Monday, November 28, 2011

Hugo

Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a phenomenal piece of filmaking that comes close to transcending the medium to which it pays such sumptuous homage. Reflecting on it and writing about it is kind of like trying to tell someone why Van Gogh's The Starry Night is a masterpiece. Yes, one could talk about color and brush strokes, but in the end, the work's greatness is intrinsic and beyond itemization. To attempt to do so would be tedious, pedantic and, frankly, insulting to the work.

And, yet, Scorese's Hugo is rich in (1) cinematic ingenuity (his now famous seemingly endless tracking shots have been bested here and the 3D technology is so beyond brilliant it's truly intimidating), (2) narrative intelligence (the film weaves history and fantasy and pathos and comedy seamlessly) and (3) authentic humanity (not an ounce of sticky sentimentality to be found). During the last reel I felt both exhausted and genuinely inspired.

Hugo is the story of a young orphaned French boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station so that he might tend to the clocks as his uncle had but to do so he must elude the station's gimpy constable (Sasha Baron Cohen). Hugo has inherited his absent father's skills for fixing things (and, yes, indirectly people) even though Hugo himself feels badly in need of mending. The boy fixes a mechanical man that once belonged to the great French filmmaker Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley), a pioneer who is clearly a hero of Scorsese's. Therein lies the movie's adventure, a fabulous exploration into dreams and imagination and the nature of family. What an achievement. Oscar contender? Unquestionably.

The Wire Season 2 Episode 1: Ebb Tide

The Wire Season 2 Episode 1: Ebb Tide. When The Wire returned in June 2003 after nearly a year's hiatus, fans were probably nearly starved for more of the same. After all, loose ends had been left dangling at the end of Season 1: Stringer Bell, the second-in-command and brains behind the Barksdale drug-dealing organization, had not been arrested (though Avon Barksdale was behind bars) and for all intents and purposes dope fiends were still "fiending" for whatever was for sale on the West Side corners.

But Season 2 opens with Det. Jimmy McNulty, the star of the series, on a police boat patrolling the Baltimore Harbor, the detail he had specifically requested NOT to get after the Major Crime Unit was disbanded. When McNulty and his partner pull a floater from the Bay, it seems like the series is heading in another direction. In actuality, however, the dead young woman floating in the Harbor was Simon & Company's clever introduction to the overarching theme is Season 2 -- the drug trade is just one parasitic enterrpise feeding on this nation and the players come in all hues and from all shores.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets

I really enjoyed James Bobin's The Muppets but fear young children will be bored despite the brilliant colors of the velveteen frog and his pals. The film -- whose human stars are Jason Segel and Amy Adams -- tells the story of Gary's (Segel's) fuzzy and stunted "muppety" brother Walter whose only desire is to visit The Muppet Studios in Los Angeles and see where the magic was made. So, Gary, Walter and Gary's longtime girlfriend Mary catch the Greyhound and head to Tinseltown and find the studio under threat of the buldozer. Still, singing and dancing ensue. The movie is fat with celebrity cameos and gags and musical numbers that are much like those staged in Bobin's off-kilter but tuneful HBO series The Flight of the Conchords. That is to say, the jokes are satricial and self-referential but kiddies would probably want more meaty action and less ham (no offense Miss Piggy).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Immortals

Tarsem's Immortals is an often stunning tribute to excess and the unsettling conflation of sword-and-sandal homoeroticism (ala 300) and mindless, though beautifully choreographed, brutality. The film is not so much about the Greek legend of Theseus, the hero who slew the Minotaur, as it is about the passing of the age of gods. The film doesn't necessarily raise the bar on the integration of live action and CGI -- and the acting (though performed by really beautiful people -- Henry Cavill and Freida Pinto) is just OK -- but the movie certainly sets a new standard for the number of decapitations that can be stuffed into 100 minutes of movie. It is truly astounding.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 13: Sentencing

