Let’s Talk About Sex

A Dangerous Method (November 23, 2011)     4/5

Directed by David Cronenberg (Sony Pictures Classics)

A Dangerous Method, the latest by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, is injected with exactly the proper amount of frankness and ambiguity. Following the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the film regards sexuality as the basis for the discovery of psychoanalysis, but as the relationships of each man become more complicated, so do their differing views of the human mind. Based on the play by Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the screenplay) and adapted from the book by John Kerr, the movie certainly seems fit for the stage, consisting mainly of one-on-one conversations. This aspect, in addition to frequent jumps in time, often spurs a lack of connection between the audience and the characters onscreen, although the subject matter remains a fascinating endeavor.

In 1904, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives at the clinic of Carl Jung in Zurich. She is clearly very ill, and it soon becomes obvious that her mental deterioration is the result of a tumultuous relationship with her father. In order to fully penetrate the source of her illness, Jung begins to use “the talking cure,” as pioneered by Sigmund Freud, who will soon become his mentor. Freud, being a stern, undersexed family man, seems to think he is the greatest psychologist who ever lived, basing his new method in the idea that all complications of the human mind are rooted in sexuality. Jung is receptive to the ideas of Freud, as the two converse through letters and stage the occasional meeting. It becomes apparent that this is the correct way to cure Sabina, whose increasing knowledge of the mind soon presents her as a useful colleague to the two psychologists. That is, until she seduces he who cured her illness – the married Jung, himself. The film then becomes a strange, emotionally distant love story, as Jung’s new relationship causes him to question Freud’s constraints for psychoanalysis. And as the years go by, neither man is able to patch the deep wound left by Sabina Spielrein.

Needless to say, this is an example of an incredibly well-acted film. Knightley is the standout, expertly portraying a girl on the edge of insanity, but as she heals, a woman of both intelligence and lust. Mortenson is also terrific, using a man of iconic image to effectively portray one who may be falling prey to his own psychological theory, or manipulating it to convey important ideas to Jung. Freud claims that his sexual theories are most important because they establish psychoanalysis as a process rooted in science, rather than superstition, which Jung soon becomes intrigued by as his affair commences. It is when Freud finds out about the affair that everything changes, and the film becomes more difficult to decipher. There certainly becomes a distance between the men, but one never doubts that Freud believes he is always in control. It is Jung who truly becomes a changed person, questioning why sexuality should be repressed, if his own pain can help others heal, or if this world can ever truly be understood. Fassbender is exceptional, encompassing Jung’s mental journey with subtlety and grace. He is certainly one of the year’s breakout performers, and holds this film together with his effortless presence and execution.

Thus said, the film is a snapshot of how modern thought was developed. It is also a very interesting piece about how ideas of sexuality were created, and how their frank discussion and analysis in the early 1900s would develop into the modern customs we have today. This may be a love story, but it is far from romantic. A Dangerous Method is more of a contemplation, rather than a product that is meant to make one feel something. I admit that a little more emotion would have made it all a bit more compelling, but that does not make the film any less successful as a character study. It is also shot superbly by Cronenberg-collaborator Peter Suschitzky, whose placement of characters close to the camera only makes us realize how distant they seem. This is intentional, considering how Jung and Freud’s new thoughts may prevent them from living full lives. Psychoanalysis presents a whole new world of thought, and as Europe will soon become ravaged by war, what will be far more “dangerous” are the ideas developed by these two men. But the film takes a small-scale approach. Now that Jung has enhanced a new method of thinking, the views he has of his own life will be forever changed.

A Dangerous Method is never electrifying entertainment, but it is a very poetic, delicate film about things that are quite the opposite – namely sex and ideas. Or more importantly, the power both have over our own lives. Psychology has been a prevalent theme in the films of David Cronenberg, but often executed through genres of horror and science-fiction, such as Videodrome and The Fly. However, many of his recent films have rooted the human mind within the state that it actually exists – reality. These have included A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and although I have not seen either of those acclaimed films, I can say that A Dangerous Method fully deserves a high spot in the Cronenberg catalog, mainly because of how different it actually does feel. Not only from Cronenberg’s previous work, but also of any modern film. This is no masterpiece, but a short, dialogue-driven slice of both beauty and power; a break from any melodramatic film Oscar season has to offer. Maybe more directors should try “the talking cure.”

