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December 2011 Archives

December 19, 2011

The Artist vs. Hugo

The Artist and Hugo

In some kind of spasm of nostalgia for old Hollywood, there are currently two movies out that celebrate the silent era: Hugo and The Artist. These two movies have won several critics' awards already, and movie audiences that don't otherwise know or care about silent film might find themselves inadvertently watching some of this stuff this season.

I liked The Artist a lot, and didn't love Hugo, in part because of how each movie deals with their common subject matter. Hugo has a few problems, but the biggest one is that half the movie goes by before you get to the part about early cinema, specifically French pioneer Georges Méliès. The first half is sometimes wistfully fun in a fantasy children's film sort of way, but it's also full of plodding exchanges between Hugo and a surly toy store owner played by Ben Kingsley. These exchanges go like this:

"Give me back my notebook!"

"I will not give you your notebook."

"Give me back my notebook!"

"I am not giving you this notebook."

"Give me back my notebook!"

"I'm not going to give you your notebook."

It's not good.

Then, rather abruptly, the film becomes an adoring history lesson on early cinema. This is by far the more interesting part of the movie, because it includes a dramatic recreation of the career of George Méliès, and clips from actual Méliès movies, which are wonderful. (Watch the special effects in "The Merry Frolics of Satan"--made in 1906!) Even though the second section is better than the first, the tone is a little academic and preachy. As The AV Club's Tasha Robinson writes in her Overrated Movie section, Hugo's message seems to be "You should love cinema because cinema is magical!" It comes off like a mission statement for Scorsese's film preservation nonprofit, and not enough like an original work of art. Also: I've yet to meet the kid who is going to want to sit through this.

A criticism I've been seeing for The Artist is that it's a cute piece of insubstantial fluff, fun to watch, but ultimately just a novelty. I think it's a much more effective argument for the glories of the silent era, and the magic of cinema in general, than Hugo is in all its 3D glossiness. The Artist is, for the most part, a silent movie. Maybe that's a novelty, but how many directors have the guts to make a black-and-white silent movie in 2011? Yeah, it's fun and cute, but I found it sincere and heartfelt, not syrupy.

The Artist is constructed to introduce a contemporary audience to both the story of Hollywood's conversion from silent films to talkies, and to the actual experience of watching a silent film. There are self-referential jokes and a few stylistic winks at the camera, but there's also reflection on the ephemeral nature of fame, and what it means to be an artist in a commercial medium. The movie has echoes of Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz. It doesn't tell you that early cinema is important and fun to watch, it shows you why it is. I'm not going to criticize a small-scale movie for being too charming when it's as fascinating and surprising to watch as this one.

Somewhere in LA right now, an editor is working on a silent movie montage for the Oscars.

December 14, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the cool, ugly 70's

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I watch a lot of movies, but every time I watch a spy movie, it's like I forget every convention used in filmmaking. I'm utterly confused by story twists, can't keep track of which character is on which side and who's double-crossing who, fail to catch 100% of subtly drawn hints about the central mystery, and often completely miss major plot points. All those shadowy whispers and code names and messy political alliances are completely lost on me.

So I was majorly relieved when my moviegoing partner came out of the theater after watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and was just as clueless as I was about pretty much everything that happened in the entire movie. That's not to say I didn't like it: when I decided to forget about trying to understand anything and just enjoy one of the best casts I've ever seen in my life and some truly phenomenal stylish/ugly set design, everything was great.

Apart from the central story about uncovering a mole in Britain's MI6 in the mid-70's, which I only faintly grasp even now, there are some wonderful subplots that I found much more compelling. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose name sounds like it's made of tweed and leather elbow patches, as Peter Guillam was my favorite part of the movie. He has the movie's most exciting scene, and its closest thing to an action sequence, involving a file room, a luggage tag, and a phone call from a mechanic. My other favorite automotive part of the movie is Guillam's car, a gorgeous 1966 Citroën DS 21 that looks like this (though as commenter Maddy points out, the photo is a 1970 model):

Citroen DS 21

Other than that cool, sleek car, the movie revels in cluttered dinginess. As the revealed mole says at the end of the movie, "I had to pick a side, and it was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly, don't you think?" The movie's design is amazing--it's as dedicated to drab 70's bureaucratic mustiness as "Mad Men" is to early 60's tidy modernity. The office scenes are like catalogs of outdated technology. In his review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes that they must have had one hell of a typewriter budget.

My other favorite performance is by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, the conflicted AWOL spy in love. The role was originally given to Michael Fassbender, who I guess was unable to squeeze it in around the 7,000 other movies he's done this year. Fassbender would have been good, sure, but Tom Hardy is probably a better rogue agent with that voice and those lips and all that handsomeness.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who also made the wonderful Let the Right One In, really knows what he's doing with casting, mood, and set design. Maybe if he'd been directing in his native language he might have illuminated the opaque script a little better. Or maybe I should have just read the book first.

December 12, 2011

That Diablo Cody, she's really got something

Young Adult, Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt

Let me tell you, I wasn't wild about Juno. The acting was pretty good and I liked the characters OK, but the dialogue (especially the first 20 minutes) made me want to stab myself, the soundtrack was a catastrophe, and the whole storyline was just a little too cute and tidy. Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her script, which I conceptually support because I conceptually like Diablo Cody, but there's no way that cutesy hyper-indie-self-aware script was the best one that year.

Her new movie is Young Adult (with Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, above) which like Juno was directed by Jason Reitman. I love this movie. It seems like Diablo Cody had to get all that contrived, pretend-hipster-teen-speak out of her system with Juno and, to a lesser extent, Jennifer's Body, then started doing some good, funny stuff in "United States of Tara", then finally arrived where she was always meant to be: back in small-town Minnesota, in Young Adult.

