Wednesday, December 21, 2011

REVIEW: Young Adult

Many people have complained that the lead character of Young Adult is so despicable they couldn't stand spending even 90 minutes with her. They say she's an irredeemable lout who doesn't learn a damn thing by the end of her movie.

They're right. But that's the beauty of Young Adult. And that's why it's one of the best films of the year. At least for a guy like me who can relate.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a onetime high school queen bee who has become a complete and total train wreck. She swigs Diet Coke directly from a two liter bottle every morning, probably to counteract all the booze she swallowed the night before. She toils joylessly on a series of young adult novels that have declined in popularity, and she doesn't even get notable credit for them.

So when she hears that her former high school sweetheart has just had a baby, Mavis gets it in her head that she and Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) were always meant to be together, and dammit, she's going to steal him away from his wife if it's the last thing she does.

Mavis is completely and totally irrational, callous and deluded. I get that. But Young Adult benefited from my personal experience. You see, I once knew a Mavis Gary. Indeed, I fell for a Mavis Gary. And a Mavis Gary cruelly broke my heart. But I never hated my Mavis Gary. Unlike some viewers, I understood how someone could love that girl - and that's why the movie grabbed my attention and still hasn't let go.

Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (Juno) have created an acidic character study - one that for many is a poison pill. But for me it was bittersweet. I found the sadness and yes, resigned wisdom that can be found in this movie if you know where to look.

Many of the acts Mavis commits in this movie are absolutely awful. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest viewers let her off the hook. The movie certainly doesn't, and that's all to the good. But what the movie does do is that it gives the viewer a voice in the movie through Patton Oswalt, who plays Matt. He had the locker next to Mavis in high school but she never gave him the time of day. Indeed, she has no idea who he is is until she recalls him as "the hate crime guy" who was maimed by a gang of jocks who beat him up because they thought he was gay.  The two, against their better judgment form an unlikely bond.

That relationship gives Young Adult its through-line, and its emotional resonance. In some ways, I identified with Matt, and when he tells Mavis "Guys like me are made to fall for girls like you," Young Adult rang about as true as any movie has this year.

I can see why Mavis would turn people off - but the movie also made me walk a mile in her shoes. I didn't sympathize with her, but I empathized with her and Matt in many ways. Young Adult was the visualization of a saying I've heard often: Never be too quick to judge people. You never know what battles they may be fighting.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

If nothing else, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol goes down in history as the movie that made my palms sweat the most.

You’ve probably guessed that this comes from the scene where Tom Cruise scales the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in a way that would make Peter Parker blink. And you would be correct. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. I’ve been to the top of the Sears Tower twice without breaking even a bead of sweat. But put me in a seat in front of an IMAX screen and swing me around that building with Tom Cruise and I’m a jittery mess.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the fourth Mission: Impossible movie is the popcorn flick of the year. I haven’t had my nerves jangled that hard since James Cameron’s Aliens. It didn’t grab my emotions quite as tightly as that film, or for that matter, as Mission: Impossible 3, but taken purely as a thrill ride, this is the best action film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

And that’s no coincidence because both movies were filmed partly with IMAX cameras, and both were shot by directors with boundless visual invention. That Brad Bird has succeeded smashingly  only makes this Mission all the more impressive.

Indeed, the IMAX sequence above, upon, inside and around the Burg Khalifa is almost too effective. In most action movies, this would be the final “Wow em out the door” scene.  It’s in the middle of this film, with about another hour to go (I think. I wasn’t exactly eyeing the time.)  That’s how relentless this movie is.

Much has been made of the fact that Bird took an unconventional leap from animation to live action. He made one of the best 2D films of the 90s with The Iron Giant, and he also helmed two of Pixar’s best movies: The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The visual invention on display in those films is at play too, precisely because of Bird’s animation background.

Animators feel unconstrained by boundaries. They can make their characters do pretty much anything and that’s the mindset Bird applies here. The movie zips along at such a breathless pace, I never once stopped to question its repeated flaunting of the laws of physics. A climactic sequence with Cruise and his nemesis can’t possibly top the Dubai scene, but it’s still exciting because Bird handles a vertical chase scene with such aplomb.

