Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

It's not my birthday until January 3rd but because I am home for the holidays now, I got my birthday cake now, which, I think you can agree, is the best cake any film lover could ask for. Check it out for yourself:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Muppets

What The Muppets succeeds at doing best is being a Muppet movie. That's the best praise you can give it. For a while there, back when they were coming to the end of their tenure as pop culture darlings (they haven’t been in theatres since 1999) it seemed as if they had forgotten how to be themselves. The characters and voices were there but what convinced the world they were special in the first place wasn't.

But the Muppets were a staple of many a childhood (mine included) and although The Muppets is more nostalgia for those days gone past than an exercise in rebuilding a new generation of fans (when I saw it there was surprisingly only one kid in the theatre), a love letter to one of the treasures of those lucky enough to know it in their childhood is welcome in these parts any day.

What The Muppets gets absolutely right, under the loving hands of director James Bobin and writer/star/devoted Muppetaphile Jason Segal, is exactly what Jim Henson gave them in the beginning to render them so timeless: distinct personalities with distinct human characteristics. The Muppets, when they were succeeding, did so not because they were cute and cuddly but because kids and adults alike could recognize a little bit of themselves in each of them.

Kermit the Frog was their noble leader but not above failure, Miss Piggy was vain, Fozzie was sincere but naive and Gonzo just wanted to find his place within a world where no one else like him existed. It’s the difference between pieces of felt with plastic eyes and real characters that make you feel warm and comfortable in their presence. Throw in that Henson was a mad comic genius (I still discover new winks and nods in the original The Muppet Movie all these years later) and you have the perfect family entertainment.

And like The Muppet Movie, The Muppets doesn’t so much tell a story as wrap a lose narrative around a collection of episodes (The Muppets were always at their best within the 30 minute confines of television sitcom). We start with an introduction to a new Muppet, Walter, who lives in a place called Small Town and loves his older brother and best friend Gary (Segal) more than anything. Their bond is touching and pure, but as Gary grows older, gets taller, makes human friends, and such, Walter continues to be the same, always loved and backed by Gary, but not quite fitting in. He finds, as maybe most kids did, refuge in the wonderful world of The Muppets, a place where he feels safe and where he is understood. The other kids may poke fun, but the Muppets give Walter everything he needs.

So when Gary plans on taking his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to L.A. Walter is elated when, despite some reservation from Mary, he is invited along as well. It will be a dream for him to finally visit the famous Muppet Studios and see where all the magic happened.

But the gang arrives in L.A. only to find the studio to be forgotten and run down. And then, when Walter sneaks away from the tour (led by a funny Alan Arkin), he discovers a plan for an evil oil barren (Chris Cooper) to purchase the studio, demolish it and drill for oil. Unless the long forgotten about Muppets band together again, an unlikely prospect, and raise the money to the buy the studio, it’s lights out on the last standing piece of Muppet history.

So in a desperate attempt to not lose the most meaningful thing in his life, Walter tracks down Kermit in hopes of convincing him to put on one last show to raise the money to buy back the studio. The first half of the movie is thus, in a tribute to The Muppet Movie, a hilarious and self-aware road picture as Kermit and his new friends travel around the country to collect the other Muppets and convince them to come back for one last show leading up to, not unpredictably, in a fitting tribute to their original televised form, that one last show.

That’s all there is to The Muppets. Anyone who knows the Muppet world knows that plot description doesn’t even begin to describe the manic comic energy of these characters and indeed, The Muppets is all smiles from beginning to end with several big laughs and some catchy songs littered along the way.

But no matter how clever the sight gags get, how inside the jokes go, how constant the celebrity cameos are and how shameless the lengths the film will go to get a laugh, The Muppets works because it leaves one with a warm and fuzzy feeling. That’s why the Muppets have endured for so long. They are our friends and neighbors who exist in this world without the slightest hint of irony. It’s what Jim Henson worked so hard to create. He couldn’t have asked for a more fitting tribute to his legacy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hype Argument

The hype argument to justify not liking a movie is one of the most powerful signs of poor film criticism out there. How many times can you recall coming across a review or editorial in which the writer gives props to a movie for being well made, well acted, well everything but that they just couldn’t get behind because they expected more based on all the positive press? It’s probably been quite a few, which is unfortunate because it may be one of the laziest arguments in film criticism, making the process much less about personal expression and far more about assembly line commodification. It’s depressing how far it sometimes feels we’ve fallen away from the practice of true film criticism.