The Wire Season 1 Episode 3: Sentencing. The cap to the first season of this remarkable show ties up some loose ends but leaves others dangling in the wind. In the previous episode, Cleaning Up, Det. Leander Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) tells Lieut. Cedric Daniels that the Barksdale case was the best police work he'd ever done but feels "unfinished." Episode 13 echoes that sentiment. Even though Avon Barksdale and much of his crew are sent to prison, we, the viewers, know the size and complexity of the drug trade, the desperation of users AND corner dealers, and the powerlessness of the police to do much to stem the tide. All of this is punctuated by the hooded figure of everyone's favorite stick -up boy, Omar Little relieving a dealer of his ill-gotten gain. "It's all in the game, right?"

J. Edgar


The aging make-up on the three wonderful principals in Clint Eastwood's intriguing J. Edgar -- Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer -- is a bit startling but rather than distracting me it forced me to pay greater attention to what the actors were saying and to their eyes ... that's where this story of loyalty and trust was actually played out. The script by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for the screenplay for Milk, is disjointed and theatrical -- like its human subject -- but it is also enormously affecting. It's the story of the intersection of crime, politics and power in the person of the founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But it's also a love story, actually three love stories: Hoover's Oedipal relationship with his mother, his chaste romance with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, and his megalomaniacal love for this country. It's not a hero's tale; Hoover is portrayed as often cold toward and demeaning of those closest to him. But that's not to say Hoover is an unsympathetic character. In one important scene late in the film, Hoover asks his dutiful assistant, Helen Gandy (Watts), "Do I kill everything I love?" She assures him he does not but it's said with the kind of caution one summons when trying to console without revealing one's lack of conviction. You can hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 12: Cleaning Up

The Wire Season 1 Episode 12: Cleaning Up. Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of Wallace, the lost boy / runner in the Barksdale drug syndicate, was one of the most affecting performances in the first season. And this episode, Cleaning Up, belongs to this tragic character. The seizure of Barksdale cash and stash by Baltimore police drives Avon and Stringer Bell into damage-control mode, which means silencing anyone who might connect them to drugs and murder. Wallace is one of the two gentlest and most guileless characters in the entire series -- the other is port police officer Beatrice Russell from Season 2 -- and Stringer suspecs him of being weak. Bell orders Bodie and Poot (Wallace's boys from the projects) to put Wallace down. Regular viewers were no doubt startled by the execution, which was committed in the abandoned tenement where Wallace cared for a half-dozen street children. The betrayal (wonderfully filmmed) is upsetting and heartbreaking. BTW, in the final episode of Season 1, Sentencing, D'Angelo Barksdale's ringing indictment of Stringer's bloody deed -- "String, where's Wallace? Stringer! Where's Wallace? Where's Wallace, String?" -- was an amazingly chilling moment ... haunting and splendid.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 11: The Hunt

The Wire Season 1 Episode 11: The Hunt. John Doman as Major William Rawls gets star billing in the series throughout the program's 5-season run and for good reason. He's a pretty foul though essential creation for the show. His profane careerism epitomizes the kind of police officer who exercises Det. Jimmy McNulty and the other stalwarts in the major crimes unit. And yet, in this episode, The Hunt, the writers add levels to Rawls that probably blindsided some viewers.

McNulty is wallowing in self-pity over the shooting of Kima Greggs and Rawls is having none of it. As he tries to help McNulty pull himself together, Rawls states, emphatically, "You, McNulty are a gaping asshole. I know it, and I'll be fucked if everybody in CID didn't know it. But I'll be also fucked if I let you sit here and think you did a single fucking thing to get a fucking cop shot. Believe it or not, not everything is about you. Get it into your head, McNulty, it's not your fault. And the motherfucker telling you this, he fucking hates your guts. So you know that if it was your fault I'd be the first son of a bitch to tell you. Shit went bad; she took two for the company. That's the only lesson here."

This is marvelous writing and the scene is stellar.

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...