Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Most Anticipated Movies of 2012

A fan poster for "Django Unchained".
Will 2012 be a better year for movies than 2011. So far, the amount of trailers for 3D re-releases is not promising. However, we live in a world where content is king, and a few amazing filmmakers, and some great actors, as well as some who are on the rise, will make 2012 a noteworthy year. Assuming the world doesn't end (I still doubt you, Mayans), here are the 2012 movie releases that I am most looking forward to:




1. Django Unchained- It's Quentin Tarantino's next movie, what else would you expect me to put as number one? It is not for that mere fact alone, however, as a lot of good directors can make bad movies (Tarantino's own "Death Proof" was far from a masterpiece). However, what also looks promising is the film's amazing cast, which includes Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and The RZA. It is Tarantino's next attempt to relocate the Western. It started in Los Angeles, traveled to East Asia, and ended up in Nazi-Occupied France. "Django Unchained" will put the Spaghetti-Western into the slavery era South. Expect scenes that go on longer than they should, but you wish could continue, and some amazing dialogue on Civil War politics and slave culture.
Coming to Theaters December 25


2. The Dark Knight Rises- When Christopher Nolan first made "Batman Begins," he not only revived a franchise, but also an entire genre. When he made "The Dark Knight" in 2008, he had created the best comic book movie ever. Not only that, but one of the greatest action movies of our time. Can "The Dark Knight Rises" not only equal, but surpass, its predecessor. From the looks of the previews, it can. It is unfortunate that we don't have The Joker, but Tom Hardy will put on quite a show as Bane, and be more true to the character from the original comics than "Batman & Robin" was.  Nolan has just gotten better and better as a director, and "The Dark Knight Rises" looks like one hell of a way to end this amazing story.
Coming to Theaters July 20


3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey- I have a soft spot for "The Lord of the Rings" movies: they helped to fuel my very hyperactive mind around the age of 10. Given the 3D and digital technology Peter Jackson is using, this chapter of Tolkien's books will look better than ever. While this probably won't top "Return of the King" in scope, it will stand in its own right as a superior example of how to make a blockbuster movie, and will complete the full arc of one of the greatest fantasies ever told.
Coming to Theaters December 14


4. Chronicle- I have never been a fan of the incorporation of shaky cam movies. It makes action movies more nauseating, and is a poor excuse for creating supposed "horror" (I'm looking at you, "Blair Witch Project"). But it should work for "Chronicle," a homegrown superhero fable that made a splash on the internet with its intriguing trailer. The fact that "Chronicle is not based on a comic book gives it more creative freedom, and based on the plot I've seen from the trailer (kids causing chaos) with their own powers, this will probably be one of the most realistic superhero movies we'll get.    
Coming to Theaters February 3


5. Lincoln- Here's the movie with the second best cast of 2012. It is something of a shocker that there hasn't been a decent Lincoln movie to date, but it's no surprise that the first one will be directed by Steven Spielberg and star Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe. I am always curious to see what Mr. Day-Lewis will add to a performance, and how Spielberg will tell a story. I expect nothing but the best.
Release Date Currently Unknown


6. The Amazing Spider-Man- America might be all Spider-Maned out, thanks to the poorly received third movie and the even more poorly received play that involved the world's most overrated musician. It might be too soon to do a "Spider-Man" reboot ("Spider-Man 3" is only four years old), but "The Amazing Spider-Man" shows great promise. It is directed by Marc Webb ("500 Days of Summer") and it stars Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network") as Peter Parker. Some young energy could do good for the franchise. Plus, this will go back to the roots of the original "Spider-Man" comics, when Parker had to construct his own web blasters. In the original "Spider-Man" movies, Parker could launch webs from his arms. This change brings Spider-Man back to what he always was: a nerd, and a genius.
Coming to Theaters July 3


7. This is 40- I am still on the fence about Judd Apatow's last movie, "Funny People" (it had brilliant moments, but it would've benefitted from being 45 minutes shorter). However, "This is 40" brings back Apatow's greatest couple, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debby (Leslie Mann) from "Knocked Up." Jason Segel will be reprising his role as Jason, and Melissa McCarthy ("Bridesmaids") will join the ensemble. I'm already laughing.
Coming to Theaters December 21


8. Gravity- I know very little about "Gravity" besides the fact that it was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, and that it is a science fiction movie. The last movie Cuaron directed, "Children of Men," was a sci-fi masterpiece and one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. Each time I watch it is always as exhilarating as the first. I expect some amazingly long takes of outer space.
Coming to Theaters November 21


9. Casa de mi Padre- This is one of the more peculiar projects of the coming year. It is a comedy about a Hispanic drug dealer starring Will Ferrell that is entirely in Spanish. It also stars two of Latin America's best (and usually, most serious) actors: Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. Once Ferrell turned Luna into a running joke during his George Bush one man show, it was kismet that they would make a movie together.
Coming to Theaters March 16


10. Jeff Who Lives At Home- The Duplass brothers make some of the quietest, strangest dark comedies of the day. Just look at 2010's "Cyrus" for proof. Jason Segel steps into the slacker role this time, as Jeff, a man who is finally forced to leave his mother's basement in order to help his brother (Ed Helms) catch his possibly adulterous wife. Awkward laughs and awkward silences to ensue. The fact that it comes out in March will help make the early part of the year a better time for movies than it usually is.
Coming to Theaters March 2

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #8

Spaceballs


Unfortunately, the end of Hanukkah has arrived. But even as you prepare to put the menorah away, there is still one more night worth of a movie left. And what better way to end Hanukkah than with a movie by Mel Brooks, the master of Jewish humor, and of randomly inserting Yiddish jokes into his work.

"Spaceballs" isn't even the funniest Mel Brooks movie; that honor goes to "Blazing Saddles." It isn't the even the smartest; that honor goes to "The Producers." It doesn't even have the best Jewish joke; that honor goes to the Jews with Space joke in "History of the World: Part 1." However, "Spaceballs" just seems like the perfect movie to recommend, maybe because for some time, it was the funniest movie I had ever seen.

"Spaceballs" satirizes both the "Star Wars" movies, and the general way movies were made in the 1980s. Darth Helmet's (Rick Moranis) ridiculously gigantic helmet is hilarious enough, but the self-referential nature of "Spaceballs" is what helps to make it a minor work of genius. There is one scene where the characters watch themselves watching "Spaceballs." Most notably though is the scene where the Yoda-spinoff Yogurt (Brooks) explains the concept of merchandising. Its a hilarious and spot-on scene that should be shown in every film business or marketing class. As a kid, I would really have loved to have Spaceballs the Lunchbox, though.

"Spaceballs" remains a standout, and could teach those supposed movie satires made nowadays (I'm looking at you, Seltzer-Friedberg) a thing or two. My only problem with this movie is that if Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is a Druish princess, who once had a huge nose pre-plastic surgery, then why do her and Lone Star (Bill Pullman) get married in a Church? I guess it's just as Barf (John Candy) says: "funny, she doesn't look Druish."

Watch this clip, and learn a thing or two about merchandising: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvmZ9SPcTzU

Movie Review: Heavenly Creatures

Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," the breakthrough film from the director of "The Lord of the Rings," might as well be in a genre of its own. Call it fantastical nonfiction. That is, it bridges the great divide between fantasy and a frightening reality that actually occurred.

