Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for January, 2012

Hugo – short for huge letdown

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2012

Hugo’s ratings at Rotten Tomato—94% for the critics, but only 83% for audiences—is the first clue that all is not well inside this giant clockwork of a movie.

Look inside, and you’ll see a lots of gears that need oil—David Edelstein’s review for New York Magazine, for example, is counted as favorable, but to read it is to find more green splattered on the page than red. He concludes it by noting that Hugo tells his young friend Isabelle that

machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.

That hints at what Joe Morgenstern says directly, over at The Wall Street Journal:

thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.

That’s it exactly. The movie’s dialogue is so entirely on the nose, from beginning to end—as if it isn’t enough have Hugo explicitly say that people are machines and need to have a function, and he says it several times—with Isabelle finally replying, gee, maybe that’s what’s wrong with my dad. Doh! Marty, we got the point an hour ago when you made an automaton a central character in the movie.

Even the 3-D didn’t work for me. As it was supposed to, the effect heightened the distance between them when one person was closer to the audience than another, but the people themselves, especially the front person, looked like a cardboard cutout—two dimensional, in other words. And throughout, the 3-D was just plain distracting.

Then there’s the matter of the movie’s tutorials on the history of cinema. I can think of no one I would rather hear lecture on the subject than Martin Scorsese—and if he would deign to teach us, a thousand at a time in a big lecture hall at NYU for twelve bucks a night, sign me up for all of them. But I didn’t take the subway in the other direction to a theatre in the middle of Queens to watch Marty at his most didactic, channeled through the character of Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). You know that public service commercial that Scorsese does for film preservation? That’s most of the third-act plot in Hugo.

Finally, speaking of film school—Screenwriting 101 isn’t too early to learn a handy little rule of thumb: The protagonist has to resolve the biggest conflict—the crisis—by his own actions. James Bond can’t just sit there enchained by Blofield until Felix Leiter comes to rescue him, he has to escape by his own devices. But Hugo’s final salvation—I’m not really giving anything away, because it’s inconceivable that this movie not have a happy ending—comes as he stands hopelessly in the middle of the train station until Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) saves him.

I have no doubt that Hugo will enter the pantheon of great films, as The Departed did. If only the Academy had given Gangs of New York the Best Director title it arguably deserved, we wouldn’t have to keep rewarding Scorsese for the disappointing movies that have followed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (94%/83%)

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2947-eH

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We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

Posted by metaphorical on 15 January 2012

The opening scene of We Need to Talk About Kevin involve a bizarre giant mosh pit filled with buckets and buckets, barrels worth, of tomato sauce. It goes on and on. The viewer becomes impatient. Still, it continues.

When the scene finally ends, it gives way to not one, but a series of flashes of very different scenes, none long enough to make any real sense. Eventually, like a child being disciplined, it becomes clear that you need to sit still and take it. You’re not going to get any quick or clear explanations. You settle in for the long haul. You hope the payoff will be worth it. It is.

Tilda Swinton is just extraordinary, in a role that can’t have seemed even possible to play when reading the script. She’s the mother of a teenage boy who has done about the worst thing a teenage boy can do.

The other performers, notably Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller as the child and teenage Kevin, are exceptional as well. John C. Reilly is also excellent, but we don’t see as much of him, though it’s hard to know whether, or how much, that contributes to what finally happens.

The movie has no easy answers, no answers at all in fact, for questions that almost surely have no answer. How much discipline? How much love? How much is nature, and how much nurture? Can a boy be born bad? Can people living in the same household live in different realities?

Instead, it spends its time exploring these people, giving substance to things that can ordinarily only be talked about and never embodied—this particular boy, this particular mother, these other family members, and those other mothers, whose children were the victims of this particularly horrific event.

There is nothing wasted, nothing extraneous, in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Events unfold in three chronologies, shuffled like decks of cards (once the three stories sort themselves out, you’re never confused about which you’re watching): Kevin and his mom, from his birth onward; mom, and eventually Kevin, on the horrific day; and mom, and eventually Kevin, in the frozen, undead days and months that followed.

Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of a woman dragging herself through one day after another, in the shell of her former self, has to be seen to be believed. This story needs to be seen, not to be believed—nothing can make the unbelievable believable—but because it at least makes it it seeable. Few movies try something this hard. A very rare fewer still, succeed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (82%/86%)

Short link: http://wp.me/p2947-er

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The Big Heat: Fritz Lang’s Serpico

Posted by metaphorical on 11 January 2012

Straight-as-an-arrow police sergeant Dave Bannion has no truck with the corruption that surrounds him, until he finally has to team up with kept woman Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) to solve a crime and extract revenge.

The Big Heat, 1953

Police sergeant Glenn Ford is tough as nails, but has a heart of gold. Gloria Grahame is a kept woman, but has a heart of gold. Everyone else is a crook and a louse, except for the woman who works at the auto repair shop, and you can tell she’s a good egg because she walks with a cane.

The plot of The Big Heat is a straight line from the first scene to the end, with a single I-can’t-believe-they-did-that moment in the middle that’s telegraphed so thoroughly the they should save their money and put a first class stamp on it.

Still, even on an off day Fritz Lang can create eye candy out of nothing but lighting and camera angles. If you want to see Gloria Grahame when she has some real material to work with, go straight to In a Lonely Place. As for the other principal, he’s quite good here, but has there ever been a truly great Glenn Ford movie?

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