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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review Round-Up: The Artist, Hugo, Shame, Young Adult....

Now is the time of year when studios release “Oscar” movies,  movies I missed in theaters come out on DVD, and I get a nice little break from work.  Needelss to say, I’ve recently seen a few 2011 releases.  Here are some thoughts on them.

In Theaters

The Artist

The Artist is a silent, black-and-white, French movie that is the crowd-pleaser of the year and probably the frontrunner for Best Picture.  I was thoroughly charmed by The Artist.   The story is about movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who spirals down with the advent of “talkies,” and the young ingénue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who finds her own star on the rise.  These two actors, prominent in their native France, could not be more well-suited to their roles.  Director Michel Havanicus stages the movie with limited dialogue cards, and the two stars have to portray so much with their faces and bodies.  They echo the greats of the past while at the same time feeling completely fresh.

 For a lover of film such as myself, The Artist has numerous points of reference that play not as steals but rather as loving echoes to great films of the past.  The story has clear hints of A Star is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, and Sunset Boulevard, while stylistic elements remind viewers of Citizen Kane, The Thin Man series (the adorable dog!!), and Fred and Ginger movies.  With all of this nostalgic look back, is there a message for us now?  I’m not quite sure, and I don’t quite think it has the depth of Far From Heaven (2002), where director Todd Haynes used the style of 1950s melodrama to both portray and comment upon that time period and our own.   A lark it may be, but it’s a delightful trip for movie buffs and casual viewers alike.

Grade: A-


Hugo is another movie that looks backward at silent film.  It’s not giving too much away to say that this story of  a young orphan in a Paris train station eventually expands to include a celebration of the advent of film.  Hugo comes to us from director Martin Scorsese, but this is certainly not the Mean Streets of gangsters, boxers, or taxi drivers.  Scorsese and his collaborators have created a movie that has to be one of the most gorgeously designed movies I’ve seen.  The train station is intricately detailed, the costumes are colorful and distinctive, and all of Paris feels pulled out of a storybook (as it was adapted from the wonderful young adult book The Adventures of Hugo Cabret). 

Hugo consists, more or less, or two halves.  One half shows us Hugo’s life in the train station, his meeting of a young friend, and his obsession with an “automaton” of his dead father’s.  The second half shifts our focus onto “Papa George,” an elderly man who runs a toy shop in the train station.  As the movie develops, the two stories intersect in ways that I won’t fully reveal here.  I think the movie is strongest in its first half hour or so, as we are brought into this gorgeous world, and in its second half, and the emotional heft of the film hits the viewer.   For what is a family movie, it feels a little overlong, and I think Scorsese could have cut about 15 minutes and made a tighter, stronger movie.  It’s a labor of love for Scorsese and, like The Artist, sure to be a hit for those who are emotional about the movies.

Grade: B+


Care to take a turn away from the nostalgia and sweetness of The Artist and Hugo?  Shame is most decidedly a movie about the way some people live now, trapped in money and gratification over relationships.  Michael Fassbender gives what I think is the performance of the year in this movie about a sex addict.  This movie, somewhat infamous for its NC-17 rating, is both fairly explicit and decidedly unsexy. 

Michael is a character who treats his whole life as an opportunity for sexual escape, and director Steve McQueen (no, not the 1970s star) does an excellent job of consuming us in his head as the movie opens.  The somewhat minimalist plot is primarily about Michael’s relationship with his sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, a similarly troubled person who comes to visit him.  Fassbender and Mulligan are absolutely fearless and riveting in their roles as damaged siblings.  I was also impressed by Nicole Beharie who plays a co-worker of Brandon’s who tries to have a normal romantic relationship with him.  The plot of this movie is not so different from addiction movies you’ve seen before, but what sets it apart is the supreme directorial control over the movie.  McQueen films scenes in long takes that immerse you in the experience, cause discomfort, and allow for reflection.  Easy to watch it’s not, but I think it’s one of the best movies of the year.

Grade: A

Young Adult

I was decidedly not a fan of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s annoying contrived Juno, so I went into this movie with low-to-moderate expectations.  I’m happy to say that it was easily one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a young-adult fiction ghostwriter who returns to her small Minnesota town to try to win back her high school boyfriend, who happens to be married with a  child.  Mavis does some truly terrible things in this movie, and I know her character turns some people off of the movie.  I couldn’t get enough of Charlize Theron’s brilliant performance.  She makes Mavis both hilarious and pathetic.  I also credit Diablo Cody with writing a script that doesn’t go for the easy notes or the tidy ending.  She pushes Mavis’ actions to their logical conclusion. 

Grade: A


A Better Life

Mexican actor Demian Bechir recently received a surprise Screen Actors Guild nomianation for this movie, and he is excellent.  He plays an illegal-immigrant gardener in L.A. who is struggling to make a better living for his teenage son, who is also being tempeted by the gang life.  If the story sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it feels that way as you are watching it too.  While Bechir was very strong in the lead role, the whole movie felt overly familiar, like a TV-movie I’ve seen before.

Grade: C+

Crazy, Stupid, Love

In a landscape of romantic comedies which I usually avoid at all costs, this movie came as a pleasant surprise.   I can’t remember the last rom-com I saw where I didn’t anticipate every plot twist, and this time I didn’t.  The movie takes it’s time looking at it’s central 4 characters, played by Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone.  With a cast like that, we expect some great acting moments, and the foursome delivered.  I especially liked the interactions between Ryan Gosling, as a young lothario, and Emma Stone, as a more reserved young lawyer. These two actors are obviously two stars on the rise, and it is fun to watch them together.  I was less impressed at the subplot involving Carrell and Moore’s teenage son and the babysitter, and the movie doesn’t entirely steer clear of clichés.  All in all, though, a fun, light movie with some really good performances.

Grade: B

Margin Call

Sporting a prominent cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Demi Moore, this is a fictional movie detailing the fall of a Lehman Brotherseque financial firm.  I liked the way the movie is tightly focused and takes place all in several hours.  It gives viewers a good sense of what is might have felt like when everything fell apart.  I appreciated it more on an intellectual level, however, than an emotional one.  This movie has been winning a lot of best first director prizes, rather surprisingly , over Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I don’t quite see the enthusiasm.

 Grade: B

Meek’s Cutoff

The third feature from director Kelly Reichart, who made Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy.  This movie travels far back in time to look at pioneers traversing the arid terrain through Oregon.  I loved the way this movie deconstructs the whole Western genre.  There are fights here, but they are over hushed campfires and not done on horseback.  There is “Cowboy-Indian” drama, but it is mysterious and fraught with anxiety rather than moral certitude.  Michelle Williams has the lead role as the most independent of the travelers, and Bruce Greenwood is ominous as the unhinged Meek, who is leading the group.  It’s sense of foreboding and ambivalence is a little unsettling to watch, but this is a movie that has stayed with me.   

Grade: B+


  1. Hello Ben,

    I work with Emily. She told me about your blog yesterday. It's great and I might be coming to the site more often to check out your reviews. Though I usually ask Emily for them on Mondays.

    I like your picks, (though I did not love Tree of life) but I can't believe you gave King's Speech a B+. Just wrong. I know I am biased by my love for Colin Firth, but it should have been at least an A-.

    Have fun tomorrow. I'll be checking it out while the Oscars are on.


  2. Thanks for following! Emily has told me about her movie conversations at work with you! What are you pulling for this year?