In 1954, quite, rural New Zealand was shaken by murder. Two teenage girls had murdered one of their mothers in what one could describe as "a crime of friendship." The two were caught, imprisoned, and later paroled on the condition that they would never see each other again. Jackson did not make a story about the trial but rather about the events that led up to the murder, based on what is true, what is thought to be true, and what can't be true under any circumstance.


The events of "Heavenly Creatures" take place in and around the small town of Christchurch on New Zealand's southern island. The two teenage girls, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) meet in Catholic school. The introverted Pauline is immediately transfixed by Juliet, and how Juliet will talk back to the French teacher without even thinking about it. The two soon become inseparable best friends. They frequently escape into a fantasy world that they created, one that brings them away from their dull, suppressed lives. The fantasy starts to become too real and while the girls are present physically in reality, they are mentally gone.


After feeling that their friendship is becoming unhealthy, Pauline and Juliet's parents make the decision to separate the two of them. The separation does no good and instead drives the pair into bouts of insanity. They ultimately hatch a sinister plan to be together forever, one that, even they admit, could only end in tragedy.

"Heavenly Creatures" is a movie of many questions, and many frightening possibilities. The whole story is one giant question about who the driving force of insanity here is. Were Pauline and Juliet naturally troubled, or were their descents into insanity caused by their separation? In a society that stressed conformity and deemphasized creativity, perhaps madness and fantasy were the only means of escape. However, this in no way justifies the terrible actions carried out in the film's terrifying finale.

A driving force in the narrative of "Heavenly Creatures" is the widely circulated rumor that the two girls in question were lesbians. This is not played for an exploitative purpose, or to create controversy, but rather it serves as a lens into the psyche of these two teenage killers. Could physical love have explained why they were so inseparable, and why they so despised both the religion and the adults who raised them?


"Heavenly Creatures" is one of the great underappreciated gems of the 1990s. Jackson showed the ability of a director who would soon be able to make great movies on a much larger scale. The fantasy world created in "Heavenly Creatures" is one that seems fake, yet so tangible. The creatures the girls create look like a cross between Play-Doh and those little green toy soldiers. The special effects, while dated by today's standards, still look impressive for something made outside of Hollywood, and without a blockbuster budget. I can't wait to see what else the other filmmakers of New Zealand can offer in the years to come.

"Heavenly Creatures" begot not only a great director, but also two great actresses. This was Winslet's debut role, and from her performance one could see why she would later become an international star and an Oscar winner. She gets so into this role, and she is so sinister yet so innocent at the same time. Lynskey  unfortunately has not achieved the same level of success as Winslet. She has had bit roles in a few very good movies ("Up in the Air") and a few very good TV shows ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), but she never achieved real stardom. Her performance here is as subdued and creepy as her character. She acts mostly through her narration and her disgruntled facial expressions and most of the time, you can never tell whether she is about to scream or about to kill someone. Hopefully, Lynskey makes a comeback one of these days.


There have been a lot of scenes of violent cruelty in movies, but few have effected me as deeply as the ending scene of "Heavenly Creatures" did, despite being so quick and so sudden. What creates the impact is that there is 90 minutes of dread building up to it. Like in the ending of movies such as "The Conversation," making an entire movie based off dread until the very final minutes is ultimately more rewarding. The more you wait, the more horrifying the crime feels. Peter Jackson is a master of suspense in disguise.

"Heavenly Creatures" should be seen for all of the reasons that people watch movies in the first place: to be transferred off to a place they normally wouldn't be able to go to, to feel sympathy for people we shouldn't feel sympathy for, and to simply be thrilled. We see both a foreign country in a time few of us would've known it in, and a world that exists entirely inside of two girls' heads. Juliet and Pauline might be murderers, but they are also angst-ridden, isolated teenagers that anyone could relate to. It also shows a director's admirable mission to painstakingly tell a difficult story right. And tell it right he did.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #7

Munich

Spielberg had to appear on this list one of these nights. So why didn't I include "Schindler's List," cinema's most thoughtful portrayal of the Holocaust, or "Saving Private Ryan" which I learned in Hebrew school has something to do with Jewish values? It wouldn't take a post from me to get you to watch either of those. However, six years after being released, no one seems to want to watch "Munich." It's a depressing subject for sure, but it its also as captivating a political allegory as it is a thrilling and suspenseful film.

"Munich" is based on the tragic events surrounding the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which members of the Israeli Olympic team were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Spielberg recaptures the terrifying image of a hooded kidnapper standing on a terrace, and the chilling line said by a news anchor, "they're all gone." In response, the Israeli government assembles a team of Mossad agents to target and kill the terrorists. The team includes Eric Bana as the conscience-ridden Avner, as well as Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds.

When "Munich" was first released, it was greeted with much controversy. Many claimed the film, a work of historical fiction, to be anti-Israel. To believe that such a devoted, charitable Jew as Spielberg would ever make a film against his spiritual homeland is as ridiculous as the alien spaceship emerging out of the ground at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

While "Munich" does suggest that perhaps some of the people killed might not have been involved in the kidnapping, and at one point it does allow one of the terrorists to speak, this is not saying that Israel should not exist. It is rather a universal statement as old as time about the dangerous tole that revenge takes on the individual and that in the terrible Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides forget that we both bleed the same blood. In today's polarized political environment, saying that both sides could be at fault is a small miracle.

Politics aside, "Munich" is something that few acknowledge it to be: an extremely well-made thriller based on the principles of film in the era that Spielberg first began working in (1970s) and the filmmakers of the past that inspired him (Hitchcock). One scene involving a phone, a bomb, and a little girl, will have you at the edge of your seat, begging you to wonder how it could possibly end.

One of Spielberg's greatest pitfalls throughout his career is how easily he can fall into the trap of sentimentality. "Munich" is another one of his film's about the importance of family, but it never falls into the trap of sentimentality. The ending is hardened, but also very thoughtful. "Munich" will evoke an intense political and theological discussion on this seventh night of Hanukkah but above all, everyone will enjoy the fact that for once, the Jews are the ones who are doing the ass kicking.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #6

A Night at the Opera


As today is Christmas, I almost considered making this a cheat day and recommending multiple Christmas classics. However, "A Christmas Story" runs for 24 hours straight, and almost everyone has seen "Elf" at this point. Instead, I decided to dig back really far and pull out a Marx Brothers classic from 1935.

Any Marx Brothers movie could have made this spot, but "A Night at the Opera" manages to stand out. "Duck Soup" could have made for the mirror scene alone and "A Day at the Races" for the scene in which they try and be doctors. However, nothing beats "A Night at the Opera" in both its wit and its slapstick. The four Jewish brothers from New York City got their start in vaudeville before hitting the big screen and bringing their crazed theatrical antics along with them. Comedy would never be the same.

The end of the silent era allowed comedians to make movies that portrayed humor not just through bodily movements but also through dialogue. The Marx Brothers were masters at wordplay, and Groucho was truly Hollywood's first smart ass. The scene in which Groucho and Chico start tearing up the parts of a contract they don't agree with ("there ain't no sainty clause!") is masterful at both types of comedy.

