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Sunday, January 29, 2012


As directed by Martin Scorsese, Hugo, based on a children’s book by Brian Selznick, is both a love letter to the movie and a public service announcement on behalf of film preservation. In between these jarringly personal moments, Hugo manages to be emotionally affecting without ever fully taking off and becoming a compelling movie.

Part of the problem is that Hugo seems trapped between a movie for kids and a movie for adults. (This situation was made evident even before the film had started. The trailers were an odd mix of animated films and gory, violent action films.) Perhaps I am being unfair to today’s children, but I find it hard to believe great numbers of them would be enthralled by Scorsese’s reusing images from the earliest days of film. Even some adults, who can presumably appreciate the pieces in context, might find their prevalence a little numbing.

The acting seems off in a lot of ways, too. For the most part, it’s the child actors whose acting seems more naturalistic, whereas some of the adult roles are pitched too strongly toward the buffoonish. In side characters, this is not a problem, but Sacha Baron Cohen Inspector Gustav is too prominent a character to be so ridiculous and underdeveloped. Asa Butterfield was near perfect in the title role, and Chloe Grace Moretz managed to capture her character’s innocence, snobbery, and charm quite masterfully. Among the adults, Ben Kingsley has the standout performance as the broken, bitter old filmmaker George Melies, a man who believes his work has been forgotten and who has been reduced to selling cheap toys in a train station.

The train station, where Melies works and where Hugo lives, maintaining the clocks in the place of his drunken, departed uncle, is rendered in great detail by Scorsese’s camera. It is the best use of and justification for the 3D, which, to come clean with my prejudices, always feels like an unnecessary element to me. I have never really felt that 3D did anything to enhance the realism of the world on screen, and for the most Hugo did nothing to change that belief, despite the neatness of its visual tricks. (I should also admit that while my vision isn’t so bad as to render 3D ineffective, I do tend to find the effects blurrier or less impressive than others.)

But if Scorsese feels that his use of 3D is somehow equivalent to Melies’ innovations in the early days of film, and indeed that seems like the primary motivation for using the technology, than I have to say I think he is mistaken. Nothing in Hugo has the jarring, world-altering feel that the Lumiere brothers’ speeding train had to the earliest moviegoers.

As a moviegoer more concerned with narrative and performance than technology and craft, I found that Hugo drifted at times, whenever it seemed more focused on showing off its new toys than telling its story. However, the film is buoyed by some great acting on the part of Kingsley and the two children, and is ultimately surprisingly resonant and touching.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Oscar Nominations

I've gone on this rant before, but what the hell. The worst thing about the Oscars, which I care way too much about, is that they tend to get bogged down in consensus as opposed to sparking an actual debate about the best movies of the year. In other words, too many people talk about what will win rather than what should.

This is understandable in light of the fact that the average moviegoer (which for the purposes of this discussion means anyone who pays for their own tickets) doesn't see every movie and so can't have a truly fully informed opinion about what should win. However, the same attitude does seem to pervade much entertainment journalism, and that is inexcusable.

Below I present the movies I would nominate for the Oscars if I had a say. It is a flawed list because it is limited to the 30 or so 2011 releases I have seen. There are many notable 2011 films I have not seen, including likely nominees Moneyball, Ides of March, War Horse, Hugo, My Week With Marilyn, and The Iron Lady.

But I'm offering the best in my year of movie-watching in the hopes that it will engender a conversation about what other people really liked in 2011. Winners listed at the top of each category.

Best Supporting Actor:

Albert Brooks, Drive
Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
John C. Reilly, Cedar Rapids
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris

Honorable Mention: Alex Shaffer (Win Win). Haven't seen Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Ben Kingsley (Hugo), or Jonah Hill (Moneyball). Plummer will win, but Brooks really should.

Best Supporting Actress:

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Amy Ryan, Win Win
Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

All of these actresses would be worthy winners. I don't think Woodley will get the nomination, but she absolutely should. Spencer will probably win.

Best Actor:

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Paul Giamatti, Win Win
Ryan Gosling, Drive
George Clooney, The Descendants
Paul Rudd, Our Idiot Brother

I liked Rudd better than Dujardin, who will definitely get nominated and may win over Clooney. Haven't seen Pitt, Dicaprio, Fassbender, Shannon, or Bichir.

Best Actress:

Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Viola Davis, The Help
Charlize Theron, Young Adult

Knightley was fantastic in an otherwise boring movie, which probably means no nomination. Wiig gave a winning performance that is miles better than her work on SNL. I haven't seen Michelle Williams, Glenn Close, or Streep.

Best Director:

Nicholas Winding Refn, Drive
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Tomas Alfredsson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

I don't really buy the idea of an absolute connection between Best Director and Best Picture. Some movies are director movies, others are more influenced by screenwriters or the cast. Haven't seen Scorsese's Hugo, or Spielberg's War Horse.