If you’ve followed this space and my constant editorializing on the art of film criticism you will recognize this as a topic very dear to my heart and one I take very seriously. I am also, for the most part, adverse to film hype. That’s not to say that I don’t heavily anticipate new films from my favourite filmmakers, but that’s not nearly the same thing is it?

The truth is I watch trailers as little as possible (but let’s face it, one can’t avoid them entirely) and I don’t know how many times I’ve suggested a movie for the person to ask what it’s about. Nine times out of ten my answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”

The problem with hype is that it is, when you think about it, a secondary offshoot of the film itself. Whenever I read another lazy review in which the critic declares their expectations were not met due to hype I think, strange, I thought you were reviewing the movie, not the sociology that exists around it.

Okay, fair enough, you heard a movie was great, it wasn’t as great as you were told and now you’re disappointed. It happens. But this is water cooler talk, not criticism. The reason why we have critics is because criticism is a profession and an art form. It is a vocation in which we have entrusted a select few more well versed on the subject at hand than us in order to give us something to think about; a starting point for which to help shape our own thoughts and feelings about a particular work and, at the very least, to guide us towards good films and away from bad ones.

So why do I deem the hype argument lazy? Because, every time it is used it acts as an announcement of submission on behalf of the respective reviewer. We are tasked with reviewing the films we have seen not the ones we were hoping to see. To admit that one was disappointed simply because they expected more shows two things. The first is that the reviewer in question has not found their individual voice (great criticism after all is more about knowing what X thought of said work as opposed to hoping that X will tell us what to see this weekend). It also means that they have bought into a sort of reverse herd mentality. The majority said it was amazing, I didn’t think it was amazing, therefore it was disappointing. No thought whatsoever has been put into this argument. It’s Antonioni’s Problem of the Bicycle: now that the critic has let us know that they are disappointed we need to know why they didn’t like it as much as everyone else.

The second problem is that this argument shows that the critic hasn’t put much thought into the film itself or their affective relationship with it: the very foundation of good criticism. It is, as I said before, commodification: this one’s a disappointment, on to the next one. Great criticism, to repeat from older posts once again, is a combination of two things: a writer who knows how to read between the lines and then look inside themselves to understand what a work means to them emotionally, intelligently, philosophically, psychologically, etc., and someone who genuinely knows what they are talking about. The person who is submitting to the hype argument is doing neither.

Instead what they have done is written the movie off instead of giving it its fair due. Reviews should be written in a vacuum. What the world has to say about a specific film is much less important than what you yourself felt about it. That should be at the heart of every review. Being disappointed with a movie and blaming it on hype is to give the movie not a second thought and to pass the blame onto a third party, as if they are scared of taking a strong counter opinion. I have much greater admiration for the writer who writes a negative review about a universally deemed great film by providing intelligent discourse that, even though maybe you don’t agree with, you can’t argue with or dismiss, then the one who simply says they don’t agree with the hype and moves on. Once again: Lazy.

The writer who hides behind the hype machine thus tells us more about themselves as a whole than about the film in question as, at the heart of it, they’ve told us nothing about the film at all. Instead they’ve told us that their thinking mostly resides at the surface, their insights shallow and their patience to actually deal with a film is little. If I walk away indifferent or unimpressed by an acclaimed movie it leaves me with a feeling of utter unrest. Not only do I have to consider why I didn’t like it, but I must also meet it halfway to try to understand why so many people are singing it praises. Anything less is an insult to the film, the readers and even the reviewer themselves despite them also being the ones to blame.

Monday, December 5, 2011

It's Been a Good Year for the Roses...And the Movies

Every year for the past several years, as films become less and less about stories and characters and more about whose special effects are the biggest, shiniest and can cause the most damage as they crash headfirst into one another, there's always those who will say that the year in movies sucked.

There were a lot of movies that sucked in 2011. There were a lot of movies that sucked in 2010 and 2009 as well. And there were a lot of movies that sucked in 1925 and 1926 as well. There's always going to be movies that suck every year. It's inevitable. There's so damn many of them.

The problem with last year wasn't that it sucked, but that the good movies were just that: good. Few movies left a lasting impact. The Social Network was a timeless film but the highly praised Inception and Toy Story 3 weren't. They were good. Finding ten films to name as the year's best, that were better than good, was a bit of a chore.

2011 seemed to pose the same challenges. From January up until September there were a lot of bad movies and a lot of good ones but where were the great movies? Apparently now the question has been answered: they were waiting for Halloween to be over. My last 3 posts have all been reviews and all for films which I would award five stars. But they aren't just five star films (like say Inception), they are timeless films that rank among their respective filmmakers' best efforts.

