Archive for March, 2012

The Muppets (2011)

Starring- Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz

Director- James Bobin

PG- some mild rude humor

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4YhbpuGdwQ

MODERN COMMENTARY, OCTOBER 2015:

I actually kind of like this review. I think it would be better if I had gone into it with a more functional understanding of the Muppets — through the power of Netflix, I managed to catch up on the movies, at least, prior to seeing Muppets Most Wanted. Still, for the most part, I like how this reads. One flaw I know I have as a writer is that my work often turns into “also, also, also, also” rather than a cohesive review with one point flowing into the next. I’ve always envied the Roger Eberts of the world, who could assess a film in its entirety while still writing reviews that read like they only had one point. This is one of a handful of reviews I’ve written that actually reads that way, for the most part, like I had one observation and was building all my points into it. Yeah, I stand by most of this.

I really seem to have some kind of mantra going this year: “I liked it, but I wasn’t as taken with it as everyone else.”

And, yeah, “The Muppets” is pretty much right in there.

I need to get it said right off the bat, because I think there are two very subjective issues on my end that threw up a wall between me and this movie, and I think it best to establish my bias up front.

First—the Muppets were not a substantial part of my childhood. Oh, they were there, and I remember seeing a few movies. I think I might have even watched the show once or twice. But it was never something in which I was really invested, so the nostalgic value simply isn’t there for me.

And second—I have a notoriously low tolerance for movies that are A.) musicals, and B.) all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows and whatnot. “The Muppets,” being mainly a combination of these things, is not necessarily to my taste. And that’s all right. I’m not going to fault it for what it is. In fact, that it so unashamedly is what it is, is its most admirable quality. Movies that are for everyone are often for no one in particular.

The film’s most interesting feature is that it serves as some kind of meta-commentary on its own existence. The world it inhabits is pretty similar to our world—“The Muppets” was a show that aired and was popular with children but eventually faded from the limelight. The only difference is that, in their world, the Muppets are actual individuals rather than mere puppets.

The show was watched by two brothers, Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz), when they were young. Gary is human; Walter, for whatever reason, is not. Gary has moved on and is attempting to maintain a relationship with Mary (Amy Adams), his girlfriend of ten years. Walter lives more or less in his shadow and continues to idolize the Muppets as personal heroes.

On a tour of the Muppets Studio in Los Angeles, Walter overhears a plot for an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) to buy out the studio and the Muppets name for his own use. The only way to stop him is to raise ten million dollars.

So, Gary, Mary, and Walter set out to find the disbanded Muppets and reunite them for one last show to save the studio and the Muppets’ legacy.

What’s especially endearing about the film is how faithful a recreation of the original show and the old movies it is. One goes into the film expecting the kind of cultural “update” that other old classics, such as “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “The Smurfs” have received. One expects a heaping helping of bodily function gags, already dated pop culture references, sly innuendos and pseudo-profanities vainly attempting to amuse the adults… The whole shebang.

And indeed, in-universe, this is almost what happens. As the Muppets reunite and attempt to find an avenue for their show, they are repeatedly turned down. Their time is up. They are no longer relevant. There is no place for them in the world of reality television and dumb summer blockbusters.

“We need a hard, cynical act for a hard, cynical world,” the oil baron, Tex Richman, tells them in one scene, where he’s attempting to replace them with darker and edgier versions of themselves.

And this is where “The Muppets” soars. Its most admirable and likable feature is its refusal to be anything other than what it has always been. It is a remarkable recreation of the spirit and quality of the original property. It could just as easily have existed as a children’s show in the seventies and eighties. It is innocent and carefree. Moreover, it is a kid’s movie. It is thoroughly uninterested in being a subversive self-parody that slyly pitches jokes straight at the adults (not that there aren’t a few smart laughs).

As such, it’s drawn in broad and simple strokes. It’s smart enough to be mainly about the Muppets (though it could be said to be flawed in the sense that its difficult to define exactly who the central protagonist is), because the humans simply did not receive the same amount of love and affection. Gary and Mary are cute and warm and… That’s about it, really. Their emotions are broad and childlike, their reactions to everything overstated and possibly overdramatic. In all honesty, they seem quite like the hosts and celebrity cameos that would weave their way through the original show. It’s aggravating to adults, but for children, well, it’s just the way they see the world.