Of course, the highlight of this movie is a miracle of slapstick: the stateroom scene. Characters keep piling and piling on into a tiny room as they keep ordering more and more hard boiled eggs, until someone opens a door and everyone falls out. It is not necessarily the part where everyone falls out that is so funny, but the ensuing madness, and the question of how many people can possibly fit into this room before the inevitable collapse. Sometimes, it is the telling of a joke, and not the eventual punchline, that can be funniest.

"A Night at the Opera" is a comedy that is truly timeless. To entertain people for over seven decades for is a rare gift that only the greatest of comedies can provide. Here is something that both you and your grandparents can laugh at together.

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Most filmmakers forget the importance of opening credits. They usually serve to say who made the movie, but they never tell a story of their own. David Fincher never fails to make mind blowing openings. Think of the neurons and brain passages at the beginning of "Fight Club." When the opening credits for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" finish rolling, you'll have learned everything you need to know about Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) without even knowing it. It is the intersection of a brilliant filmmaker with a brilliant technological mind, just as Lisbeth is the intersection of a brilliant investigator with a brilliant hacker mind. Welcome to a Sweden without rules.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a thriller that utilizes everything a movie has at its disposal (camera, lighting, music, etc.) to the fullest extent, and thus pulls off the year's most fully realized motion picture. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a triumph of everything. Like its incredibly complex narrative, one piece of the production would not fit in without another.

To outline the entire mystery would take up too much time. To simplify it all would be too hard. However, I'll do my best to sum it all up. The movie begins after Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist from Stockholm, is convicted for ethics violations based on his story on banker Wennerstrom (Ulf Frieberg, who looks eerily similar to Julian Assange). The trial costs him both his reputation and his life savings. Escape comes in the form of wealthy patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants to hire Mikael to investigate his own family.


Vanger brings Mikael to his home, which is chillier and more isolated than even The Overlook Hotel. Vanger asks Mikael to find his missing niece Harriet, whom he believes was murdered 40 years prior. In his long, tedious investigation, Mikael finds a family that is even more deranged than the average dysfunctional family. Neo-Nazis may be the least of his problems.

Mikael has a great researcher's mind, but there is something about him, he is submissive and subdued; he can find pieces of the puzzle but he can't fit them all together. That's where Lisbeth comes in. Lisbeth is the wunderkind hacker who performed Mikael's background check for Henrik, and she is hired again to aid in the case. While Lisbeth has a brilliant mind, she is deemed a sociopath by society. While she is an outsider, like God's lonely woman, she can find out any bit of information on any person by simply clicking a button on her computer. If all of a director's movies and characters are supposed to exist in the same universe, then she would single handily destroy Mark Zuckerberg of "The Social Network" in a hacking contest, and then probably try and kill him for that comment about comparing women to farm animals.

There is something about being considered the lowest common denominator in society that makes someone able to get away with anything, which is what makes Lisbeth such an effective detective. Thanks to all of her piercings, her distinctive hairstyle, and the tattoo on her back that gives the movie its title, Lisbeth Salander is the year's most unforgettable movie character.


Mikael and Lisbeth make a great team, as they both serve as each other's foils. Mikael is a very safe and journalistic detective, while Lisbeth, who already lives above the law, is not afraid to break the rules in order to crack a case. She is the Jake Gittes to his Bob Woodward. As an abused woman herself, and through her actions, Lisbeth serves almost as both a protector and a crusader of the independence of all women. It is no wonder this case takes on special interest to her, as it involves catching a killer of women.

Craig delivers a stone-faced performance as Mikael Blomkvist. However, he is not quite an action hero here, he is more of a civilian, and his fear in the face of danger is not like the Bond we've seen him as. While I sometimes had trouble believing that he was Swedish, his timing in certain situations makes me believe that he would make a great comedic actor.

Mara, meanwhile, delivers a flawless performance that will merit her an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It is a stunning transformation from her role as sweet Erica Albright in "The Social Network." Here, she creates an indelible performance using silence and actions over words. For what she goes through at the beginning of the film and everything she must bare, this is a brave performance. The way she responds to her rapes is that of someone who is both hardened and incredibly emotionally scarred. Mara brings out both features in the character throughout, making Lisbeth feel more heroic than sociopathic to me.


The movie's final shot, showing her riding off on her motorcycle alone while everyone else around her is warm in the Swedish winter with company, evoked the endings of so many great westerns to me. In this day and age, the hacker is America's new outlaw, and she is the queen of the new age isolated cowboy. The ending is not so much a plot cliffhanger as a character one. I cannot wait to see the next movie not just because of the story, but because I will get to see more of these characters, learn more about them, and spend more time a part of their lives.

It is hard to take a novel that is already so popular on its own and make it a unique movie. I admit I have yet to read any of Stieg Larson's Millenium Trilogy, but I plan to pick up the novel version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" as soon as possible. Fincher shows that there was a reason to adapt this novel to the screen. It is not just some regurgitation. While the movie perhaps moves a little too fast towards the end, it is only for the reason of fitting in as much of Larson's original story into the first movie as possible.

The atmosphere created by the film is a master class example of how to turn setting into a character, and how to use it to build suspense that holds for over two and a half hours. The snowy landscapes, combined with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's mood building score, which begins with Karen O's shrieking cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song," will leave you a state of panic and thrill for the entire running time. Hitchcock would have been proud.

The team behind this movie, Fincher, Reznor, Ross, writer Steve Zallian, and producer Scott Rudin, is the best new team of mainstream movies in Hollywood. All of their efforts makes "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" come together so spectacularly. It is always a great team, and not just one mind, that can make a truly great movie complete. And the series can only get better from here. Few movies nowadays have the ability to be shocking and controversial. However, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" steps it up another level, and earns its R-rating. And it wears that badge with pride.

If you liked this movie, you'll also like: Fight Club, The Ghost Writer, Se7en, The Searchers, The Social Network, Chinatown, Memento, No Country for Old Men, Casino Royale, The Shining, Vertigo, Any Ingmar Bergman movie about sad Swedish people in the snow 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #5

Wet Hot American Summer


Every summer, hundreds of thousands of Jewish children from the Northeast (mainly Long Island, Westchester County, New Jersey, and Southwestern Connecticut) are taken from their homes. The food is poor, and the conditions are less than sanitary. They are isolated far away from society, with barely a cell tower in sight. They are forced to leave their friends, families, and even their iPhones behind. God forbid they must go without Words with Friends for eight weeks.

I am talking about summer camp, of course.

I can say this is all true firsthand as I am a Jewish summer camp survivor. I am a veteran of five summers at Camp Island Lake. I can't quite pinpoint what draws Jews in particular to summer camps. Perhaps it is the need to be around Jews, congregate with them, breed with them, and eventually create future generations of nice Jewish doctors and lawyers who will marry your daughter.

But I digress. "Wet Hot American Summer" best captures the summer camp experience. Usually, a movie that I believe perfectly captures something I have experienced in my life does so because it is totally realistic. In this case, "Wet Hot" brings back this previous part of my life because it is utterly ridiculous. It takes place at the fictional Camp Firewood in the 80s, but it was filmed at Camp Towanda, which is basically down the road from my old summertime stomping grounds.