I realized this as I was browsing Rotten Tomatoes. I clicked to see the expanded screen of the week's top box office grossers and found something I haven't seen in a long time. Of the 32 films on the list 22 of them are certified fresh, 9 of them are in the 90% range, 6 are in the 80% range and 5 of them are in the 70% range.

This means two things: 1) out of 32 films out there right now, critics on a whole have deemed that but 10 of them aren't worth the public's time and 2) the vast majority of critics are all in agreement: the good films are really good. Usually highly praised films are followed with sneers, unmatched expectations and general cynicism for some. Not in 2011, where everyone agreed we're in a good spot.

And here's the kicker: I write this on Monday December 12, 2011, weeks still before the release of Young Adult, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (which, if the script is any indication, will be something special), We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carnage (see comments on Tinker Taylor),The Adventures of Tintin, Girl With the Dragon Tatoo and War Horse. If last year the problem was finding 10, this year the problem will be sticking to just that many.

As a side note I've decided not to publish my year end list this year until January or probably even closer to February. Why? Two reasons: 1) come the end of December there are so many best of lists its hard to care about any on an individual basis and 2) unlike last year I want to take as much time as I need to see the films that I feel could be on it properly.


At the age of 69 Martin Scorsese will direct films after Hugo. Some of them, if not most of them, will be great and some of them may even still be on the lips of many long after both America’s greatest living filmmaker has passed on and the sound of Hugo has gone silent. But it’s safe to say that, no matter how many films are still to come from Scorsese, and no matter their quality, none of them will be as beautiful, touching or personal as Hugo. Martin Scorsese has, one film at a time, become the very definition of American film. But he’s no longer that young kid from New York trying to push boundaries and change the landscape of film as we know it. He’s already been there and done that. Now he’s that wise old man, none of the ambition or vision having faded, who looks back at it all and sees just what it has meant. There will not, I think it’s fairly safe to say, be a more magical film released in 2011 than Hugo.

Disguised in the veil of grand family adventure, Hugo is a film that tells the tale of a young boy in Paris. His father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker who loved to tinker and fix things. Together they fixed old gizmos, so primitive by today’s standards that it’s a marvel they even worked at all, went to the movies, and loved each other very much. The father’s swan song was to be fixing up an old mechanical man called an Automaton. These were essentially life-like wind up toys designed to, when wound, perform human tasks. When Hugo’s father finds an old one forgotten in a museum he brings it home to fix. This one is a writer, but before it can again put pen to page an accident happens and Hugo is left an orphan.

He’s taken in by his alcoholic uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) whose job it is to see that all the clocks at the local train station are in working order. Once the boy is taught how to operate the clocks he is left alone to perform the man’s duties and continue fixing the Automaton while constantly evading the pursuits of the Chaplinesque Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who hates orphans.

In order to fix the Automaton, Hugo begins stealing parts from George (Ben Kingsly) an old man who owns a meagre toy shop in the station. When George catches Hugo in the act he takes the boy’s notebook, the contents of which, mysteriously upset him. Hugo enlists the help of George’s adopted god daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Mortez) who is an avid reader, has never seen a movie and is looking desperately for a real life adventure.

Scorsese and his writer John Logan, like master storytellers, allow this story to unfold gradually, not revealing all of its secrets up front. This allows the revelation of George’s true identity and the children’s quest to find the missing pieces of the Automaton, and how it’s existence is connected to him, to take the film out of grand family entertainment and slowly reveal a loving ode to the magic of cinema and all of it’s history.

I dare not say another word for fear of revealing anything. Some reviews have pegged Hugo as being a film about the importance of film preservation and restoration. Knowing Scorsese and all his recent invaluable efforts towards these practices it’s a fair assessment, but misses the point. This is not a film about why we should restore old films, but one about the magic that is inherent in them and how that magic shapes and changes our lives from the untold joys they unlock in the imagination of children, to the sweet and tender reflections of times gone past they aspire in adults. Films are, at their very greatest, both dream and memory all wrapped into one. This must have certainly wrung true for Scorsese, one of, if not the most well versed filmmakers working today.

But the key to Hugo is not that it’s a self congratulatory pat on the back to those who are well versed enough to know the film history that it pays such loving tribute to. It is rather, like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a tip of the hat to the works of art that defined the medium as we know it, while still creating something new and modern with the love that these reflections of the past have created. Hugo is thus, above all, the perfect anachronism.