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Silence – Always Golden, Always Beautiful

The Artist (November 25, 2011)     5/5

Written & Directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Warner Bros. France)

Who would have thought that two of the year’s most warmhearted films, The Artist and Hugo, would charm us through nothing other than their appreciation for the birth of cinema? Not only that, but the former, unlike Scorsese’s 3D spectacle, is actually a black-and-white, silent film in itself! How appropriate, because as we witness a silent film star, played by Jean Dujardin (who won Best Actor at Cannes), fall out of popularity because of the rise of “talking pictures,” we feel all the more moved for how effective the medium is, even as we witness it become obsolete onscreen. And although the French production takes elements from the similarly plotted, American musical, Singin’ in the Rain, it stands alone not only for its spectacular use of a dated medium, but also how that facilitates one of the funniest, saddest, and downright entertaining films of the year, propelled by the two lead performances of Dujardin and actress Berenice Bejo.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is a silent movie star in the classical sense, dominating late 1920s “Hollywoodland” with his powerful screen presence, adoring sidekick dog, and a beautiful face that fans worship across the world; well, except for Valentin’s wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). I did say fans, after all. But despite George’s ego problem, he never ceases to be adored. Things begins to change when George has a chance encounter with a pretty, young woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Peppy soon breaks into the acting business herself, and the two begin to make a film together. Then they fall in love. That is, until a little invention named the Vitaphone hits the market. The idea of “talkies” hits the movie industry by storm, and Valentin, in his unwillingness to conform to the changing medium he seemingly has under his belt, quickly falls out of it. His studio, headed by big boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman), instead signs Peppy, making her the next big Hollywood star.

Those who feel tempted to sleep on command when the idea of a silent film is mentioned should be dragged out to see The Artist. Silent films, in a general sense, are not boring relics like an average person would assume, but joyful moments captured for eternity. The Artist is a film that is living proof of the power of silent films to move us, amuse us, and fill our hearts with joy. When they were released, they were the equivalent of dreams. Now, they are a visualization of a simpler time, one in which the actors’ antics onscreen provided more than sufficient entertainment. And of course, they also told some fabulous stories, using innovative cinematic technique. Film has now become so bogged down in quick cuts, close-ups, messy narratives, lack of deep focus, and special effects, that The Artist comes across as a moving tribute to the best type of cinematic story – one that is simple and charming enough for us to completely envelop ourselves within it.

The Artist honors silent film with technical perfection, utilizing a standard aspect ratio, sparing use of titlecards, and superimpositions to help convey its narrative. This is not a gimmick, but a loving replication, laced with references to the great silent films. But this is not just a movie for film buffs. The Artist also contains the slapstick comedy, sweeping romance, and downright beautiful story elements that will simply make any open-minded viewer fall in love. It also uses cinematic self-reflexivity to great effect, including a quite creative dream sequence. It would be a lie to say the film isn’t slightly predictable, but it doesn’t much matter. The Artist even uses techniques of the silent era to jokingly surprise us, as well as craft unique effects as the permanent transition to sound becomes more apparent to the characters. Needless to say, they would soon discover that this wasn’t just a fad, like many consider 3D nowadays. And of course, we always have that majestic music, the score in this case composed by Ludovic Bource. Supporting performances by Goodman, as well as James Cromwell as Valentin’s butler, are also quite fantastic. But the real stars are Dujardin and Bejo, who have such chemistry that the format of a silent film only enhances their romance to a greater effect. And let’s not forget Uggie, Valentin’s loyal Jack Russell Terrier, who certainly steals the award for the year’s best performance by a canine.

Yet Mikel Hazanavicius’ film most succeeds when it puts its title to full effect; that is, examining the artistry of silent film. Less comical in its depiction of the great Hollywood transition than Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist is a fairly realistic portrayal of how some silent actors were cast out of their medium. Silent acting was simply a different style of performing; it required exaggerated facial expressions and actions to tell a story without speech. Yet so many films today require incessant dialogue, and although this was not true upon the onset of talkies, performance in film soon became an artistry dependent on nuance and pronunciation, a style that did not require more talent per say, but was simply … different. However, The Artist reminds us of the creative effort behind silence, an art that those who do not study film may find goofy at first glance. In some cases, that may be intentionally so. But it also means a helluva lot more than that.