There isn’t a whole lot going on narratively, nor in terms of characters. Subplots are presented and resolved in generally clichéd terms; they are secondary to the show itself, to the spectacle of it all. The film does take a strange and mostly unwelcome turn with the relationship between Kermit the Frog (Steven Whitmire) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), playing it alarmingly seriously for something that’s, you know…a joke. A couple of musical numbers are ham-fisted and forced. Amy Adams, who is normally great, is just over-the-top enough to come off as a bit strange. And while the film generally strays from humor for the lowest common denominator, the jokes still aren’t always strong—James Bobin, here, is not a spectacular director of slapstick, and a lot of the fourth wall references come up short.

But what we have here is imaginative, innocent, and largely nostalgic even to those who didn’t grow up with the show. It dodges the more subversive elements and hones straight in on the charm. It’s a lot of fun, reminding us of why the majority of us grew up loving these characters.

Yes, your kids are going to enjoy it more than you are. The film, after all, is for children. And I say again—that’s okay. I’m tired of my childhood properties being updated for me personally, shoved up to PG-13 ratings and stuffed with violence and sexual innuendoes. Who wants to have their childhoods sullied like that? To have their innocence removed and cheapened?

No, what we have here is a film that shares the childhoods of millions, unchanged and unscarred, with a new generation. “The Muppets” isn’t for me, but it’s for someone, and that’s just fine.

-Matt T.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

Starring- Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg

Director- Steven Spielberg

PG- adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ua_4ajpP58

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

Oh, for crying out… Stop it already, with the “oh, woe is the state of cinema” BS. Geez, what idiot wrote this crap? Still, I kind of admire the passion behind this review; I need to reclaim some of that. I haven’t seen the movie in a while and can’t really comment on the precise nature of my opinion.

Even as often as I get going about genuine art as revealed through narrative, there remains ever this notion inside of me that the purity of adventure remains some kind of pinnacle of cinematic achievement. “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Back to the Future”—these are the types of films that not only define childhoods but preserve them. There is something lovely about the old formula, of heroes and villains and insurmountable odds, of dangerous environments and perilous battles and swashbuckling adventures, of distilled good and evil squaring off in a climactic event.

It is a shame how forgotten it has all become.

We’ve replaced it now, with cheap blockbusters. Gone are the adventures, the imagination, the fun, the mythology, the bits of gravitas that were strewn throughout, hidden from us as children, revealed to us as adults. Now, they come in two forms—tongue in cheek, smothered in irony and overbearing self-awareness; and the precise opposite, overbearing self-seriousness, the desire to be “epic,” to replace the simple joys of adventure and imagination with “cool stuff.” Rarely are such emotions earned.

So, if there’s one positive thing I can say for 2011, a resoundingly and almost insufferably okay year in movies, it’s that this trend towards classic adventures is very reassuring. There have been at least three mainstream films this year that might qualify. I’m hoping it continues. (The three films, to those who are interested, are, by my estimation, “Super 8,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and this.)

And mainly, the reason for that is that none of the three are quite there just yet. They each, in their own way, latch onto some of the best elements of the great adventures, but they also miss crucial necessities.

However, of the three, I feel safe saying that “The Adventures of Tintin” probably comes the closest to getting it right. (Though I must qualify that with a statement that I think “Super 8” works better as a whole.)

Based on Herge’s classic comic books, “The Adventures of Tintin” follows the eponymous character (Jamie Bell), an intrepid journalist/adventurer, and his faithful dog, Snowy, as they seek to unravel a mystery surrounding a model ship, the Unicorn, which is much sought after by the threatening and mysterious Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig).

Sakharine kidnaps Tintin and holds him aboard a steamboat, interrogating him for information he believes he has regarding a long-lost treasure. Tintin, of course, escapes, and in so doing, bumps into and rescues fellow prisoner Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Haddock has a relationship with Sakharine the likes of which even he doesn’t understand; moreover, it seems his bloodline has something to do with the secret of the Unicorn.