Best Picture:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Win Win
Cedar Rapids
The Descendants

Four of these have no shot of getting nominated, which is a shame. I didn't absolutely love The Descendants, but it was well done and will probably get better with time, like Up in the air.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I just want to tell the handful of people who read this site that the pace of posts is going to slow down fairly dramatically for a while. I'm going to be practically cutting out all television pieces, and only writing reviews of recent or relevant movies, and any novels I might read. If you miss my snarky comments on sitcoms, I will probably be unable to resist posting shorter thoughts on twitter. You can follow me @jeverett15.

The reason for this is, I hope, good news. I have decided to get off my ass, and well, sit my ass down and write a novel. I've actually been at work in earnest for about a week, and the idea is one that has been rattling around in my head for over a year.

This is not one of those thirty day writing contest things, so I have no idea how long I'm going to be at this, or whether what I'm writing will be any good. I just know that I owe it to myself to take a real shot at this.

Thanks for reading the blog, and please keep checking back for updates. And who knows, maybe someday you'll actually pay to read something I wrote!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Justified: "The Gunfighter"

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

Yeah, Justified doesn't so much inspire eloquence as much as it leaves me with jaw hitting the floor. After blitzing through Season 2 over the long weekend, I wondered how the show would handle the void left by Mags Bennett's absence. Smartly, they don't seem to be leaving it up to one big bad to handle it. Instead, The Gunfighter introduces a few potential roadblocks for a wounded Raylan to cross paths with.

Of course, the most promising is Boyd Crowder, whose burgeoning criminal enterprise is threatened by his team's lack of manpower and experience. After Boyd winds up in jail for assaulting Raylan, Devil and Arlo seem poised to lead the gang down a ruinous path. It was fascinating to see a recovering Ava take charge in Boyd's absence, smashing Devil upside the head with a frying pan and coolly explaining why she did it.

(Also, how chilling was it to contemplate that Boyd got himself thrown in jail to get his revenge on Dickie Bennett? Walton Goggins is always a thrill to watch, especially when he's portraying Boyd as several steps ahead of Raylan and the law.)

The Gunfighter also features more of the Dixie Mafia, which when last we left was mostly concerning itself with the real estate deals of Emmett Arnett and his associate Wynn Duffy. But now a higher-up from Detroit (Neal McDonough) is here to get Arnett's deals back in order. By the end he's demonstrated a calculated violence that promises to make him a great foil for Raylan.

Justified always seems to balance long-term story arcs with self-contained stories, and here the latter falls to Fletcher "Ice Pick" Nix, a cocky quick-draw artist hired by Arnett to steal the money he needs to pay off Detroit. In a few short scenes Nix made a lasting impression, and his inevitable gunfight with Raylan was one of the tensest and most interesting the show has pulled off.

Season 3 of Justified is off to a great start. My only regret is that I can't watch this season in a weekend. Waiting a week to get back to Harlan is going to suck.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

Charles Portis, best known as the author of True Grit, displays a genius for invention in each of the four novels of his that I have read. He has a gift for creating memorably stupid characters and placing them in a series of absurd misadventures. Unfortunately that gift is not wedded to a strong storytelling sense. With the exception of True Grit, each of his novels runs out of steam and devolves into nothing more than a series of events, all pitched to the same degree of inanity. As these drag on, the reader is wearied by Mr. Portis’ bleak view of humanity, with its limitless supply of ignorant, gullible, greedy, irredeemable people.

Masters of Atlantis concerns itself with the exploits of Lamar Jimmerson, who as a doughboy in France encounters a mysterious stranger claiming to possess the secrets of the lost colony of Atlantis. He is the leader of a sect called the Gnomons, and Lamar is quite easily taken in. The rest of the novel follows Lamar’s efforts to spread the faith in America, through prosperity during the Depression to inevitable downfall. Along the way Portis introduces other acolytes and rivals, each of them just as relentlessly stupid as the last.

That the novel ends on something of a hopeful note feels less like a moment of redeeming grace than an unearned piece of cheap sentiment, wholly unsupported by the rest of the book.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Margin Call

J.C. Chandor's Margin Call is a spare, compelling look at the human beings behind the scenes of the financial collapse of 2008. If the script is sometimes too reliant on clunky, obvious metaphors, the experience of watching it is redeemed by the film's many great performances. Chief among these performances are two by old-pro Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. Their back-and-forth reaches Shakespearean heights as they argue over what it means to do the right thing.

Less compelling is the performance of Zachary Quinto, who is asked to play the boy-genius analyst who realizes what no one else does, that the brokerage firm he works for is about to go under. Quinto's "look at me, I'm acting" face is borderline ridiculous.