"Wet Hot American Summer" came from the comedy group behind MTV's "The State," who would also later go on to make Comedy Central's eccentrically brilliant "Stella." "Wet Hot" was largely panned and ignored at the time of its release. Ten years later, it has become an unlikely cult classic. The humor of "Wet Hot" is as bizarre as anything you'd expect from the minds of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. Some of the major comedy set pieces include a raft that doesn't move down raging rapids, a falling satellite, and a talking can of vegetables. All of these scenes made me feel nostalgic for a decade I didn't even grow up in.

The ensemble is just as funny as the absurdist situations, and many actors in this movie went on to become superstars (a young Bradley Cooper makes one of the boldest moves of his career here). There is also a scene where a few of the characters go into town for the day, become drug addicts, and then return back to campus totally fine. This is funny not just because the transformation occurs over such a short period of time, but these seem like the kind of people that this would happen to. I also always wondered what my counselors would do when they went into town for the day. They might as well have been doing this every single day.

"Wet Hot" might not go over too well with your older relatives (they will probably use words like "stupid" and whatever the opposite of "clever" is), but it is close to the modern day equivalent of the Marx Brothers, the other Jewish absurdist comedians. More on them tomorrow night.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #4

A Serious Man

This is a ser- I'm a ser- I'm, uh, I've tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise the- Danny, Sarah, they both go to school, Hebrew school, a good breakfast...


"A Serious Man" begins with the blast of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," linking the past to the present, and drowning out a dull Hebrew school lesson. In this day and age, what does it mean for a Jewish man to be a serious man? If you are looking for a movie that is both religiously faithful and an existential mind trip for the halfway point of Hanukkah, then look no further. This is the first and probably the last movie you'll ever see that's based on both the Talmud and Schrodinger's Cat.

Who else could have made a movie like this than Joel and Ethan Coen. It is based partly on their own childhood growing up in a Jewish family in a mostly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, and the rest is a lot of things that could have happened, but probably didn't. "A Serious Man" begins with a short parable that takes place in a shtetl. It might explain every one of the following events we see, or none of them. Maybe it is what the Coen Brothers say it is: their attempt to create their own Jewish fable. The rest of the movie focuses on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a father who goes through a crisis of faith after his wife leaves him and he begins to lose his children to the 60s. No one, not even a string of rabbis, can provide him with guidance.

"A Serious Man" is funny not in a haha kind of way, but more in the kind of way that if you watch it multiple times, the ultimate mind f**k of it all is kind of hilarious. This is the Thinking Man Jew's kind of movie. And that is not to say that anyone can't like this movie. However, some people might not appreciate "The Goy's Teeth" quite as much. For those who are passionate people watchers, especially of the Jewish kind, this movie gives a prototype of every Jew you can think of. Some will find stereotypes, others will find hilarious objects of affection.

"A Serious Man" definitely will not inspire as much joy and laughter after a candle lighting as say, a Woody Allen or a Marx Brothers movie, but it will definitely inspire fervent debate and conversation. If you are really curious about what that cut to black at the end means, I only have so many answers. Instead, I would refresh on your Bar Mitzvah torah portions. And then pick up some physics textbooks. Philosophy might work, too.

If this movie makes you crave for from the Coen Brothers tonight, I would check out "The Big Lebowski" immediately afterwards. It's a great movie but that's just like, my opinion, man. 

Movie Review: Young Adult

Upon associating the name Diablo Cody and Young Adult Fiction together, the first things that come to mind are words like "yoseph" and phrases like "shut you freakin' nard, Bard!". I am not a "Juno" hater like many are, but phrases like these make being hip seem a little bit square. However, upon viewing her latest collaboration with director Jason Reitman, "Young Adult," I found a writer who is starting to come into her own with her words, and a director who can bring those words to life.  

"Young Adult," like "Crazy, Stupid, Love," is a victim of bad marketing. It seems the only way to sell a semi-romantic dramedy nowadays is to make it look bright and predictable. "Young Adult" is two things you'd never expect it to be: ambiguous and unpredictable. 

The anti-hero of "Young Adult," Mavis Gray (Charlize Theron), is introduced in a position that we find her in during various parts of the movie: sprawled out face down on a bed, hungover, and watching the Kardashians. There is something about watching the miserable lives of people on reality TV shows that makes a people feel better about their own rotten lives. Gray has become a semi-successful writer of a young adult book series. The peak of her book's popularity has waned. Despite being 37-years-old, she is more like a girl than a woman (if you want to understand the difference watch this).

Mavis comes from the small town of Mercury, Minnesota. She is living the dream of everyone in Mercury, as she has now moved to the big city (Minneapolis that is, or as Mercurians call it, "The Mini Apple"). Maybe it's because she's feeling alone, or maybe because she was still a little drunk from the night before, but an email spreading the news about the newborn baby of her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) sends her packing her bags (including her Paris Hilton-sized dog) back to Mercury. On her journey back, Mavis has thoughts of returning back to her glory days, of being queen of high school again, and winning the happily-married Buddy back. 


It turns out that Mavis is now more of a Queen Bitch and Mercury is a cookie cutter of small town USA. The town she once knew now includes a Staples and a Kentucky Fried Taco Hut. This is how the Canadian Reitman likes to portray America: a land of excessive brand name dross.

Mavis is now the late 30s loser who used to be cool in high school. Pity, the loser usually isn't supposed to be the protagonist. That is what makes this story more challenging and ultimately more rewarding: the audience must get over their inhibitions and realize that they must find a shred of humaness inside of a character who seems to totally lack it. Cheers to "Young Adult" for making us stick with a character who is unlikable from start to finish.

The more time spent in Mercury, the less this feels like the happy conclusion to a teen fantasy and more like a horror movie in which wounds are opened and then repeatedly stabbed at. While at her favorite bar, Mavis forms an unlikely friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt), the former high school loser who became partially crippled after falling victim to a vicious hate crime. Matt now spends his days holed up in house, making action figures in his bedroom and distilling bourbon in his garage. He is the kind of person who should've gone farther in life than he did. Oswalt's Matt is the perfect foil to Theron's Mavis. This is the performance that will earn him the Oscar nomination he should've received for "Big Fan." Not that he isn't equally deserving of it here. Comedians can be great actors because they tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves. 


But was Mavis's life so bad, or was she just looking for more problems to have? As she says at one point, her looks made people think she was perfect and impervious to problems. Everyone has baggage and what really matters is how we handle it.  This message is simple and old as time. But Theron's nuanced, sometimes funny, and sometimes heartbreaking performance, adds a new dimension to it. Living in the best moments of the past is simply a device to obscure something painful. It is the most powerful form of denial there is. And when a few truths are revealed during the painful yet ingeniously written baby naming scene, it feels like Mavis is learning everything at the same time that the audience is. 

Earlier this year, I saw "Bad Teacher" and pondered what a better version of that movie would look like. Well, "Young Adult" is what "Bad Teacher" would've been if it actually tried. Making a despicable character the protagonist isn't necessarily about making them likable enough to give them a pass for their wrongdoings, but rather to make them interesting and three dimensional enough for anyone to want to see what they will do next. It is kind of like watching a train wreck. However, this time, I didn't want to see the train go off the rails. 