And so the two of them, along with Snowy, set off on a journey to unravel the mystery, dogged all the while by Sakharine and his cronies.

“Tintin” is an unabashed swashbuckling adventure, and this is easily its best quality. It is equally bereft both of irony and of self-importance; it plays its events entirely straight, but without misplaced darkness and pleas for unearned emotion. It is childlike in its presentation, but never stupid. Do you remember playacting adventures as a child? How one’s bouts of pretending became increasingly ridiculous, with new perils and villains at every turn? Do you recall how fervently you nonetheless believed that the journey upon which you had embarked was one of dire consequence, how your little faces never once betrayed a sense that the danger was anything less than real? “Tintin” is like that; all the best adventures are. Logically, it ought to be impossible to take seriously. You do so nonetheless, because it carries such conviction.

Indeed, the plot could probably belong to any given “Indiana Jones” movie. It involves a treasure hunt, and a lot of other classic tropes alongside. You get your wild and ridiculous chase scene, this one involving motorbikes (and it is, by the way, likely the film’s best bit). You get your harrowing escape aboard a rusty old steamer that is almost a character unto itself. There’s a bit with a plane being battered about by untoward weather, as well as multiple scenes in which the dog gets to play the hero. There’s an international journey, with plenty of locales to behold, all of which are taken full advantage of when it comes to the requisite chases and gunfights. The film doesn’t complicate itself unnecessarily, requiring few exposition-driven bits and leading to even fewer breaks in the adventuring. “Tintin” is a film that knows what it is about, and it is about it. It is also sporadically very funny.

Nevertheless, it is structurally quite a mess, in large part due to the elements I just mentioned. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a film that tends much more towards action than plot and dialogue. Nevertheless, it had pacing, structure, and build-up. Each action set piece was bigger than the last. It derived its thrills as much from its mystery and moments of quiet tension or terror as from its fistfights and chases. Most crucially, it allowed the viewers a substantial breath between each battle.

“Tintin”…does not. Suffice to say this is a movie where the writers had two equally excellent ideas for finales, and instead of choosing one, they just figured, hey, why not two? Only about five minutes of time separate one from the other, and neither of them is substantially larger than its opposite. Much of the movie is action and adventure, and much of it seems more padding than necessity. The dog scare early on could’ve been cut, as could a number of Snowy’s solo adventures. A few minutes could’ve been shaved off Tintin and Haddock’s escape from the steamer, and to be honest, maybe they just should’ve hijacked the plane right then and there, thus skipping the scenes of being stranded at sea. The point is that the film is extremely top-heavy on action, eventually becoming wearisome and perfunctory rather than joyous.

The film’s second big weakness is its characters. And this is a big one. The best adventures work so well because their characters are so distinct in personality, likable and despicable in exactly the right measure, speaking with unique voices and exuding heroism or menace in the right qualities. To return to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: you had Indiana Jones, an antihero with a gruff demeanor but basically a good heart, if a bit of a selfish one. You had a villain in Belloq, whose defining characteristic was his similarity to the film’s hero. Secondary villain Toht was menacing and evil, the stuff a child’s nightmares are made of. Love interest Marion was an independent spitfire, the perfect foil for a quiet, brooding loner like Indy. Sallah made for a wonderful bumbling but loyal and likable sidekick.

“The Adventures of Tintin” has precisely one likable, distinct, and memorable character, and that’s Haddock—a complex man who has an odd relationship with his ancestors, he is so frequently inebriated that he acts more like a drunkard when he’s sober. He also provides the lion’s share of the film’s best laughs.

Tintin, on the other hand, is a non-presence. The comic relief characters, bumbling cops Thomson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), have been seen before in other, better films. And Sakharine is generic as a villain, lacking in motivation and general presence. He’s sinister, for sure, but will he be haunting children’s nightmares anytime soon? Probably not. This weakness of character deprives the film of some forward thrust that is badly needed by its climax.