As the news about the firm's precarious situation spreads through night, the people in charge are left with a moral dilemma. The only way to save themselves is to sell off their leverage immediately, even though they now know it will soon be worthless. Though knowledge of recent history makes the outcome unsurprising, it is fascinating to watch their rationalizations and inability to resist caving in to self-preservation.

Monday, January 2, 2012

How I Met Your Mother: "Tailgate"

There was a lot that felt contrived about "Tailgate" (obligatory "all drama is contrived comment" here.) I didn't buy that Marshall's sibling rivalries would extend to mourning for his father. I didn't care for Robin's New Year's resolution coming true so quickly, and so patently obviously. I'm also getting tired of the increasingly unrealistic Sandy Rivers and his retrograde views on sexual harassment in the workplace.

But there was a lot to laugh it too, including Marshall and his brother one-upping each other at their father's headstone. ("I'm trying to feel dad's spirit flow through my soul, butt-breath.") I also liked the twitter crawl under drunk Sandy's terrible broadcast, and Sandy welcoming in the year 212.

Most of the laughs came from Ted and Barney finally getting to open their bar, Puzzles. Their competing visions for the place made for some nice bits of humor, and their duet, singing-arguing during the bar's Cheers-like theme song was a lot of fun to watch.

I was also glad to see Kevin back on screen, especially as he was largely interacting with characters beside Robin. His attempts to work his way into the gang's good graces worked for me.

And even though they only came about due to obvious contrivances, the twin emotional moments at the episode's close still resonated. Marshall turning his private moment into a public party was nice, and Alyson Hannigan managed to sell her tearful joy at seeing her father again.

It was honestly just nice to have a new episode to watch.

The Pint Man

I loved Steve Rushin’s columns in Sports Illustrated for their inventive wordplay and sense of fun, but I wondered how well these elements would translate to a full-length novel. While The Pint Man often stretches way too far to make a joke, it’s still a warm, funny story with a relatable protagonist.

Rodney Poole is an out-of-work bachelor who spends too much of his time at a decrepit Irish pub engaging in inane banter with the other lonely men ensconced there. Rodney is especially down because he’s about to get even lonelier. His best friend Keith is getting married and moving to Chicago.

Through a series of mishaps, including a bar fight, some broken bones, and some miscommunications and revelations, Rodney sees his relationship with Keith, and a promising new relationship with a woman threatened.

Though the plot is pleasing in its own right, the chief pleasures of The Pint Man are the puns and wordplay. True, sometimes Rushin overwhelms the reader with his need to prove his wit and the breadth of his intelligence, when it works it’s often very funny.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is so self-consciously ponderous, so stubbornly plodding and so unapologetically dull that it’s a wonder it hasn’t picked up more steam heading into awards season. Is it too much to hope that Oscar voters are finally learning that boring does not equal important?

The film follows the relationships among three very different psychotherapists in the early days of the profession. You are probably familiar with Sigmund Freud (a cigar-chomping Viggo Mortenson) and Carl Jung (the seemingly omnipresent Michael Fassbender). You may even be aware that they had a contentious relationship that lead to a falling-out. What was new, to me at least, was the character of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young woman who comes to Jung as a patient, only to eventually become much more and come between Jung and his mentor Freud.

Knightley gives an unrestrained performance as the severely damaged and repressed Sabina. The physicality of the performance is perhaps its most impressive aspect. Her jutting chin and wandering, gnarled hands are captivating, and the wrenching revelations of her character’s trauma are the high point of the movie.

It’s terribly unfortunate then, that this high point occurs far too early. After Sabina becomes relatively stabilized and starts studying psychology on her own, the film devolves into a boring look at the relationship between Jung and Freud, which is mostly visualized through a montage of letter-writing. Yeah.

As for Sabina, she spends the rest of the movie playing out a period-piece Secretary remake in her relationship with Jung, and serving as a voice of conscience. It’s a disappointingly stereotypical, cliched female movie role, especially considering what an extraordinary, groundbreaking life Sabina Spielrein really had. That Cronenberg is far more concerned with the clipped, reserved, slightly nutty Jung probably says something not all that flattering about him.

The film takes a bizarre amount of pride in refusing to justify its existence. If it has any point to make about psychoanalysis, it is hopelessly esoteric. At best it raises some obvious but unanswerable questions about the state of human nature. (This is mostly done through the small role of Otto Gross, a hospitalized psychologist with unusual theories on sexuality.)

A Dangerous Method whimpers to its close with the blandest closing shot imaginable, and then tops it by resorting to the cheat of title-card updates on what happened to the film’s characters. Sabina’s title-card only made me wish even more that this was a biopic of her, and not the two stuffy perfomances at its center.