It is often said that art is best spawned from emotional anguish. The character of George Valentin falls into depression when the film industry seems to no longer have a need for him, and it becomes an intense irony that his pain becomes the subject for such a fantastically crafted piece of art, while society no longer accepts Valentin for the “artist” he was, or the greatness of the silent era itself. Cinema is a business, and it advances based on the latest technology. Therefore, we need films like The Artist to remind us that movies have always been an artistic medium, even as we break boundaries with the latest, greatest thing. We root for Valentin to pick up the pieces and start again in a new industry, because despite the fact that so much crap is somehow distributed these days, we know that hope wouldn’t be lost for the movies. It is still an artistic medium, and despite the changes that will always take hold, there is always room for each generation’s George Valentin.

Alas, the movies change with life itself, but the message remains the same. Some make us laugh, others make us cry, some may even make us think. Ones like The Artist simply try to remind us how lucky we are. Film has become so imprinted in our society, we often forget how far the history goes, and how much it has influenced our lives over the decades. The Artist accomplishes its mission by doing something movies have done for ages – making us cheer, bringing us happiness, and perhaps, helping us leave the theater just a little more enlightened. This is a movie that not only worships the artists who inspired it, but also each one of you; those who sit spellbound in the audience. Those of you who will always buy a ticket, despite the high prices and rude theater guests. Those of you who will never give up on the movies.

3 Films I (Almost) Missed

As awards season approaches, I always feel a substantial amount of pressure to see anything that could possibly get recognition, as well as those great films that are too “cool” for Oscar attention. Therefore, considering I’m home from school and on winter break, it’s basically time for my film buff friends and me to binge on all the movies we missed throughout the year. I wish I could write full-length reviews for every one, but time constrains me to simply writing capsules for the ones that aren’t currently in theaters. Plus, that keeps the site looking timely, considering I’m eager to check out The Artist, The Descendents, and War Horse in theaters very soon. Those will certainly earn lengthy reviews. But in the meantime, here’s a few films I recently caught on video.

 

1. The Help (December 6, 2011)     4/5

Written & Directed by Tate Taylor (Touchstone Pictures)

Though perhaps a little softer on the issues than it should be, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the 2009 novel by author Kathryn Stockett is an undeniably good film, funny and moving, heartbreaking and uplifting – all within a 146-minute running time that never feels a minute too long. Give credit to sensational actress Emma Stone for playing the brave character of “Skeeter” Phelan, an ambitious, young woman who decides to write a book of true tales from the point-of-view of the “the help,” the black women who serve the ungrateful whites of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. And despite the urge of Hollywood to relentlessly stereotype, we never get into that dumbed down, Blind Side state of mind. Instead, we witness a terrifically staged triumph over adversity, via the written word. And with a cast also consisting of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen, this is one of the best-acted, female-driven films in a long time. The Help has quite a big heart, an aspect the Oscars surely have no problem with.

 

2. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (December 13, 2011)     3.5/5

    Directed by Tsui Hark (Huayi Brothers)

This is what a Chinese blockbuster looks like, and no, that does not mean the CGI isn’t average. But despite the not-on-the-American-level special effects in Detective Dee, this is quite a fun movie, one that many critics argue is far better than our equivalent – the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Sherlock Holmes. The basic story here involves that infamous detective (played by Andy Lau) being brought out of prison to help future Empress Wu Zetian, a woman of questionable intent whose inauguration may soon be delayed. Why? Well, a few semi-important men have recently burst into flame. And yes, I do mean spontaneous combustion. No one said Detective Dee wasn’t ridiculous, and for that, I respect how true it is to its own nature. In addition, we get a cool detective story, spectacular action scenes, and tragic romance. Themes of loyalty, political corruption, and honor also abound. This is not on par with the Chinese masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nor Japan’s Seven Samurai homage of this year, 13 Assassins, but it is humorous, entertaining, and even touching. The setting, circa China in 690 AD, is also subject to amazing production design, so intricate that you cannot help but buy into the escapism Detective Dee has to offer.