And finally, I will continue to make no mistake about my distaste for motion capture animation as the sole basis for a film. It is an art that appears to exist unto itself. It is created and rendered by very talented people, who I’m certain look upon the finished product and say, “Look! Look at that ocean, that desert, that city! See how realistic we can make them!” And my only response is, “Well, yes, but the real thing would be still more realistic.”

An adventure movie needs to look hand crafted, lived-in, real. “Tintin” doesn’t, and while it might not cross into uncanny valley territory (itself an accomplishment), the animation still does it few if any favors.

Nevertheless, the film is quite close to what it ought to be, which makes it a shame that it isn’t there exactly. But I hope it will find an audience and that films like it will continue to get made. Filmmakers may be rusty on the old adventures, but practice makes perfect. We’ll get there. We’re so close already.

-Matt T.

Jack and Jill (2011)

Starring- Adam Sandler, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Elodie Tougne, Rohan Chand, Eugenio Derbez

Director- Dennis Dugan

PG- crude material including suggestive references, language and comic violence

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHKTXrUnN58

That “Jack and Jill” received exactly zero Oscar nominations is one of the tragic failings of the Academy. Truly it is one of the best cross-dressing movies of the year—nay, the decade. It is an incredible cinematic achievement—a biting and spot-on satire of terrible family films.

It understands that great parody is found in that dissident element, that thing-which-does-not-belong, inserted into a premise that has become standard and predictable. That premise is the usual one of mediocre family films—the father figure, in this case Jack (Adam Sandler), who is feeling the tug of his demanding career versus the love of his family. Nothing new there, right?

The dissident element is Jill (Adam Sandler), his obnoxious twin sister. She comes over to visit and through circumstances beyond Jack’s control, ends up staying far longer than he had intended or hoped for. Jill is a thing which does not exist in average family movies, designed to drag all of their tired conventions to their logical extremes and expose them for the laziness that they are.

The film works on a meta level, poking fun at itself as readily as it pokes fun at other movies of its type. A scene early on shows Jack and Jill at the theater, enjoying a movie that we do not get to see. They begin with their faces contorted in what appear to be looks of horror, or perhaps disbelief, the film’s representation of the reactions of its more critical audience to the things occurring on-screen. It takes a moment even for them to grasp the subtlety of its characters.

Then, both characters begin laughing like morons and passing gas off the sides of their seats, an artistic way of convicting the audience that enjoys such things in and of themselves, demonstrating the means by which family films frequently obtain simple, lazy laughs. Indeed, the moment gives new meaning to the phrase “artsy fartsy.”

It carries through all the way to the end. Inevitably, Jack faces the moment where he must come to appreciate who Jill is and love her for it. Indeed, it is a staple of family films to turn to deadly and unearned seriousness in the last reel, to try to become morally significant. “Jack and Jill” appears to do this, but its means is entirely different—emotional, long shots of a lonely Adam Sandler, wearing drag. These scenes are impossible to take seriously, and indeed, that is the point—it is a brilliant parody of the sheer silliness of the situations that most terrible family films end up playing for dramatic effect. It exposes how ridiculous and unearned it truly is. Bravo, “Jack and Jill.” Bravo.

Even by the closing scene, it is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. Having persuaded him to appear in a commercial for his company, Jack previews the finished product with a disgusted Al Pacino, who says, “Burn this. This cannot be seen. By anyone.” Clearly, the movie is winking at us with this scene, subtly prodding us towards its inevitable conclusion—that the state of affairs with family films is a sad one, bleak and unimaginative. We have “Jack and Jill” to thank for daring to be something more.

The film even pauses to satire elements unrelated to standard family film conventions; indeed, it spares no one a shot. It looks at the racism inherent in the “Transformers” films and, truly, the Hollywood system itself, and raises the ante to ridiculous extremes, including a series of scenes involving a Mexican gardener (Eugenio Derbez) in which he, of course, constantly makes jokes implying that he is an illegal immigrant/car thief, introduces us to his family (who are all named Jose), only eats hot peppers, and does nothing but play soccer. The sheer ridiculousness of it is what pushes it into subtle and refined parody of your average Hollywood blockbuster. It shows them for what they are—trash! For clearly, they could not aspire to the artistic heights of “Jack and Jill”!

