“Hugo”: A family/kids’ movie from Martin Scorsese, without Joe Pesci clamping a mobster’s head in a vise. Frankly, I’m startled by the critical adoration, and the awards it has already racked up. The old master does one of the better jobs with 3-D, the film is adequately lit, (a chronic problem with other, cheaply done 3-D films), and the 3-D works remarkably well in adding depth and “immersion” to routine dialogue scenes, to the point you feel you’re watching a stage play. But let’s face it, when a guy like Scorsese goes “family” chances are he’ll over-play the goo, which he does through most of the scenes with his child actors. Where the film pays off — and what no doubt delights critics — is the final hour, where we get a beautiful, lovely, heartfelt (and credibly accurate) visit to the studio and career of French film pioneer Georges Melies … whose ground-breaking films were colored-tinted, frame by frame.
“My Week with Marilyn”: Other than playing a character with some severe physical or mental handicap, few devices draw critical approval more than biographies of misunderstood, doomed sexpots. Michelle Williams is all in as breathy, (passing into her thirty-something) sex kitten Marilyn Monroe. But as engaging as the conceit is — a plucky gofer on the set of a Laurence Olivier-directed comic trifle gets close enough to skinny dip with the most famous woman in the world, (again, mostly a true story we’re told to believe) — we have an opportunity to understand more of the grooming and positioning and sell of “stardom” than we get. The contrast between the master thespian Olivier, (well-played by Kenneth Branagh) and the pop idol would seem to offer wonderful opportunities for exploring the contrasts between rigorously developed talent and commoditized appeal. But the scenes on the British film set are entertaining.
“Shame”: Given the astonishing proliferation of and access to pornography in our modern cyber culture, I’m continually amazed that we see so few studies examining its effect on culture. If the nuns thought you’d go blind peeking at pictures of Marilyn Monroe on purple satin sheets, what sort of moral apocalypse would they foresee in a culture where any school child can dial up “Hot Teen Anal Action”? In this sleek and sophisticated film, the title character’s life is a study in sexual compulsion, to the point where you wonder how he stays employed. Left unsaid is what he and his very troubled sister, played by Carey Mulligan, experienced as children. But what we see is our modern cornucopia of sexual imagery and sexual availability laid out in a way that is simultaneously arousing and appalling. A wordless scene between Michael Fassbender, the lead character, and an attractive woman on the subway is an example of the director’s talent with situation, composition, editing and sound.
“The Artist”: Here we have this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire”, the little movie people who go to very few movies will make a point to go out and see. I make it an early favorite for Best Picture. And it is charming as all get out. Silent (mostly) and in black and white, it is an irony free voyage back into a lost, but warmly recollected era. The film is also beautiful constructed and composed, with a constant play of clever, witty visual homages and jokes.
“Melancholia”: The Danish director Lars von Trier has earned a reputation as one of the least agreeable characters in the business. His game plays heavily on disturbing his audience with generally unpleasant emotions. In this case, depression and the end of the world. The appearance of a planet on a collision course with earth is offered as a parable for an emotionally damaged young bride who expects little good to come of life, despite her wedding on a handsome estate owned by her wealthy brother-in-law. In his indulgent way von Trier understands enough about story-telling and pacing to not only hold your attention but build suspense, existential suspense you might say. I found it very compelling and it hung with me for days.
“The Descendants”: Alexander Payne is one my favorite directors. Although not of the technical caliber of David Fincher or Christopher Nolan or Terrence Malick, Payne has a keener sense of the American zeitgeist than most others in commercial Hollywood, and he exploits that sense with a near pitch-perfect amalgamation of pathos, corruption and comedy … a.k.a. American life as we know it. George Clooney does a terrific job in the lead role and Shailene Woodley is terrific as his too smart for her years teenage daughter.
“The Skin I Live In”: No one … no one … makes movies like Pedro Almodovar. This guy has a truly wonderful, twisted imagination. Better, his kinky, pulpy tales have a tangible touch of morality tale/fable, bolstered by an art connoisseur’s love of form and color. In this case a gifted plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) reconstructs the wife he lost in a fiery car crash, developing a new fire-proof but still sensuous skin along the way. But who exactly is the beautiful Frankenstein-monster he has imprisoned in his fabulous Toledan villa? Film lovers who haven’t caught on to Almodovar have a long binge weekend ahead of them when they finally connect with his completely unique interaction of pulpy, arty, morality-infused melodramas.