Young Adult starts with a classic romantic comedy plot line: What if your high school love was actually The One? Let's get him back! But this movie realizes that this particular story line is totally insane, and a person who decides that she and her (married) high school boyfriend are meant for each other is not really a hopeless romantic ready to rediscover love in her hometown, but a mentally ill jerk.

Several scenes in this movie fall within rom-com standard operating procedures, but they all get subverted and end up going in a totally unexpected direction. The heroine from the big city does not learn the value of family and small-town life, she doesn't come to see that the ex-boyfriend's wife that she initially loathes is actually a wonderful woman and that he belongs with her now, and she does not realize that high school is over and she should love her besotted but un-handsome best friend.

Mostly, she just gets hammered and complains about her relatively glamorous, comfortable life, until she realizes the following important life lesson (spoiler alert): she doesn't give a shit about small-town losers, and she's better off without them. Who has the guts to make a movie like that? It's phenomenal.

Charlize Theron is completely amazing and great. Her character, Mavis, is beautiful, selfish, and mean, and over the course of the movie doesn't really experience any growth as a person. Though she does come to embrace the same self-confidence/self-righteousness that she possessed as a popular girl back in high school. Plus she's a drunk. It's not a likeable character, but she's totally compelling and I couldn't take my eyes off her. She plays Mavis in a way that expresses the character's entire life--she feels like a real person that you want to watch in spite of how horrible she is.

And it goes without saying that Patton Oswalt is very funny and excellent as a high school outcast type who never left his hometown. He's just as bitter and miserable as Mavis is, but sees things a little more clearly than she does, which forms the basis of their strangely believable world-hating alliance. Their scenes together are so natural and fun to watch, it's not surprising that they seem to have become legitimate drinking buddies in real life.

Diablo Cody's last movie, Jennifer's Body, didn't do so well, but between that one and this she's creating a weird, dark body of work about the prettiest girls in high school. She's good at subverting femininity and all that post-feminist-stripper stuff, but she's so much better with boozy, un-romantic comedy than horror and teenagers. It's probably one of this year's more warped movies, and one of my favorites.

December 7, 2011

Who'dat?™: great work ethic, somewhat questionable dye job

In today's edition of Who'dat?™, we ask you to consider a young celebrity who's got to be one of the hardest-working actors in her age group. This young lady is already almost in the same league as J.K. "six movies a year" Simmons, and she was born the same year I graduated from college.

To play, look at the celebrity photo below, try to guess who it is, then click on the picture to see if you're right.


I think she looks sort of like a combination of Kirsten Dunst and Frances Bean Cobain in this shot.

December 5, 2011

Shame and New York

Shame, Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender

You know how when you watch a Woody Allen movie set in New York, he always make the city look beautiful and sophisticated, but also personal and lived-in, and after the movie you might feel that, just by walking around the streets, this wonderful city belongs to you a little bit?

Well, Shame is like the exact opposite of that. Steve McQueen's new movie about a sex addict living in an expensively bland Manhattan makes New York look impersonal and bleak. His New York certainly doesn't belong to you, but you probably wouldn't want it to, anyway. A young Steve McQueen lived here for a while with his family, and briefly attended NYU ("hated it"), but seems to have retained none of the tenderness that other directors have for the city. Though he did find his childhood experience with the 1977 blackout "quite exciting. A lot of people were stealing."

"New Yorkers live and work in the sky," he said in an interview in Time Out. "You're always in the perspective of this metropolis, aren't you? Who are you, in the context of this city? It can make one feel very small. Maybe it's just too much."

That feeling of being lost in an overwhelming city fits with the movie, which isn't a complete success but is really good in some ways. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a quiet, handsome, corporate guy who is uncontrollably addicted to sex. You could watch an interesting double feature at the movies right now, with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, trying (and failing) to understand and control the interplay of sex and mental illness in himself and his patients, and Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in Shame, not even really trying to understand or control his self-obliterating behavior. He's great in both, and a lot nakeder in the second one.

Anyway, Shame's New York is a place where hardly anyone has normal sexual or romantic interactions. The married people cheat, the emotionally open people are also suicidal disasters who always fall for the wrong person, and everyone else seems to regularly have sex with strangers in public or is in fact a sex addict. Only the prostitutes seem to be totally fine with themselves and their sex lives. It isn't beautiful or glamorous; one of the movie's recurring locations is the Standard Hotel, a hulking grey slab that looks simultaneously ugly and expensive. In one hotel room scene, a character looks out the window and comments on the "amazing view", which is not anything like amazing. It's a dingy industrial wasteland, like this:

Shame, in the Standard Hotel


Another reason the Standard might not use scenes from Shame in its marketing materials is the hilariously rude exchange between McQueen and a manager of the hotel's roof bar, Le Bain, that the Times captured in an interview with McQueen and Fassbender.

McQueen was rather annoyed when a loud crunching bass line began pumping through the bar's speakers. It was 4 p.m., and the place, the exclusive celebrity-friendly Le Bain, was nearly deserted.

"Excuse me?" Mr. McQueen bellowed. "Can you turn the music down?"

He was met by a manager, clearly unmoved. "I have people coming in," he said, talking over Mr. McQueen's protests.

The director stayed polite -- "Look, I don't want to fight with you," he said -- only to be met with a smirk. "I don't want to fight either," the manager said. "Whatever," Mr. McQueen said, waving him off, but the manager persisted. "What does that mean?" he asked, in a mocking tone. "What is 'whatever' about?"

It was a bizarre, aggressive moment, and Mr. McQueen seemed to sour after that. He had lost track of his earlier point, and, as the manager walked away, he uttered a quiet, vigorous expletive.

That's New York for you. Sex addicts, hookers, and bitchy bar managers.

About December 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in December 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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