Triple Feature: Hugo, Muppets, and a Zoo

November 27, 2011

Since I have to grade papers (and bake some cookies) today, I decided to indulge myself yesterday with a triple feature.  Doubles are not that unusual, but triples are a rare treat.


Hugo is a wonderful movie for all of us who are film lovers from Martin Scorsese, a film lover and historian who happens also to be an exquisite filmmaker.

I’ve already heard from students in my Introduction to Film course this semester who saw the film with their parents and were thrilled to find out it’s about Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), whose iconic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon is something they saw the second week of class and have continually referred back to as an early example of formalism.

The story centers on a young boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who tends the clocks in a 1930s Paris train station after his father dies, but the narrative takes hold when Hugo discovers that the old man running a toy store in the station is really a once famous but by then forgotten magician and filmmaker.

I can pretty much guarantee that people who are passionate about the movies will love Hugo.  It is a bit of a valentine to the silent cinema, and I bought into the movie completely to the point that I got teary-eyed at least three times while watching.  It’s also one of the few films I can think of in which 3D is both used well and seems to enhance the film a bit, though I’m lukewarm on the technique in general.

I do have two story quibbles.  The first half of the film with its emphasis on clocks is a bit prolonged (remember, I’ve seldom seen a film that I think couldn’t have been improved by cutting ten minutes from the running time).  Also, there seems to be a missing scene involving the Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) character.  It is implied that he recognizes young Hugo’s name and later shows up at the station with just the right book for him that was, he says, intended for his godson but is given to Hugo.  There is a lot of set-up here for zero story payoff.  But, these are really quibbles about what is otherwise a beautiful film.

The Muppets

It’s cute.  Fans of The Muppets (in all incarnations) are sure to love it.  I enjoyed a few chuckles, but I was also reminded that I was never that much into the television show in the first place.

No hate mail, please.  After all, this is not a “maniacal laugh” but rather a tepid smile for a perfectly pleasant film that appeals more to other people than it does to me.

We Bought a Zoo 

The ads didn’t intrigue me so much as knowing that this is a Cameron Crowe picture.  For someone who has only seven narrative feature directing credits (and several music docs), Crowe casts an unusually long shadow.  Among them, Say Anything and Almost Famous are particular favorites of mine.

The most popular of his films is probably Jerry Maguire.  While I understood the appeal of that one, it always bothered me that a single mom would ditch a job with health insurance on a whim to follow a man who seemed so…well…feckless.

I know women do things like that, but I never could relate to Renee Zellweger as a mom after that rash decision.  Maybe it’s just me…a single mom of a young son, too, at the time the film came out.  And, besides, we all know that the eponymous character played by Tom Cruise would be back to his workaholic ways two weeks after the final scene of the film.

But, let’s get back to consideration of the movie at hand.  We Bought a Zoo is the story of a daredevil journalist who has to make life changes after his wife dies leaving him with a teenage son and a seven-year-old daughter to raise alone.  Under normal circumstances, buying a zoo would seem outlandish, but (in a situation apparently based on a real story involving the Mee family) everything unfolds believably in this film.

That may be because the emotional hurdles faced by father, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), and son, Dylan (Colin Ford), in particular, are written and performed with a high degree of authenticity.  It is the little moments of the film I like the most.  Along those lines, the relationship that begins to emerge between Benjamin and his zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) is perfectly rendered as is the parallel story developing between the Dylan and the zookeeper’s niece (Elle Fanning).

We Bought a Zoo is a perfect holiday film for the whole family.  It is polished with all the seriousness of the transitions the Mee family makes offset by funny supporting characters and lots of animal cutaway shots.  Maggie Elizabeth Jones steals nearly every scene she’s in as Rosie Mee, Elle Fanning proves once again how terrific she can be onscreen, Thomas Haden Church plays Benjamin’s accountant brother who is horrified by the purchase of the zoo, and there’s an assortment of other characters who spice things up throughout the film.

I have to note – given how attuned Crowe has always been to the music world (he began writing about music for major magazines as a high school student) – that I felt the soundtrack for the film was at times intrusive and just a little bit off.  But, most everything else is spot on in what should be a crowd-pleaser of a picture.



November 27, 2011

I said I’d see J. Edgar again and write about it, but I missed the moment to do that with the holidays and all.

So, a few words about a film I have been thinking about after only one viewing.  First of all, Clint Eastwood is on fire.  I can’t believe that he continues to make such interesting films at a time when most directors seem to lose creative oooooomph.  Yes, that is a technical term.