 

3. Drive (January 31, 2011*)     5/5

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (FilmDistrict)

In 2011, there is no other film that I have wanted to see a second time more than Drive, other than The Tree of Life, perhaps. The fact is, Nicolas Winding Refn’s adaptation of the 2005 James Sallis novel is so damn awesome, that it basically defies everything we know about what makes for a great film. The story is miraculously simple – a guy played by Ryan Gosling works in an LA garage by day (and does some movie stuntwork) and at night, serves the criminal underworld as a getaway driver. His rules for employment are cold and calculated, much like his personality. Even when he begins to fall for a pretty neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan, he still rarely says a word. And that’s about as much as I want to say about the plot of Drive, considering any further detail will completely ruin the film, as does the unspeakably misleading trailer. This is not Fast Five, but a slow, brooding character study that erupts in a frenzy of graphic violence.

The unnamed Driver rarely says much. And despite the fact that he’s Ryan Gosling, he’s barely even likeable. But that doesn’t matter. The screenplay by Iranian writer Hossein Amini ignores the Tarantino-esque dialogue that so often plagues indie crime movies, and instead settles for a sort of dream-like, poetic silence. The Driver, although his thoughts are not always clear, becomes sort of a Travis Bickle-like hero in this stylish, neo-noir action masterpiece. It’s arthouse fare unlike any you will see in a long time, set to the chilling electronic score of frequent Soderbergh-collaborator Cliff Martinez. Albert Brooks even plays a villain! But most importantly, Drive teaches us that the story isn’t always as important as how you tell it. In a sad movie about violence, loneliness, and an almost strange quest to become humane, we never cease to cheer for Gosling as he chews up and spits out the bad guys. In Refn’s film, driving may or may not be presented as a metaphor for life itself, and we know we’re getting the real deal. Because as The Driver sure as hell drives, we surely wonder with glee – what exactly does it all mean?

*Unfortunately, Drive is not yet available on DVD and Blu-ray. Luckily, I was able to see the film online from an unnamed source 🙂

   

Embracing the Cold (Without the Embrace)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (December 21, 2011)     3.5/5

Directed by David Fincher (Columbia Pictures)

Allow me to begin by saying I have not read the bestselling, 2008 novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, nor viewed the 2009 screen adaptation. Now I wish I had done both. David Fincher’s American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a terrifically chilling, cinematic vision of the taboo crime story, yet I unfortunately do not have the background to determine the justice Fincher, along with screenwriter Steve Zailian, have given the characters and tone that Larsson penned years earlier. When reviewing film adaptations, I usually try to seperate the book and movie by judging them as individual creative works, while still determining whether the film has used the substance within the book usefully. But since I have not read Larsson’s novel, this is both easier and harder to do. Easier because I have no choice but to see Fincher’s film as a singular work, but more difficult because I can only speculate as to how the filmmakers morphed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into their own vision.

Being familiar with David Fincher’s work, especially what are likely his greatest films, Fight Club and The Social Network, certainly helps. Because as I sat watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I couldn’t help but think Fincher muted elements of Larsson’s story in order to create something so cold and depraved, that it lacked life where it should have soared. There certainly is meaning here, but it is buried underneath layers of Fincher ambiguity. This makes for one of the director’s weaker films, but does not go as far as to deplete the pulpy excellence of Stieg Larsson’s story. Even when it lies dead on the screen, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is simply fascinating.

Without revealing too many strands of extremely dense plotting, the basic set-up involves Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a magazine writer who has recently lost a very detrimental (and publicly debated) libel case. He is soon hired by ill industry CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve a murder that dates back over 30 years, and that has haunted his family and business ever since. Meanwhile, the “girl” herself, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), is the hacker/researcher who performed the background check on Blomkvist for Vanger’s assistant. Upon learning this, Blomkvist hires Salander to help him solve the case, and as the two dive deeper into their own sadistic world, Blomkvist becomes a sort of friend/lover to the tattooed woman.