So then the question remains, in an age where family films have become lightning paced flashes of colour and sound, will children be able to accept Hugo? Yes, I think, for some they will. Smart, mature ones will especially appreciate it; ones with grand creative imaginations who look at the world and see the magic of endless possibility. It will also appeal to the children who’s bodies have grown and aged but who’s minds have stayed young and alive and the children who are now falling somewhere in between.

Hugo may be a film about film history and other such adult topics mostly left to academia, but it’s also about so much more and so much less than that. It’s proof that happy endings don’t just happen in the movies. They happen between the seats of every theatre all over the world.


Brandon Sullivan, the hopeless sex addict played by Michael Fassbender at the centre of Steve McQueen’s new film Shame is almost always clinging to the side of a frame that only he occupies. No matter where Brandon goes, there is his face and his body, disconnected from the people around him. It seems a deliberate choice by McQueen to show Brandon this way: no matter on the crowded subway or the full boardroom at work, there is Brandon, a part of normal 30-something upper-class New York life, doing his best to appear to fit in, but always belonging to a lonely space all by himself. From time to time, he’ll let someone in but in all cases it's for sex. You can come into Brandon's world, but don't take your coat off, this space, at the end of every day, belongs to only him. 

That’s the approach to Shame, a stark and sexually intense film in which sex is more about Brandon’s desperate attempts to fill some hollow craving inside of himself than as titillation. There is no pleasure in the sex we see in Shame; only the reality of the man desperately engaging in it. That’s the drama of Shame, which, as can probably be gleaned from it’s title, is not so much about sex itself, but a man who, ironically, can’t seem to function without it and yet only seems to be functioning with it.

What makes the film so fascinating is not that this man is addicted to random, anonymous sex, but the way the film portrays how the hollow feeling that he gets from it is the closest he can come to establishing a normal emotional connection. Sex isn’t something Brandon craves for pleasure, it’s the only way, no matter how sick, desperate or pathetic it gets, that he can feel that he is alive. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, when Brandon has just about hit rock bottom where McQueen shows us his face as he reaches orgasm. It’s a twisted sight of torment and self-loathing. If sex in Shame is the only way Brandon can feel anything it is, conversely, the vice he uses as an excuse to continue not feeling anything at all. Even when Brandon's winning he's losing.

Then one day Brandon is startled to find that his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has shown up unexpectedly and needs a place to stay indefinitely. Sissy is an aspiring singer with a natural talent and, like her brother, a natural pull towards self-destruction. Her body, we see in another of the film’s stark and unflinching scenes, mutilated from years of self-abuse.

Although Brandon relents in allowing her to stay, Sissy, being his sister, posses an emotional connection in his life and therefore a threat to its natural balance. He thus takes his frustration out on her, accusing her of being a child who constantly needs to hang on to people and rely on others to get her trough. He blames her for all of the things he hates in himself: he can’t let any meaningful emotional connect sneak into his life and she can’t live on the independence that exceeds her grasp; and while his scars are hidden and personal, hers are physical and on full, naked display. This leads to one of the film's most powerful scenes in which Brandon tells Sissy how he really feels, while sitting on the couch, watching a cartoon, facing away from the camera. Brandon is so devoid of anything emotional that McQueen doesn’t even allow us into the scene, instead forcing the audience to casually observe from behind. That's the kind of film Shame is.

Observing is what McQueen does a lot. Like his acclaimed debut feature Hunger, McQueen’s approach is to set his camera and look straight on, never flinching or looking away from what he is capturing. The dialogue is sparse and when it does happen, occurs in unbroken long takes. To edit would be to hide from the raw brutality of what is happening and offer an easy escape. McQueen offers no such easy exits and as an artist looks to capture the events that transpire before his camera without comment or implication, no matter how unbearable they become.

But if Hunger was more admirable for its craft than outwardly enjoyable, Shame is a fascinating and wholly realistic (if unpleasant) journey towards despair and self-destruction. It isn’t about sexual addiction at the end of the day, but about a man crippled by his inability to feel anything. Aesthetically every single frame is meticulously composed from the shame of its hero. It offers no indications of how he came to this point or any helpful solutions on how to overcome it. It simply watches, indifferently, as events happen on a journey towards tragedy and doesn’t try to interfere in the least. With Hunger McQueen made a statement. With Shame he’s made close to a masterpiece. This is one of the year’s best films.