Jason Reitman has always made off-kilter films about characters who make questionable decisions. Whether that be sticking up for tobacco companies, getting pregnant as a teenager, or firing people for a living, Reitman's four-film winning streak ends not with someone who is bad in what they do for a living, but rather the way they act. With "Young Adult" and his previous feature "Up in the Air," Reitman begins to turn toward more ambiguous territory; and the more ambiguous he gets, the better his movies become. 

"Young Adult" could have gone the cliche way and portrayed a montage of Mavis turning her life around, probably by working out, walking her dog, and going to an AA meeting, but five minutes is not enough time to fully take in somebody turning their life around. The important thing is not how she turns her life around, if she ever does, but that she has learned the lesson she needed to learn. She was a beautiful fish in an ugly pond. That didn't earn her love, but rather sorrow.

"Young Adult" won't put anyone in the cheeriest mood this holiday season. However, there is nothing more reassuring in the holiday season than someone realizing what they should be holding dearest in their life. "Young Adult" is a gift of tough love.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #3

Radio Days


"Annie Hall." "Manhattan." "Hannah and Her Sisters." I could have gone with any of these timeless Woody Allen classics, so why did I choose "Radio Days"? It wasn't an attempt to be original ("Annie Hall" is an easy choice, but it is a deserving one at that), but rather that "Radio Days" may just be the ultimate Jewish family comedy, and both a heartwarming and heartbreaking nostalgia trip.

Set during the 1930s and 40s, "Radio Days" is told in a series of vignettes that all connect back to the audio device that once ruled the world. Allen himself is never present onscreen, although he is the story's narrator. A very young Seth Green is Allen's stand-in onscreen under the name Joe. Joe obsesses over the radio so much that it starts to concern everyone in his family, especially his father (Michael Tucker). Joe is the youngest in a loud and rowdy household that includes an aunt and uncle and grandparents, as well as a family of Communists that live next door. His Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel, perhaps better known as Principal Anderson in "Billy Madison") brings home a huge bag of fish everyday and eats them. Raw.

 Allen so lively brings about an era in which imagination was king. It's funny to hear Joe's parents complain that he's rotting his brain away by sitting in front of the radio all day, and think that parents said the exact same thing about television decades later.

"Radio Days" is as much about the stars of radio as it is about the listeners. One in particular is Sally White (Mia Farrow) who has a difficult time making it as first, as listeners couldn't see beautiful face but could hear her voice, which sounds exactly like Lina Lamont's fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice in "Singin' in the Rain." Luckily, one of these two people was actually able to make it.


Joe's family, who spends all their time in Rockaway, and the radio stars, who spend all of their time at fancy parties, never come together. However, the idea Allen wants to bring about is that the radio brought these stars, these stories, into Joe's living room, and they never left. That is the beauty of radio, of television, and of film: they make the unreal become a very real part of our lives. In that sense, Joe's family came to life for me and almost felt like my own. However, arguments, while frequent for us, never amount to debating whether or not the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific.

While the movie's end is sad in one sense, as the stars of radio realize they will not shine forever, it is also optimistic in that sense. When one star flickers and dims, another one shines, and a new opportunity comes about. Celebrities might not be famous forever, but the art they create makes them immortal.

"Radio Days" is that lasting artifact of Allen's self-deprecating humor and a prime example of why the king of neuroticism can never be dethroned. While it is funny, it is also so realistic. If you've ever had more family members piled into your house than you can count, and you remember it as a terrifying yet hilarious experience, then you should pile every single one of those family members back together in one room and watch "Radio Days."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #2

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies is a new series in which for each night of Hanukkah I will recommend a new movie to watch. Each movie might have been made by a prominent Jewish filmmaker, or embodies a prominent part of Jewish culture. Because I missed the first night, as I was embarking on a great Florida migration, I will recommend two for the second night.


Inglourious Basterds 


Here is a movie that needs no introduction, as I can barely go a day (or a blog post) without talking about it. With "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino earned the title of Honorary Jew for fulfilling any little Jewish boy's childhood fantasy of getting vengeance on the Nazis. But it is not just a violent, one-dimensional revenge fantasy but rather a morality tale that dares us to ask whether or not our enemies can actually be human. This might be the only movie of its kind that will actually make you feel like a more enlightened human being. The movie also includes moments of gripping suspense and utterly insane hilarity. Despite the newfound enlightenment you may have found, it will not stop you from standing up and cheering after the movie's history-bending twist (most people probably know what it is at this point but if not, I will spare the spoiler). No movie will make you feel prouder to light the menorah tonight.


Leaves of Grass


I didn't really think "Leaves of Grass" was as brilliant as some believed (Ebert called it a "masterpiece"). It is flawed and its narrative probably made more sense in novel form, but it is certainly "whacky" and inventive enough for me to recommend to the more adventurous cinephile. Edward Norton is brilliant as always, this time giving two performances in one movie, one as a philosophy professor and the other as a drug dealer. Most shocking about "Leaves of Grass" is that it reveals that there is indeed a Jewish community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is, in case you were the kind of person who likes to track down Jews in random parts of America. It is partly based on writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's life growing up in a Jewish family in Tulsa. "Leaves of Grass" is not just a crime-thriller-satire but an examination on Jewish identity. I can't say I "get" the whole thing but if one of you does, please feel free to explain it to me.

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere: Who's That Knocking at My Door


It is a rarity for even the greatest director to strike gold at the very beginning of their career. Few and far between have broken the amateur barrier (Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes, and The Coen Brothers are rare exceptions), but even when they don't, future greatness can be seen in a scrappy debut effort. "Who's That Knocking at My Door," the very first movie made by Martin Scorsese, is not the kind of seamless masterpiece he would late go on to make, but it foreshadows a career steeped in Italian-American culture, New York City, and crushing Catholic guilt.

"Who's That Knocking at My Door" has all of the signs of a film school effort: blatant symbolism, aimless dialogue, and rough cuts. Indeed, Scorsese began making this movie while he was a student at NYU, and he continued working on it even after he graduated. The then unknown Harvey Keitel stars as J.R., a young Italian-American hoodlum who hangs out with a pretty volatile group of guys, yet that doesn't stop him from going to church to pay penance.

J.R. is the embodiment of what Scorsese must have been like in those days: he seems to only know what he sees in the movies and what he learns in Church. This basically entails knowledge of every John Wayne movie. To him, "The Searchers" is like another kind of gospel. His dialogue about Wayne is some of the finest, most naturalistic writing in any Scorsese film.

The girl in the movie (Zina Bethune), simply named The Girl, becomes J.R.'s new object of affection, and his love with her ends up testing everything else he holds dear. After their relationship buds, Girl reveals that she was once raped in a chilling flashback sequence that resembles what a filmed version of Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" would look like. As a man loyal to his Catholic background, this makes him question his own faith, and what is really most important to him in his life.


This revelation does not come until very late in this film's short running time. "Who's That Knocking at My Door" does not contain the typical kind of plot. Rather than an event inspiring a series of actions that effects everyone, it is instead about an event inspiring a series of emotions that effects just two characters.