Although by no means groundbreaking in its content, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo displays graphic rape, torture, sex, and violence without blinking an eye. This approach manifests the film as the gritty descent into darkness that it is, although not without flaw. Although I’m sure all the subplots within the 600-page plus novel do not remain within Fincher’s adaptation, there are many layers of plot that overlay each other, as they often do within Fincher films. This does arouse some confusion, as well as weaken some of the references to Nazism and Antisemitism that make the crime so interesting. Technically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a well-made concoction, if only the editing did not frequently cut us out of both the action and conversations we hope to focus on. The cinematography, however, is fairly accomplished, the drained color (used to perfection in The Social Network) utilizing the winter landscapes quite well.

Yet the heart of the film (if there really is any in this grim tale) lies in Rooney Mara’s Oscar-worthy performance as Lisbeth Salander. After breaking up with Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Mara successfully transforms herself into the goth-biker chick we know and love; one with a strong mind, body, and willingness to be “different.” Her cold execution is only offset by how awesomely she accomplishes her goals, especially after being abused by the men who frequently hate and misunderstand her gender. But she is tough; she can take the pain because she is the pinnacle of womanly strength. It is only near the end of the film that she begins to believe there is some goodness in the world reserved for her. Or, well … maybe not. You see, this change in attitude also separates Salander further from the reality she and Blomkvist have just explored. One gets the idea that she would never make that mistake again.

The characters of Blomkvist and Vanger, however, appear to be the “normal” ones. Blomkvist, being a relatively ordinary member of society (in contrast to Salander) is not experiencing the formations of friendship for the first time, and is instead left only with the darkness surrounding him in this cold, cold word. But he does have a job, daughter, and co-worker who he may love (Robin Wright). Therefore, he does not appear to change very much at all during the course of the film, other than in his appreciation of what he had before the case began. But the problem for me lies in the fact that I kept asking myself whether his character should have any development. Craig’s presence carries a necessary intensity to the role, but there is little about Blomkvist that is likeable. Although he may not be designed as a “heroic” character by any means, his lack of personality and non-reaction to the events around him do little to make us care about what is happening. It also arouses the question of what Salander could possibly see in him, other than the fact that she wants to shield him from the abuse of the world that has so deeply affected her. Blomkvist appreciates and responds to her affections, and the two do carry an odd sort of chemistry. But in the end, Fincher’s interpretation of Larsson’s protagonist makes Blomkvist the weakest link in more ways than one. At a later point, Salander will feel betrayed, now interpreting Blomkvist in the same way she has for all men. And why shouldn’t she? Sometimes, it appears as though her heart is the only one beating.

In fact, everything about Fincher’s stylish thriller is so devoid of passion that the story almost becomes secondhand to the relentlessly cold tone. Although it remains as interesting as ever, there is clear lack of excitement in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even during the plot twists. But sometimes, it accomplishes exactly what it should. And that is giving us a compelling look at the mundane world of crime, that sometimes sickens, and at other times thrills exceedingly. If only those moments could sustain the whole film.

What does is Rooney Mara, who so perfectly embodies a character already established in pop culture. Another high point – the creepy, careening, electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as an amazingly cool, animated opening credits sequence. Equally amazing, at almost two hours and 40 minutes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does not seem like a slog at all. It is obviously a long film, but is paced well enough to maintain interest even when it deprives itself of the fascinatingly layered material it has to work from. In terms of style and structure, it’s pure David Fincher. Well, sort of. The director doesn’t really display the brilliance we’re used to seeing, which may be his way of making clear that this is not his own story. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that somehow the filmmaker trapped everything within his own hands, rather than distributing it where it should belong – amongst the characters. It’s his style, but it weakens the brilliance of what I believe to be the source material. It doesn’t do this by manipulating the depth of Larsson’s story, which is still tremendously entertaining, but by simply breezing over the details, instead of letting us linger upon them. But as I said earlier, a lot of this is speculation. Yet I am confident that I can judge Fincher’s film as a work of its own, and on that front, it was definitely a good effort. If only we had less of a cinematic exercise, and more of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


The Invention of Magic

Hugo (November 23, 2011)     5/5

Directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount Pictures)