Even Al Pacino is not spared. There is a scene in which he attempts to teach Jill, for whom he has a certain romantic affection, how to swing a bat properly. This results in his Academy Award getting smashed, an artful representation of the exact thing he has clearly been trying to do for the last twenty years.

And far too little has been said of Adam Sandler’s truly brilliant performance here. Indeed, if there was an Academy Awards category for Best Actor in a Performance as Adam Sandler, he would win it every year. That he has failed to even once is an utter travesty. Here, he raises the bar still further by taking on the equally complex and measured role of his own sister, Jill, whom he plays as Adam Sandler except with a high-pitched voice that never seems to stop sounding off. Never. Such commitment is admirable, but even then, this heavyweight juggernaut of an actor isn’t done. No, he even goes as far as to perform a scene where he cross-dresses as himself cross-dressing. In other words:

C R O S S D R E S S I N G C E P T I O N

My apologies. I was obligated.

That the transition is entirely seamless is a testament to the man’s talents. Surely he is one of our greatest living actors—perhaps it would not be going too far to imply that he is one of our greatest, living and dead. To have pulled off a parody of such depth and ridiculousness while only occasionally lapsing into measured and certainly intentional self-parody requires the touch of a pure genius, one umatched in talent and insight. In fact…

What’s that you say?

“Jack and Jill” is not a parody of terrible family films?

Well, then.

-Matt T.

*P.S. I need to make it as clear as possible, because I am far too concerned with my artistic reputation and because I understand that the Internet isn’t always that perceptive, that this review is 100% sarcastic. “Jack and Jill” is every bit as awful as it looks.

*P.S.S. Johnny Depp–you’re in a lot of movies, but if you have so much time on your hands that you consent to appearing in “Jack and Jill,” you clearly need to be in more.

The Artist (2011)

Starring- Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle

Director- Michel Hazanavicius

PG-13- a disturbing image and a crude gesture

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK7pfLlsUQM

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

I’m glad I’ve finally reached the point where my reviews of Best Picture winners talk about the movie and not the concept of awards. I tried to define art in this review, and while I agree with the general spirit of what I said, these days, I’ve stopped entirely. I no longer try to define it. I don’t see the point. As to the movie, I don’t think my opinion has changed all that much. It’s basically empty-headed but tons of fun anyway.

Oh, Academy Awards, what hath you wrought?

They’re certainly a good idea in principle. The notion of joining annually to celebrate the best and brightest in cinema is highly appealing. But it’s become warped somehow—a competition, rather than a celebration. It shows nowhere more clearly than in the discussions surrounding them.

We categorize. We designate the type of film that is “awards material” and push aside the stuff we see as unworthy—based not upon merit, but upon type. And it changes the discussion in such a way as to be harmful to the art form.

And “The Artist” has suffered needlessly.

I think, were it possible at this point to take the film on its own, separate from its wins and nominations, the ways in which we were talking about it would be quite different. And before its awards hype set in, they were quite different. Delightful, people called it, pure cinematic joy.

And as far as I’m concerned, they’re right. “The Artist” left me with the feeling of walking on air, giddy, the sensation that one has been on an adventure, though it is not an adventure film.

I don’t think it was made to win awards. It was made simply to be made. The film is a celebration of creativity, expression, and, to be honest, fun, pure and simple. People seemed to realize that at first.

And then, the awards hype set in. And then… Well, it won. And now we seem to have a problem. The critical establishment seems overwhelmingly to have turned on it. “It’s not art,” they say. “It’s simple and frivolous.”

But is it really? I often question what genuine art is; it’s a thought with which I wrestle. A strict definition seems nearly impossible to nail down. I have heard some artists refer to it as a work in which the themes, questions, and ideas at hand are central to everything, larger in proportion, effort, and expression than anything else in the piece. A part of me is inclined to agree, and on that level, I would say that it’s a good definition for “high art.” But as a general descriptor for art? Well, I feel it discounts too many things.