"Who's That Knocking at My Door" might feel inconsistent and messy because it seems less like an attempt to capture a fully realized story on screen but more like someone trying to capture the mixed emotions that make up their life on film. The irony of the sunny, happy-go-lucky music that plays in the credit sequence against footage of a man being beaten shows that this type of aggression was just a way of life where Scorsese grew up. The casual attitude of this scene is still shocking to watch. Meanwhile, playing "Who's That Knocking?" during the end sequence in the Church as the camera pans around all of the different representations of Jesus makes it feel less like a solemn walk through a holy place and more like a ride at Disney World.

Watching Scorsese's work on "Who's That Knocking at My Door" is like watching a diamond in the rough that would soon become one of the f***ing brightest gems in the history of cinema. From it, you can see where the basis of "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," and "Raging Bull" amongst many others came from. Even "Hugo," which is about a child who is much more eccentric than J.R. can draw its obsessive conversation about film back to Scorsese's debut.

Film can be one's attempt to show what they believe matters most in life and with "Who's That Knocking at My Door" Scorsese was establishing everything he loves and everything he values. And while his big debut certainly isn't flawless, we haven't been able to leave his side since.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bored to Death Gets Cancelled: Blame It On Brooklyn

I guess three seasons is the charm. Today, HBO cancelled its smart and continually underrated comedy series "Bored to Death." The announcement was not followed by outrage or backlash but simply, a series of copied press releases. 

  Unlike other shows that have struggled in the ratings in the past ("Arrested Development," "30 Rock," "Community"), "Bored to Death" never gained a loyal following. Viewers were few but those who watched it knew it was smarter and funnier than most of the shows they were used to. Unlike the other shows previously mentioned, “Bored to Death” has just as many, if not more, detractors as it has followers.

  One piece of criticism on the show that struck me most was a column publish for Entertainment Weekly’s website, in which writer Darren Franich said he felt exactly the feeling described by the title every time he watched an episode. Now there’s a joke even Jay Leno wouldn’t put into his opening monologue.

  What bothered me more than that joke was an accusation made by the author, which was repeated by many in the comments, that a show with a Brooklyn-centric appeal doesn’t belong on television. Why is it that the only base that writers, directors, and producers alike have to appeal to is “Middle America”? Maybe it is because Middle America is apparently into so-called mindless entertainment, and they makes up the majority of America. However, television has changed drastically in the past few years. Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” are more talked about than the “CSI” franchise, and while “Two and a Half Men” still dominates the ratings, a show with a twisted narrative like “How I Met Your Mother” can now occupy the classic sitcom format. Thanks to specialized cable networks, audiences have become more specialized than ever before, and niche shows can now survive and thrive alongside shows with mass appeal. 


 HBO is certainly justified in its cancellation, as the show never pulled in ratings, and it wrongfully never garnered a single Emmy nomination. But HBO is known for edgy programming, and it is a shame that they never gave “Bored to Death” the chance that it deserved. With a little bit of effort, this show could have had much wider appeal. So what if it takes place in Brooklyn? So what if a majority of its jokes center around Jewish neuroticism? “Curb Your Enthusiasm” targets basically the exact audience, and it has been running strong for eight seasons.

 “Bored to Death” is not just inhabited in the world of hipsters, but it is also an inside satire of sorts of that culture which anyone who has ever been to a big city or a modern college campus can appreciate.

 “Bored to Death” is also first and foremost a detective story, and each mystery is as surprising as it is entertaining. This show also pulls off the rare balancing act of having a season full of self-contained episodes that also fit in to a larger plot. Despite running on the exact same formula, each and every episode still feels refreshing and original. I would wager that a value of Middle America is familiarity, and any show with a consistent formula is usually able to build a loyal following. The Jews may run Hollywood (according to Professor Mel Gibson M.D.), but making them the center of any story will apparently make most of the country want to change the channel.


 “Bored to Death” did have some limitations in its stories, as it involves something of a literature and pop culture prowess to enjoy, but most of its humor was so madcap that anyone could have laughed at it. One of the gags that first got me into “Bored to Death” was in the second episode of the series when Ray (Zach Galifianakis) randomly falls on top of a baby stroller. In a later episode, he spills iced coffee all over another baby. Franich writes in his article that he thought the only growth that Danson’s George did was in the amount of pot smoking he does. First off, that element of the show has always been hilarious, as his habits once lead him to tamper a drug test by adding soap to a urine sample. But really, Danson grew into the character whether it was through his relationship to his daughter in the most recent season, or his brave decision to leave his job as magazine editor. Galifianakis was also more than just a prop for slapstick, and he showed more dramatic range in this role than he ever has during any other point in his career. 

  Thanks to Jonathan Ames, “Bored to Death” had some of the highest quality writing on television. Each season was better than the last. Some highlights have included a diner scene in season two that felt reminiscent of the finale of “Pulp Fiction” in the best way possible, and an episode where Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman), Ray, and George have a wild night in New Jersey that ends with them rear-ending a cop car. There was something habitually funny about the show’s writing and performances. Each of its three seasons were only eight episodes in length, or about one third shorter than the length of the average TV comedy series. The best part about this was that it allowed Ames to put an extra amount of focus and detail into every episode, as opposed to other shows where the writers have to create episodes like an assembly line. It is no wonder that each episode of “Bored to Death” felt like a serial in a larger novel series and not just a half hour television episode. 

   I know out there somewhere, there is a compassionate cult of “Bored to Death” fans who have yet to come together and express their outrage. This Hipster Noir of a comedy will eventually earn its place among the pantheon of great shows that were cancelled too early. Until that day comes, I say #OccupyBoredtoDeath all the way.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Movie Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love

Marketers and advertisers are supposed to fool us into believing that some product, usually an inferior one, is gold. Sometimes though, they fail to make a superior product look good. Point in case comes with "Crazy, Stupid, Love" a movie that perhaps no one knew how to sell, because it doesn't at all try to be a part of the genre that everyone wants it to be in. But hey, sometimes lying is the only way to make a buck at the box office nowadays.

In a culture of showing everything and giving it all away, "Crazy, Stupid, Love" surprisingly surprised me, and it pulled off a surprising twist that could make even M. Night Shyamalan blush (is that joke still relevant?). "Crazy, Stupid, Love" has something most comedies could use these days: fully-formed characters. The movie starts off as with Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) and wife Emily (Julianne Moore) out at a restaurant. He asks what they could share for dessert, and the first thing she blurts out is 'divorce.'

Before any of this is even said, it is already clear what is wrong with this marriage. Cal wears a distinctly beat up pair of white New Balance shoes, and typical rectangular glasses made simply to help him read, and not at all to distinguish him from any other man his age. He has been so lost in his marriage that he just lives to function. So little fight is left in him that when Emily wants to talk about things on the ride home, he simply opens the car door and jumps out in the middle of the road. What he barely got a chance to hear about was that Emily cheated on him with her boss (Kevin Bacon, in a subtletly sleazy role).

Following the divorce, Cal lives a sad sack life, and frequents a hip bar that seems too trendy for someone who doesn't even know what a trend is. Meet Jacob (Ryan Gosling) who is basically a walking male fashion trend. Jacob is smooth in every sense, and can even casually drop some Yiddish into conversation. Jacob leaves the bar every night with a new woman until one day when he decides to drop everything and take Cal under his wing.