Once upon a time, a boy looked outside the windows of his city home, and stared in awe upon the wonders of Little Italy. He was fascinated by how it worked, what processes shaped the happenings he was able to observe from his viewpoint, safe behind a sheet of glass. It was like a dream. This is what young Martin Scorsese would also observe in the movies, a medium that would transfer the magic he saw around him and project it onto a different kind of screen. Hugo, the veteran director’s attempt at a family-friendly adventure, may be his best film in a very long time, a 3D, sensory experience that captures that magic and implants it straight into our hearts.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) also looks out upon the world around him, but is enamored by the bright lights of Paris, rather than New York City. Circa 1931, Hugo lives life in fascination of “how things work,” a passion that only became stronger when Hugo’s father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, died in a museum fire. The boy, who was taken as an apprentice by his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone), now spends his days in between the walls of a Paris train station, caring for the clocks each day (as well as stealing food from bakers within the station), all while trying to dodge capture by Inspecter Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), a railway patrolman who’s favorite activity is to round up orphans like our hero. Hugo lives this way because his uncle has disappeared, but also lives with the hope that he will not get rounded up by the orphanage, so long as the clocks run on time each day.

Meanwhile, the lonely boy works on a dream project that he and his father never finished – the repair a broken automaton, a small, mechanical man that when fully working, will be able to physically write with a pen. The only problem is that Hugo is missing something – a heart-shaped key that is meant to be inserted into the metal man’s back. Soon, Hugo meets another orphan, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Mortez), who may have the solution. Not only that, but her godfather (Ben Kingsley) is a man who Hugo frequently steals spare parts from, a toy shop owner in the station. Neither knows that Georges Melies was once one of the great filmmakers, or that the love Hugo’s father had for the movies was inspired by the man who basically invented onscreen imagination.

The film, based on the children’s novel by Brian Selznick, will appeal to kids, adults, and movie-lovers alike. Scorsese uses 3D to accentuate so much detail, making Paris come alive in much the same way as James Cameron made Pandora come alive. It is truly one of the best uses of the medium, especially when in the film’s third act, we are shown much footage from the birth of cinema, Scorsese proving that the original reaction to moving images can remain the same for us today. Astonishment is not yet dead. But Scorsese remains a traditionalist. Hugo features many of his signature tracking shots, continually displaying seamless imagery of a world where so much is happening, yet placing our focus and emotions in the characters we are meant to connect with. Butterfield and Mortez are terrific as the two leads, portraying loneliness and eagerness for adventure in ways that only children can.

The heartbroken Melies is also played to perfection by Ben Kingsley, who shows us a wounded man who can only be healed by the wonder these kids are just now experiencing. Also wounded (literally) is Sacha Baron Cohen’s inspecter, who hilariously steals each scene he’s in. But of course, we soon learn that his ruthlessness was inspired by hurt, and he becomes as human as our protagonist. I found Inspecter Gustav to be very similar to Gaston Modot’s gamekeeper character in Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. And in clear contrast to how World War II was used to signify the end of paralyzing, upper class French society in that film, Scorsese uses World War I in this film to convey the sad end of a time when invention spurred freeflowing imagination. However, it wouldn’t end for good. Because as indicated by the growth of film into a way of life, there were plenty of boys like Hugo in 1931, inspired to take the reigns of the lucid dreams we so heartily watch again and again.

Although there is not a considerably high body count in Hugo, this is the same type of movie Scorsese has always made. In the tradition of his possibly greatest film, Raging Bull, the director utilizes the latest technology to shape a film of classical pretense. Here, he is obviously inspired by French cinema, crafting quite a poetic piece of work. And that is just the point. In the film, Hugo does the same, re-enacting that famous scene with Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, upon seeing it in the theater not too long before. The colorful, neo-classical feel is also similar to many of Scorsese’s recent films, most clearly to The Aviator, a movie that was also about the process of filmmaking, among many other things. And although the second half of Hugo may be a little too direct in its approach for conveying the importance of film preservation, it fits nicely into the fanciful style that Scorsese has set for the entire film. It also couldn’t be more correct. The final scenes will bring tears to your eyes, accompanied by Howard Shore’s sweeping score – the best I’ve heard this year.