For myself, I would say that art is anything that expresses any kind of emotion or idea or question at all. Indeed, even if all it is doing is trying to evoke something, like the creator’s childhood or, in this case, beloved films, it is still art. In that sense, art is and always has been more about the creator than the audience. It is nearly impossible to discern the difference between art and product, but you can generally sense it by the air they possess. Few but the creator can ever know for certain what was intended.

And that is why I see this discussion as harmful. It seems not to celebrate what is good but rather to attempt to define what is good for everyone and for all time. And extremely worthwhile works are shoved aside and sneered at because they are seen to have less worth than some of their competitors. There exists a debate—at what point does an entertainment cease to be art, and at what point does art cease to be entertaining? For which should we be striving? And when we take a piece of great entertainment and weigh it against a piece of great art, which is ultimately more valuable? Which is better made? Which is more worth celebrating?

The answer, to the first two questions, is that it varies immensely, person to person and artwork to artwork. We must never overlook entirely the subjectivity inherent in the medium. But the last question has a far simpler and more universal answer: both.

And that is where I see this whole thing as being harmful. Perhaps “The Tree of Life” is better art. Perhaps “Midnight in Paris” has stronger writing. Perhaps “Hugo” is quieter, subtler, and more patient. Perhaps “The Descendants”… Okay, I haven’t seen that one yet (soon). And “The Artist,” as far as I’m concerned, is the most fun I’ve had at the theater all year. And I ask—why can we not celebrate all these things? Why must one be praised at the expense of another? It nearly makes me think the Academy should drop the Best Picture category altogether. How would one quantify such things anyway? Let us instead uplift each one for the contributions they made individually.

But I digress. Instead, I think I should talk about “The Artist,” the movie I’m supposed to be freaking reviewing.

And what a movie it is! It truly is a “movie,” in the most traditional sense, the kind of lighthearted and sprightly journey that pulls its viewers through every emotional setting imaginable before bringing them to its classic Hollywood happy ending. It’s not perfect, but it’s a genuine blast, a film most will write off due to its silent, black-and-white nature. Those who would ought to consider giving it a chance. I suspect it will play well for general audiences.

What strikes me first and foremost about it is its authenticity. This is not merely an homage to silent films; it is a silent film, one that could’ve easily released in the 1930s without raising too many eyebrows. I love attention to detail, and this film succeeds there, even going so far as to open with the traditional 1930s credits. The score, the sets, the acting… Everything is perfectly reminiscent of the silent film era, the innocence, adventure, and joy of those times.

It follows silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a big star with an even bigger ego that is successfully collapsing his marriage. This worsens when he begins an affair of sorts with star-struck fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George’s advice makes an equally big star out of her… And then the talkies release.

Peppy survives the transition, reaching Marilyn Monroe levels of stardom. George does not, losing his career and falling by the wayside, into loneliness and misery.

I love seeing films that make good companion pieces, and “The Artist” certainly serves as one to “Hugo.” George Valentin’s story is uncannily similar to George Melies,’ and both films celebrate film and creativity so beautifully. Much of the story in “The Artist” seems nearly perfunctory, an excuse to set up all the sequences for which silent films and early talkies are famed—the big tap dancing numbers, the spirited adventure bits (seen mainly in the short but wonderful glimpses of Valentin’s silly movies), even the inevitable scene where the dog gets a chance to be heroic. It’s daft and silly and wonderful.

Much has been said of Jean Dujardin’s performance; more still ought to be said. It’s positively delightful. He has a face and an appearance and a personality absolutely made for silent films. He plays his character in such a way that he is self-obsessed and egotistical, but in a sense that seems almost oblivious. He doesn’t intend any harm, but he requires a lesson in humility. It is hard to be angry with him, even when he deserves it. Berenice Bejo, too, seems like a relic of the silent era, good looking in exactly the way young starlets were back then and exuding the same vivacious personality.

There’s some veteran talent in here, too. James Cromwell brings his usual stoic dignity to the proceedings. And who could deny that a big boisterous fellow like John Goodman simply belongs in silent films? He’s wonderful as the money-grubbing and artless Hollywood executive.