Jacob's idea of changing one's life around is a complete change in wardrobe. After disposing his New Balances and throwing on a new suit, Cal becomes Jacob's clone. This leads him to picking up a series of women, one of them being a teacher (Marisa Tomei) who is just as self-loathing as he is. All the while, Cal's family makes some other stupid mistakes, and his son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) tries to figure out what love is amongst the madness of divorce.

"Crazy, Stupid, Love" works not because it is the kind of romantic movie in which we are forced to root for a bunch of bad people who one day decide to do something good, but rather it is about a bunch of genuinely good people who sometimes act against their better judgement. Cal and Emily's divorce made me think of "Kramer vs. Kramer" in its honesty and its ability to not pass down judgement onto its characters. Just as it occurs in reality, every action and every reaction has a purpose in the eyes of each person who carries it out. It has a bit of the he-said she-said mentality, but the movie is really about how their broken love affects a wide range of people, and not just the two of them.

I have been a fan of Steve Carell, since his days as a correspondent of "The Daily Show." He can make anyone fall in love with even the goofiest characters (Michael Scott, Andy from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"), but he's never displayed the kind of range he shows in "Crazy, Stupid, Love." In past roles was he had to make an unsympathetic character sympathetic and here, he has to do the exact opposite. He excels at this challenge and shows some dramatic chops he's been hiding. Gosling meanwhile, has more dialogue than he had in both "Drive" and "The Ides of March" combined, yet he displays that same ability to play someone who is almost like a blank slate with one defining quality (driving, political knowledge, and here, clothes). He is described at one point as looking "photoshopped" and indeed, he makes Jacob look photoshopped. His transition into relationship man is surprisingly believable, with an extra thanks to Emma Stone, who's importance to the story has a drastic change towards the movie's end.

"Crazy, Stupid, Love" is the kind of funny that's quiet and smooth, with each joke not attempting to be a gag but rather just a part of what anyone in the cast would say or do. The surprisingly refreshing script from Dan Fogelman ("Fred Claus") gives every single character in the ensemble a purpose. Here is a movie that throws away the idea of throwaway characters and subplots. The movie's only real flaw is a graduation scene final speech that feels a little too calculated, and while the happy ending feels earned, it ties things together too simply, especially with the cynical tone the movie carried throughout. Then again, for everything the characters went through and how they eventually prove themselves to the audience, maybe they deserved this conclusion.

"Crazy, Stupid, Love" made a mockery of the people who released it, proving that a poorly chosen title and some ads that seem to give away everything don't necessarily rightfully represent the movie. Watching it made me think of a slightly lighter version of "The Descendents." Like that other movie, there was a rare, genuine feeling behind the humor of "Crazy, Stupid, Love" that didn't make me feel stupid for enjoying it, and certainly doesn't make me feel crazy for endorsing it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Even this late in his career, Martin Scorsese can still reinvent himself, even if it means not changing at all.

"Hugo," based on the award-winning children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, is the rare PG-rated Scorsese film. However, that does not make it a children's movie as many have labeled it. "Hugo" is for everyone.

"Hugo" is mechanical, yet magical. In the early 1930s, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives inside the walls of a Parisian train station, operating all of the station's clocks. He has been doing this ever since his father (Jude Law) died and left him as an orphan. His life inside the walls gives him an innate ability to sneak around totally undetected. He steals in order to get by, which puts him at constant odds with the scheming and ill-tempered station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). As the inspector, Cohen looks like a more over-the-top version of Charles De Gaulle.
All that Hugo has left of his father is a broken automaton which he spends his spare time trying to fix. He steals parts from, and eventually gets caught by, George Melies (Ben Kingsley). That name doesn't mean a lot to young Hugo at first, but he later discovers that he is none other than the legendary pioneer of filmmaking himself. Melies was one of the first filmmakers to figure out that moving pictures could tell stories.


"Hugo" is based on a book and its about the power of imagination, but it is also about Scorsese's love of movies. At one point, Hugo takes of Melies's daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to see a movie in order to cheer her up. He believes that the movie theater is the only place where he can escape from reality. Viewers will also be treated to a history of film as well as footage from several key movies of the silent era. "Hugo" is a film buff's dream come true.

From looking at the early movies shown in "Hugo," there really was magic in them. The less realistic the special effects were, the more creative and deceptive filmmakers could be. Melies was equal parts filmmaker and magician.

Early silent films involved many tricks to feign depth and perspective. "Hugo" itself attempts this, and it contains some of the best 3D there has ever been. The third dimension is usually wasted by those who don't understand the potential of it. In "Hugo," 3D is not a gimmick but rather a way to add a layer of physical depth, and make this complex world of mazes and winding staircases even more immersive. I am not a cheerleader for the cause of 3D. However, if more directors used 3D the way Scorsese does here, then perhaps this new trend won't necessarily spell the demise of movies as we know them.

As with any great movie, none of the special effects would mean anything if they did not support a great story. "Hugo" is an uplifting fantasy that is also very real. It balances out its darkest moments with comedy. Best of all, "Hugo" is not just about Hugo. The longer the audience spends in the train station, the more it gets to know the characters that occupy it. The subplots involving the inspector's attempt to woo the flower shop owner (Emily Mortimer) and another including an old man at odds with a small dog are entertaining and actually tie in with the story as a whole. These segments of "Hugo" reminded me of the subplots seen in the windows of the apartment complex in "Rear Window." Neither of these movies would be able to function without their settings, or the variety of people who occupy them.


The latter part of Scorsese's career has been a mixed bag. While he won his first Oscar in 2006 for "The Departed," few of his latest efforts have matched the brilliance of his earlier efforts. "Hugo" is his finest achievement in years, but there is just no way to compare it to his earlier works. There is nothing wrong with creating something that defies comparison.

Even if no one is shot in the head or shoved into the trunk of a car, "Hugo" could only have been made by Scorsese. His version of Paris transforms the City of Lights into something much grittier. The Paris of "Hugo" looks more like New York via "Gangs of New York": snowbound, destitute, and industrial. Then there is Hugo's world, which is one marked only by turning gears, with the great city surrounding him being just outside his reach. The only light of hope that ever shines is from a film projector.


In a way, Hugo is Scorsese in his youth. During his childhood on the mean streets of Little Italy, the movies were his only means of escape. Even as time passes, movies will always remain. The fact that "Hugo" is about a young boy saving the lost films of a once great artist is the kind of warm, moving act that doesn't usually occur in a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Even though "Hugo" claims that humans are just parts of the larger machine of the world, that can't explain the feeling of being moved to tears by the movie's end.

There is a scene in "Hugo" where Hugo and Isabelle watch "A Trip to the Moon" for the first time, and learn that each frame was colorized individually by hand. In the present, a camera can do that, and a computer can create any special effect imaginable. Therefore, it is hard for any movie made today to ever feel hand-crafted. When as much care, love, and devotion goes into making something like "Hugo," it is then that the director's, and not a computer's, fingerprints are all over it. This is one of the best movies of the year.


As a side note, has anyone noticed that whenever a major movie is released that takes places in a foreign country but is spoken in English, all of the characters have British accents? When will Hollywood get that people can tell the difference between a French accent and a British accent?