As Hugo states – “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” I hope that with the many children watching movies today, a good portion will fall in love with the cinematic perfection mastered by ones like Hugo. Some will find their purpose in any number of professions, but others, like myself, will always be drawn to the one where dreams are made, and in both Hugo and Scorsese’s case, the one you didn’t realize was on the other side of the window.

It is both clever and magical how each beloved character in Hugo finds a purpose. But most importantly, it is about how important it is to maintain that purpose. Scorsese has done so not only in his undying dedication to film preservation, but also in the ones he continues to make. Because with the movies around, sometimes loneliness can begin to heal. In films, we are not only presented with incredible adventures, but also things that can change our perspective, the way we think and feel, or even the purpose we have in our lives. Yet it takes our own initiative to reach the potential of the ideas that can sometimes be sparked, not only in the movies, but all around us. The key is heart-shaped for a reason.

Sooo … How Much Longer?

The Dark Knight Rises – IMAX Prologue (December 18, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Christopher Nolan

It is hard to believe how the prologue to Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, could be any less of a visceral thrill. We open with the first six minutes of the film, bookmarked by a glimpse of unseen clips, including those of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and moments of riot-like action on Gotham’s streets. The prologue is played before specified screenings of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in IMAX, and utilizes the format more thrillingly than I have ever seen, other than the feature film it precedes (see below). Most of the sequence takes place in the air, and it is surely a mindblowing, sensory experience, only made more exciting as the first chords of Hans Zimmer’s familiar score begin to blast in the final seconds.

Like The Dark Knight‘s opening sequence, what we have is a suspenseful, undeniably intense action scene, although this one is arguably on a much larger scale (the other was a bank robbery). And like Heath Ledger’s Joker was revealed, we also get our first extended moments with Tom Hardy’s Bane. He obviously looks great; sinister and compelling in equal measure. Only one problem – you can’t understand nearly anything he says. Hardy has a heavy British accent, and when it is altered by the weird mask-thing Bane wears, it’s nearly incomprehensible. But luckily, we do catch a few badass lines. When Bane is asked if he would die without his mask, the villain responds – “It would be extremely painful … for you.” Due to critical reaction, I think Nolan plans to revise Bane’s “dialect” in post-production. I mean, that thing needs ADR to the max. If you saw the prologue and want to understand Bane’s dialogue, or have not witnessed the scene and eagerly want somebody to spoil it for you, I found the script for the prologue online, on What Would Tyler Durden Do? – the link is directly below.

http://www.wwtdd.com/enlargedimage/?back_to=/2011/12/script-pages-from-the-dark-knight-rises-have-leaked/dkrs_1/&postid=948022

Sound issues aside, Nolan has simply crafted a triumph of the IMAX format, his larger-than-life, Hollywood filmmaking trumping 3D any day. Although what Nolan wanted to showcase was the nature of how he shot such scenes, he has also succeeded in making us want a lot more. July 20 couldn’t come soon enough.

Acrophobes Beware

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (December 18, 2011 – IMAX Release)     3.5/5

Directed by Brad Bird (Paramount Pictures)

After witnessing “the impossible” three times, now over a span of 15 years, it would appear time for a breath of fresh air to hit the Tom Cruise-driven action franchise. Based on the television series, the original 1996 thriller was so utterly Brian De Palma, using canted angles, Hitchcockian suspense, and a complex narrative to drive home an iconic blockbuster. Although some critics disagree about De Palma’s film, there was pretty much a consensus that John Woo’s 2000 sequel was quite weaker, utilizing a clumsy script in conjunction with the spectacular action sequences the director is known for. Leave J.J. Abrams to reinvigorate the franchise with M:i-3 in 2006, in a darker, action-heavy sequel with narrative twists and Tom Cruise tears galore. This time, Pixar director Brad Bird makes his live-action debut with Ghost Protocol (still produced by Abrams), a decidedly lighthearted take on the series, packed with some of the most elaborate, jaw-dropping action sequences in recent memory. If there is one reason for an IMAX screen to exist, it has been proven through these two hours and ten minutes.