J. Edgar Hoover was a complex, driven, and incredibly powerful man who built an empire for himself at the FBI and used the resources of that empire to punish people who stood in his way or seemed disagreeable to him for a variety of reasons.  The film balances the public sweep of Hoover and his organization with an interiority of the man that feels authentic while the juxtaposition of public and private are almost enough to make a viewer’s head spin (in a good way, I think).

For me, J.Edgar does something remarkable in terms of point of view.  The film is an intimate character study that shows the audience glimpses into an enigmatic and deeply repressed man through some of the most important cultural and historical events of the last century.  In the end, though, it is those insights into the man and the early events that made him the man he became that stay with me and keep me engaged in J. Edgar.

One filmmaker I talked with about this movie lamented that Eastwood didn’t treat the relationship between Hoover and his longtime companion and co-worker Clyde Tolson more directly, but I disagree with the assessment.  The key to Eastwood’s Hoover is his repression, and that is encapsulated in the film by his mother and crystallized in the perfect scene in which she talks to her son of daffodils.  Not coincidentally, the daffodil talk follows a searing scene in which Tolson and Hoover confront the parameters of their relationship, a battle it appears Tolson wins in substance.

The film is a bit like a hall of mirrors, and this goes back to point of view.  We are seeing Hoover, to some extent, as he sees himself and presents himself, and this perspective is revealed to us as a perspective when Tolson calls Hoover on the dishonestly of his self-aggrandizement regarding Bureau investigations and arrests.  The audience revisits key scenes from the film from another perspective.

It seems to me that this is a fitting approach for this particular biopic, which is enhanced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Hoover and Armie Hammer’s turn as Tolson.  There is a lot to like about this film.

War Movies

November 18, 2011

Oops!  I meant to post this last Friday when it aired in Voices & Viewpoints.  In my defense, this time of the semester it’s hard for me to keep up with everything!

Veteran’s Day is a fitting time for us to talk about war movies and the way these films serve different cultural functions.  There are some great films to choose among; some of them celebrate valiant service while others question the enterprise of war. Today, I’ll stick with fictional narratives to make our discussion manageable and will focus mainly on the singular film that comes to mind for me when I hear the term “war movie.”

Where to begin?  Some war movies serve a historical function, and if you’ve never Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory, you should.  Glory is based on a true story in which a white Union officer leads the country’s first African American company of volunteer soldiers in a fateful mission during the Civil War.  It is profoundly moving.

Other films engage intellect more than emotion.  Stanley Kubrick’s thought-provoking 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove:  Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, satirizes the nuclear buildup during the cold war.

And, still other films expand our understanding of what constitutes a war movie.  Waltz With Bashir is an animated memoir of war.  This is a remarkable non-fiction film that presents an entirely new set of possibilities to viewers and filmmakers about how form and content can be melded into something startlingly fresh.

These are three terrific yet very different films, but the movie I inevitably think of first when I think of war movies is Platoon.  It moved me incredibly in 1986 when Platoon first appeared in theaters, and Oliver Stone’s academy award-winning film has remained one I count among my favorites because of the richness of the text.

It’s not just me.  After years of trying to forget about the Vietnam war or to at least avoid sustained public discourse about the film, Stone’s semi-autobiographical account of his own war experience opened the floodgates for other films about the controversial war.  As a collective, we needed to see this film or engage in some sort of larger discussion about Vietnam to start to heal as a culture and to move forward.

Platoon is a film that opens up that conversation on many different levels.  While it’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, especially his more recent films, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he and Spike Lee were two of the most accomplished writer-directors of the mid-1980s to the mid- 1990s.  Both of them have a distinct point of view, and the films of that era have remarkable staying power and cultural relevance.

What sets Platoon apart from other war films?  It’s a movie that works on many, many different levels.  In a literary sense, it’s a coming of age story with a narrator named Chris who is becoming a man under the most trying of circumstances that include two role models, sergeants Barnes and Elias who represent different poles of manhood.  Chris has dropped out of college to enlist in the war – something those drafted against their will do not understand – and the young outsider is trying to decide which of these officers to emulate as he matures.