Here are links to some of the silent movies featured in "Hugo":
The Great Train Robbery (There is an allusion to the final shot at the end of "Goodfellas")

Friday, November 25, 2011

Movie Review: The Muppets

It's a testament to the enduring legacy of The Muppets that their latest film, aptly titled "The Muppets,"can open with Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," and make most of the audience giddy. Before the movie began, there was a trailer for the latest "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movie which involved the chipmunks singing and dancing to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." It's things like these that make me thankful that The Muppets are back.

Before I delve in to some very deep, fourth-wall-breaking Muppet matters, I'd like to clarify that I am not an aficionado, nor a connoisseur, of Jim Henson's creation. The Muppets have come in and out of my life in various forms, but I cannot claim to have grown up on them as many have. Having said that, "The Muppets" is a wonderful 90 minutes of holiday escapism. If you think you're too old for this movie, then I sentence you to a lifetime of watching the new "Alvin and the Chipmunks" trailer on loop.

The Muppet gang needs no introduction, but perhaps this movie does. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, the duo responsible for "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and make a movie with The Muppets. That is why "The Muppets" is so heavily nostalgic.

Stoller and Segel do add a few new Muppets to the gang, most important of them all being Walter (Peter Linz), who grew up idolizing the Muppets in Smalltown, USA. His brother Gary (Segel), who also happens to be both human and five feet taller than him, is just as obsessed with The Muppets as Walter is.

When Gary plans to take his long time girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) out to Los Angeles for their anniversary, Walter comes along. Along the way, their goal becomes to help Kermit unite the gang for one last show in order to save Muppet Studios from the evil oil man Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). For anyone hoping to fill their children with environmental awareness, this is not the movie for you.

Segel's and Stoller's choice to make this a self-aware musical is a wise choice, and one that makes this an even more pleasurable viewing experience. I spent a large amount of time learning about the marketing of this movie in my film business class this semester, and for that reason I thought this movie would make me hate both The Muppets and Disney. In actuality, it made me admire both even more.

The story of "The Muppets" is truly about the making of itself. As Walter tries to get The Muppets back together onscreen, the movie does the exact same thing for the audience. Because of this, there are a lot of jokes in the movie that kids probably won't understand. But for every time a character directly addresses the audience, or makes a joke about the lunacy of the huge dance numbers onscreen, there is a visual gag involving fart shoes. What more could anyone ask for?

The Muppets have been known throughout the years for rounding up a variety of celebrities for their shows and movies. This movie is no exception, and I will leave you with the surprise of most of the cameos that occur. I will say though, that "The Muppets" does include a rap by Chris Cooper. Only these puppets could make an Academy Award winner rap.

This is a version of The Muppets made largely for those who have been following them since their creation. But then again, isn't every Muppets product like that? There is no reason that this movie shouldn't be able to introduce new fans to the characters. Some thought that adding in new characters and the implementation of fart shoes were a desecration of The Muppets. That is an outrage. The Muppets are, and always have been, about the spirit and fun of chaos and anarchy.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What Your Thanksgiving TV Watching Says About You

James Bond Marathon (SyFy)
The Bond marathon is a staple of just about every Thanksgiving. You are likely knocking a few back, and desperately wishing you were James Bond. Given that this marathon consists largely of the most recent movies, it will most likely be an excuse for your dad to talk about how everything was better during his day.

Arrested Development Marathon (IFC)
Your family is loud, insane, and probably a little dysfunctional. Watching the Bluths lie to each other as they cheat and steal might make you feel a little better about your own dysfunctional family. Watching the many insults of Lucille Bluth will put that racist comment your relative yells about Barack Obama into a lighter perspective. You've also seen every episode over 200 times, but you can still find another pun in Tobias's dialogue every time you watch. And for that, I salute you.

The Godfather Marathon (AMC)
This is a different kind of dysfunctional family story. Here's if your family enjoys talking about the secret sauce in their cooking, and occasionally killing people. But more likely you enjoy stories about American history as much as your dad; you will also likely be switching between this and the History Channel all day long. You are also probably a movie buff, and drool over the mise-en-scene during the scene in which Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey. And for that, once again, I salute you.

The National Dog Show (NBC)
Dogs are more entertaining than cats. There, I said it. Watching this also probably brings up great memories of "Best in Show" for you.

NFL Football: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (FOX)
Thanksgiving wouldn't make sense for you without football. That, or you just really enjoy watching Detroit suffer (current score: 24-0).

Now, get off the internet and go stuff your faces. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Does every sports movie have to end with a victory in order to inspire us? If "Moneyball" teaches us anything, it's that a failure is just one small step on the road to success.

The sports movie formula has become a giant cliche: assembling the team, training, and then against all odds, winning (usually in slow motion). "Moneyball" does right in veering from this formula, but its biggest folly is that it thinks it's the smartest sports movie ever made.

I guess this could only occur in a movie about Billy Beane. Beane, portrayed with ever relatable qualities by Brad Pitt, was general manager of the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s. He joined as the team was about to lose Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. Beane was looking not only to turn his team around, but to totally change the game (pun intended).

On a trip to Cleveland, Beane meets a young, Yale-educated analyst for the Indians named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). In a secret "All the President's Men" style meeting in a parking garage, Brand shares his unconventional method of finding players: judging on the numbers rather than the looks. The fact that all of the talent scouts were well into their 60s shows how out of touch management was with the actual game.


So Beane takes Brand away from Cleveland and the two apply his new system to the A's. The statistic-based way of recruiting angers many and takes a few hits to the team's reputation. Beane builds up a team of outcasts and misfits, and through some training and semi-inspirational speeches, the A's pull off the longest winning streak in Major League Baseball history.

"Moneyball" is less about the actual game and more about what happens behind-the-scenes of the game. As someone who never got too into sports, it speaks great volumes of how invested this movie got me into baseball, if only for this two hour span. There are more brains that goes behind creating a good team than I ever could have imagined. Some of the logic is still a little fuzzy to me (I don't have a mathematician's brain), but the fact that it works is absolutely fascinating.


This is also where the film faults the most. "Moneyball," written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, lacks the absolute clarity that Sorkin injected into "The Social Network" that made the world of computer programming so intriguing. Sorkin should have written this one by himself. Zaillian, while a talented writer, tries to put in the same sentimentality that defined most of his other screenplays such as "Schindler's List" and "Gangs of New York."

It wouldn't be shocking if adding the relationship between Beane and his daughter was Zaillian's contribution. This wasn't a terrible addition, as it makes Beane seem more relatable. However, there is no real conflict put into this relationship, as well as in Beane's relation with his divorced wife. Therefore, this whole plot line just feels thrown in, and the ending isn't as moving as it should have been. It also takes away from the goal of making "Moneyball" reminiscent of a 70s thriller. That little girl really can sing, though.


"Moneyball" might just miss the mark, and it might suffer from Multiple Ending Syndrome, but it is still a solid, if not spectacular, two hours of entertainment at the theaters. The real highlight of the movie though, is Jonah Hill. Comedic actors give their best turns in dramatic roles when they still act like they are in a comedy. If I could give one more compliment to "Moneyball," instead of all out dissing it, I'd say it has great comic relief.