The film opens as superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is rescued from a Russian prison by a few Impossible Mission Force (IMF) field agents, including Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, reprising his role from the third film) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton).  He is soon roped into a mission involving the theft of nuclear activation codes by Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a typical villain who wants to start the next world war. Events soon lead to the “disavowment” of the IMF, leaving the agents completely on their own. Let’s be clear – this is a film to be seen in IMAX. Using those special cameras for select scenes, Bird captures the destruction of the Kremlin, as well as a scene where Hunt must climb the tallest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This is one of the most astonishing sequences I have seen in an action film, suspenseful not only for how immersive and real that imagery manages to appear onscreen, but also how it provides the illusion that you are Tom Cruise, with one major difference. As audience members, we don’t have infinite courage – and every second our hero remains in the air, we have the intense fear of him falling off into the grimy air, like a fly from a wall. Thrilling cannot even describe it.

As for the other aspects of Ghost Protocol, it is almost so well-made that you forget what it lacks. Bird, although not accustomed to using actual cameras to convey his intentions, displays the aesthetics of film that only an animated director could know. He has a natural knack for perception of depth and space, as well as reflectivity and visual flair. The movie moves at quite a clip, accomplished through succinct editing by frequent De Palma collaborator Paul Hirsch. Maybe that is how Ghost Protocol, despite its distinctively modern vibe, captures some that original, suave style. Cinematography by veteran Robert Elswit, who recently framed action films Salt and The Town, also helps considerably.

What doesn’t are the components of Ghost Protocol that never cease to tease us. M:i-3 was surprisingly emotional, and Bird’s film takes a clear stance not to replicate that human intensity, and instead establishes its thrills through the awe-inspiring moments we witness onscreen. I respect this decision, considering Bird’s attempt to reinvent a franchise that may soon run very dry. What remains is simply an adventure story. This is not a bad thing, but it does take away some of fundamentals that define what Mission: Impossible is. The suspense is certainly there, but Ghost Protocol lacks the narrative twists (especially in its climax), that could have made the movie outstanding. The plot is pretty ho-hum, not offering a particularly complex, relevant, or original story. However, considering how fast Ghost Protocol moves (even considering its lengthy runtime), it is executed quite well, so much so that upon a first viewing, it might even seem confusing. Luckily there is enough to Ghost Protocol that it is worth seeing multiple times, even on a small screen.

I very much appreciated that backstories were developed for the IMF team members, something that the previous films have lacked. And although they may seem underwritten, simply the fact that they are there adds a level of prestige to the narrative. Jeremy Renner, who plays an IMF analyst who soon joins the team, is a groovy presence to have, despite the fact that I found his performance rather lazy. Even more dull is Paula Patton, who simply seems miscast. I also wish Nyqvist’s character provided a more compelling villain, but how can he when there is so little interaction with Cruise, besides hand-to-hand combat? Tom, meanwhile, is as confident as ever, whether he’s reciting the dialogue by Alias writers Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum or doing his own stunts. Simon Pegg is also a comedic wonder, although I sometimes believe his persona is best used in small doses. There is an ongoing joke where Pegg claims that he would really like to snag one of the life-like masks that so often provide shocking moments in the Mission: Impossible movies. I kept on waiting for Pegg to pull off one of those masks, thus providing a supercool plot twist. That moment, however cliche it would seem, would have truly satisfied me. Not to spoil anything, but masks provide little significance to the plot of Ghost Protocol. Slightly disappointing, yes, but as mentioned earlier – this is not your older brother’s Mission: Impossible. It is a slight reinvention, and for what it does offer, Ghost Protocol is beyond entertaining.

A main theme of the film is the thrill of accomplishment, especially when the odds are against you. There are absolutely no moments inside the IMF agency in the film, and for good reason. This is Bird’s attempt to craft an action-adventure outside the parameters of what we’ve come to expect from Mission: Impossible, and for that, he has experienced the thrill himself. But more importantly, he has accomplished the impossible for the fourth time. Because for better or worse, Ghost Protocol is Mission: Impossible without the mask. Hanging in the air by a thread, but still with the confidence to follow through. Thus said, it is a film driven by moments. Luckily, these are arguably the year’s most adrenaline-pumping.