Also contributing to the film’s success is Bird’s top-flight technical crew. Cinematographer Robert Elswit showed a flair for action in Tomorrow Never Dies and editor Paul Hirsch worked on a little movie called Star Wars, among many others.

The movie does fall a little short dramatically - it doesn’t have as much emotional pull as Mission: Impossible 3 did, with no strong female lead, and no villain here can hope to top Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work in the same film. I rather wish Bird had co-written the script so it could be as smart as his direction.

Still, those palms of mine were damp with sweat long after the movie was over. In fact, they’re even clamming up again as I recall sitting in the theater being held in thrall. Now there’s a movie that sticks with you.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Many reviews of Martin Scorsese's Hugo have marveled at what a departure it is for the greatest living director. And all I can say to that is ... what movie did THEY see?

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved Hugo, having just seen it a second time. But it's not really a departure for Scorsese. Inevitably, the man will be best remembered for his crime pictures and gritty dramas.  Hugo is certainly neither of those. I would stop short of calling Hugo his best film, but it is one of his masterpieces - and more importantly, it's the movie he was born to make.

First and foremost, Martin Scorsese is America's premier student of film. He, more than any other working director, lives and breathes the medium, knowing its history, and its power to transfix audiences, inside and out. Hugo, based on the historical fiction novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick may nominally be about a boy who lives in a train station, longing for companionship, but more than anything else, Scorsese's film is a valentine to cinema itself, as it wonderfully depicts many people seeing a movie for the very first time.

And just when it seemed 3D was on the ropes, buckling under the weight of shoddy conversions and crass commercialism, along comes Scorsese, showing us that yes, the techinque truly can be essential to the telling of its story. Scorsese employs the third dimension in just about every way possible, using it to make rooms seem vast and imperious, to make  great heights seem vertiginous, to make us duck as a runaway train hurtles off track through the station. Most crucially, he draws us into the worlds of Paris. He made me feel like I was right there with the characters, ducking my pursuers or gaping in awe at visual wonders I've never seen before.

 Yes, the movie will play just fine flat, I'm sure. But just as seeing a movie at home can never capture the full experience of going to the theater, seeing this movie only in 2D would diminish its impact.  The 3D enhances the imagery, making it even more potent. This is especially important considering much of the film centers around Georges Meiles (Bem Kingsley) the early wizard of cinema whose most famous film is probably the 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon, which features a rocket giving the moon a hell of a black eye. Meilies was one of the first people to understand that movies could not just capture images or tell stories, but to take viewers to places they would never see otherwise. When Hugo depicts Melies making his films, I felt lost at the movies in the best possible way.

It's only too easy to praise Hugo for its craft; for Dante Ferretti's eye-filling production design to Robert Richardson's lush cinematography to Howard Shore's playful score. But there's much more to the movie than what's behind the camera. Asa Butterfield is ideal as the title character creating a heart-rending portrayual of an endlessly resourceful but ultimately lost boy. Chloe Grace Moretz once again proves herself one of the great child actors, playing Hugo's book-loving confidant Isabelle in a way that channels no one less than Audrey Hepburn.And Ben Kingsley is wonderful as Meilies, a lost man just aching to be found, even if he doesn't know that at first.

Were I feeling less transported, I might feel inclined to quibble that Scorsese might have done well to trim the movie back a bit from running just over two hours. A little too much time is spent on characters other than the kids and Mellies, and whenever the film diverted from them, the energy drained somewhat.

Even so, I can only give the movie my highest recommendation. It hit me not only as a film lover, but also on a personal level. I teared up when it was revealed that many of Meilies' movies were preserved for future generations. And like Hugo, I have found myself struggling with my identity, wondering just what my place is in a world that seemed particularly tumultuous of late. When life closes in like that, it's wonderful indeed  to know that there are movies like Hugo that can wrap us up in our dreams, even while we're wide awake.