That scenario is a classic tale of war and manhood, but this film offers so much more.  Despite the focus on the young protagonist who writes to his grandmother and tries to stay alive day-by-day, the film also establishes a collective social space, the actual platoon.  In this unit, we learn about divisions of race and social class and ideology.  For Stone, the enemy isn’t just the Vietnamese, it is the war itself and what it leads men to do, and sometimes it is an internal enemy that drives Chris to contemplate and even commit acts that would be unthinkable under other circumstances.  The film Platoon poses hard questions, and the filmmaker Oliver Stone does not insult his audience with easy answers.  He challenges the assumptions underlying the Vietnam War without scapegoating the individual men who fought it.

Platoon establishes a rich narrative and aesthetic terrain that is both epic and personal, both topical and timeless, both literary and cinematic.  It is a remarkable film…and Veterans Day is a perfect time to watch it once again…or for the first time.


November 15, 2011

I saw this Sunday afternoon…and plan a return trip to the theater.  Lots to take in…we’ll talk later.


November 14, 2011

Have to say that I enjoyed Being Elmo at last week’s special RiverRun screening.  It’s a charming doc with some moving moments and amazing archival materials.  Look for it later in theaters or at home on-demand or streaming because it will be good viewing for the entire family.

Still, the three docs I can’t get out of my mind this year (in no particular order) are Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Pom Wonderful Presents:  The Greatest Movie Every Sold.  I’m looking for those to make my top ten of the year list…


November 8, 2011

For me, this is a must see movie.  I saw it on Friday but continue to think about it intensely.

For the mass audience, Margin Call is probably not so much a must see movie because the film is an exercise in restrained storytelling in terms of dialogue and plot coupled with intensely calculated attention to form.

Forget Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, and Mary McDonnell – though there are some terrific performances here.

Cinematography is the star of Margin Call.

Film students could write compelling papers on the use of framing and focus alone.  Both are used to create aesthetically beautiful images that advance the story by creating spatial relationships emphasizing the primacy and isolation of the individual in the high-powered world of finance as it beings to spiral out of control.

Margin Call takes place over a 24-hour period (talk about Aristotelian unities) as the financial crash of 2008 is about to unfold.

If you know a thing or two about derivatives, you’ll appreciate the film on one level (and cringe as the flippant use of formulas to manipulate markets without considered concern for those affected), and if you haven’t followed the crisis and its genesis carefully at all, you’ll still get the gist of what is going on (greed guides these financiers, and that is not a good thing for the rest of us).

All of that is well and good, but I was utterly mesmerized by the images, lost in them sometimes from shot-to-shot, absorbing as much as I could before one image replaced another on the screen.

Margin Call is the type of film I admire more than love, but I admire it greatly for engaging all of my cinema senses, making me think carefully about the choices writer-director J.C. Chandor has made in crafting the film, and telling a different type of financial crash story.

Where Charles Ferguson’s award-winning documentary Inside Job (another terrific film) makes me think and makes me angry by indicting the system that allowed (encouraged!) the collapse, Margin Call makes me see people (clearly and in isolation because of the selective focus!) who are reckless and greedy and ambitious and, yes, selfish, but people nonetheless.

For all of the attention to the formal elements of filmmaking in Margin Call, Chandor confines his judgment of the assorted characters to that aesthetic realm.  The narrative elements leave those assessments to the viewer, and the film is stronger because of this approach – the explicitness of point-of-view in the cinematography is offset by the implicitness of the point-of-view in the story.

After all, we know these are “bad guys” and don’t have to be told so again and again by the filmmaker.  That sort of spot on storytelling would diminish the power of the film.

My friend, a business professor by training, emailed me weeks ago to see when I could go with him to see this film.  He was less than enthralled because (I think) he wanted more plot complications and (perhaps) more character development.

I maintain that the character development is there but implicit, wedged into the interstices of the story, and who needs a plot riddled with conventions constructed in the formulaic way when there are such formal beauties to behold as the elements that guide our understanding of the story.

After all, as I tell my students repeatedly, form and content are inextricably linked.



November 7, 2011

Thank you, Courtie Jaffe.  A week or so ago in my class Culture and the Sitcom, Courtie mentioned that she’s enjoying Man Up.

I admit, I didn’t keep up with it before Saturday.  There have been so many shows this season about men trying to figure out what defines manhood in contemporary culture, and I haven’t liked them very much!

Man Up (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30) covers some of the same territory but in a more interesting way with a group of men who have day jobs but still play video games together online in the evenings to let off steam.  I watched all three episodes on Saturday and think this series shows promise.

It’s sort of like Friends in the suburbs ten years after the series ends.  These men are struggling with transitions and relationships and work issues, and the characters are distinct and likeable because of their vulnerabilities and imperfections.

I’m going to give this show a chance.