In addition, while I would not call “The Artist” a subtle film, it has many wonderfully subtle touches, the small details known to and noticed by only the film history buffs and the creative types. As previously stated, I cannot celebrate this film’s authenticity enough, and its joy is positive contagious. Here is a film that was clearly made by lovers of early cinema, trying their hardest to recreate their childhood favorites, to make the sort of movie they want to see. That loving hand is evident throughout.

I cannot fault it technically. But those who have found some thematic weakness with the film may not be entirely inaccurate. I think some have blown its problems out of proportion—for example, I consider it not so much a celebration of Hollywood excess as of creativity and art. True, there are minor problems on that front as well, but not of the nefarious sort. It is possible that there was simply not enough attention devoted to this aspect.

No, more concerning is how the relationships are treated. As I have said, a large element of the story is Valentin collapsing his marriage and beginning to fall in love with newcomer Peppy. And I’ll be honest—I actually thought the film was going a good direction with this, but then lost its grip in the last few minutes.

I didn’t require his marriage to be restored. Some things are beyond repair. But there came a moment when I thought I knew where the movie was going. I thought it was going to be about love, real love, that after bombing all his relationships and finding himself alone, deprived even of the success he had achieved—the failure of living in the “way of nature,” hearkening back to “The Tree of Life” (seriously I love these companion pieces)—Valentin would find himself living self-sacrificially towards Peppy and realizing that he doesn’t need his career, his fame, his fortune, or his glory. He needs only to live in the way of grace. Everything else doesn’t matter, because the way of grace is a thorough foundation for life, and life to the fullest at that.

To some extent, that is what the film does in making the character find humility, love, and compassion. But it never quite goes the whole way in making him acknowledge that this is truly all he needs, and that this is why his life descended into so much misery in the first place. It nearly goes there, but not quite. It would’ve been such a simple fix, too, to turn it from mere entertainment to true art. Instead, it goes for the big dramatic beats, and, eh, those are all right, too, I guess. But less satisfying as well.

Nevertheless, “The Artist” is sheer joy, able to harness that right amount of happiness and tragedy to evoke the old cliché: “I laughed, I cried, it was great.”

Should it have won Best Picture? Should anything? It doesn’t matter to me. It’s a joyful, emotionally engaging movie, and a pitch-perfect throwback at that. It deserves to be discussed and, to some degree, praised. That is what truly matters. The little golden statuettes are, in the end, not nearly so important.

-Matt T.

Hugo (2011)

Starring- Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jude Law

Director- Martin Scorcese

PG- mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR-kP-olcpM

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

Ah, yes, my C.S. Lewis quoting phase. Also, LOL, updating at my own leisure; you were so funny, Unemployed Me. I don’t know why I hated contractions in 2011. Anyway, I think I’ve finally made my peace with the fact that “Hugo” bores me a little. Not that I don’t enjoy it at all or that it’s a bad movie; far from it. But I’ve accepted that I don’t love it.

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.”—C.S. Lewis.

I wonder if there is a film equivalent of that, because clearly, with the greatest of art, there will always be intricacies to be observed, layers to be peeled back. In that sense, the job of a paid critic is a difficult one; I do not envy the Roger Eberts of the world the fact that they are required to see a movie and compose a review of it within the next day or so. Such a thing must, at times, be more reaction than review. It must be difficult. I am glad to update at my own leisure, particularly at this moment, because “Hugo” is a film that needs to be seen more than once.

It’s the sort of movie that’s likely to find its way up and down my Year-End List the more I see and think about it. There’s a lot going on, and just as much to dig through. I’ve seen it twice already, compelled after the first viewing to revisit it because I expected it to delight and charm me in ways that it didn’t. The second viewing turned up more depth, and I saw the appeal. Heaven only knows what would happen with a potential third.

This is in large part because “Hugo” is a film that drops you squarely in the middle of things and retroactively provides context. This is no complaint in any sense; “Hugo” makes you work for the reward.

