

For starters, one could argue, HPDHP2 contains the best visual effects ever put on film. It’s state of the art, stress on the art, no expense spared, so there’s nothing here that looks anything less than actually magical. Take a sequence in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron catch a ride on an ancient, imprisoned dragon; the emaciated beast elicits sympathy even in its viciousness; such is the magnificent expressiveness of its reptilian chops. And as it lopes across rooftops, struggling in its jailbreak, the effect is truly exciting. The beast’s weight is as substantial as its agony. Thankfully, to match the performances of all the dragons and elves and shit, the humans have hit their high, too. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson display unforced charm and connection that can only mean, unfortunately, they don’t despise each other off-screen. (Because that would be hilarious.) And as Severus Snape, Alan Rickman finally gets his close-up after several films of being shuffled back in the rogue’s gallery. His first speech in the film is twice as long as it could be, each syllable drawn out to sinister perfection. Rickman savors it. So did I.

Oh, so THIS is where the cool kids come to smoke.

The best achievement of HPDHP2 is that it fully realizes the catharsis of a hero who, let’s face it, as of 2011 is bigger than Jesus. But even as director David Yates plays out a climax that will deliver millions of fans to something like nirvana, nothing about the film feels indulgent or needlessly sentimental. Yates doesn’t make a weepy out of what certainly could be one, nor does he draw things out in a RETURN OF THE KING-esque attempt to sustain the euphoria of the saga’s closing moments, with seventeen fake endings. Instead, HPDHP2 is the shortest film of the Potter series; it’s two hours of thundering action and suspense, payoff after payoff after payoff. Wow.

So, how did I spend my weekend? Watching kids movies, duh. The former, I think I would have enjoyed a lot more if I were nine… The latter, I can’t imagine enjoying any more than I did.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART TWO

Regal Cinemas Horton Plaza, San Diego, California

Saturday, July 23, 2:30pm showing

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Sunday, July 24, 3:50pm showing