It begins with a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives in a train station where, day in and day out, he maintains the clocks. His father (Jude Law) perished in a fire years ago, leaving Hugo an orphan. The boy works hard to repair a strange automaton his father had found in the museum in which he worked. He believes it contains a message from his father.

What it truly contains is something else altogether. And it all seems somehow to lead back to George Melies (Ben Kingsley), a dejected old man who runs a toyshop in the train station.

With the help of Melies’ adventurous goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), and dogged by the uptight Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo works to fit together the pieces.

The first viewing of the film is slow, on the whole. It is a series of meaningful looks and emotional reactions that make only the barest amount of sense devoid of context. We learn about Hugo something like half an hour into the film. We learn about Melies throughout, but do not reach the pinnacle of discovery until the very end.

The second viewing, context provided, comes much closer to the magical status critics have roundly attached to this one.

The film’s central conceit is that of purpose, turning around the concept of the world being a machine with no extra pieces. This is enhanced in imagery and interactions. It is the sort of film that presents the audience with a number of minor side characters who are defined solely by the very singular problems they possess. These problems, of course, intersect, and everyone’s actions inadvertently set off small chain reactions that solve other people’s troubles. That the movie doesn’t see the need to overtly illustrate this through dialogue or needlessly dramatic moments is to its credit. The highest praise I can offer this family film is that it never once feels the need to step down to the level it presumes the children watching it are occupying and talk down to them. That’s a genuine marvel in this day and age.

It is also a film that is distinctly human, which is, too, to be admired. It is always a pleasure to see a movie that doesn’t leave me segmenting characters into “heroes” and “villains” or other such categories in between, but seeing them all as standing on the same plane—everyone with their measure of good and bad. Melies is a curmudgeon, to be sure, but discovering why is a process of understanding and, eventually, forgiveness. He is a man who has endured much and lost nearly everything, barely clinging to life through love of his goddaughter and the support of his wife (Helen McCrory).

Even the Station Inspector, set up as the typically comical kids’ movie villain, is afforded some level of depth that is gradually revealed as the narrative progresses. He has a gimpy leg that is funny at first, but tragic when we learn how he got it. He shares a moment with a local florist (Emily Mortimer); the two of them hit it off, and in that way, he almost becomes the protagonist of his own story.

However, the depth does not carry across the board, which is a slight problem. Particularly, it does not extend in the same degree to the pair of children at its center. Hugo is mainly a reference point for the audience, the window through which we are intended to see the old and tragic lives of some of the adults around him. That is not to say that he is not likable, nor that this is any way Asa Butterfield’s fault. He is not merely a wide-eyed and innocent child; he is, in fact, closer to the protagonist of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” trying to keep his beloved family member alive by continuing his work. Still, he is not terribly interesting, at least not when stacked up next to a character like Melies.

It goes double for his young friend, Isabelle, who fades in and out of the plot as required and only has the slightest semblance of a compelling character arc. In addition, Chloe Moretz is an actress I suspect I’ll really like ten years from now who is simply somewhat off-putting to me at the moment. She is wonderful in the sense that she acts well, delivers her lines well, conveys emotions well, and all of those other little technical things that we associate with acting. However, she is so mature, like an adult trapped inside a child’s body, that portraying so childish a character periodically becomes a bit awkward. It doesn’t sound quite right.

I can also say that I am not fond of the film’s color scheme, which is densely populated with those exact shades of orange and red that are far too reminiscent of a great many of my worst fever dreams. But such a criticism would be entirely subjective. In the end, I prefer naturalistic coloring, and I suspect I always will.

However, the film is patient, slow, taking the time required to ensure that it skips over no single moment, that it rushes no piece of character development. The pacing is bound to be off-putting to some, but what we have here is a character-driven movie in the most traditional sense possible. It is not a film that is dragged forward by a compelling series of events so much as a set of characters about whom we come to care. Scorcese directs everything with the practiced hand that could only be our minimum expectation for him at this point. You’d think he’d spent his entire career making family films, but then again—“Hugo” is safe for kids, but best for adults.

-Matt T.