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As per usual, with the kickoff of Oscar season in December, there’s a flurry of new releases, all getting critical attention.  As this coincides with a break from school, I usually manage to catch a few more of the year’s favorite movies.

Midnight in Paris

I don’t know how it is so clear that this movie comes from Woody Allen, but it is. There’s a quality to the dialogue and a flavor to the story that are both so very distinctive.  However, Midnight in Paris is not what I think of when Woody Allen comes to mind.  It lacks the neuroticism and frenetic energy of classics like Annie Hall.  I haven’t seen many Allen films, so I’m not comfortable making generalizations about the oeuvre, but I do have some impressions about his style.  A few years ago, there was a documentary series on PBS about American comedy, and Woody Allen was held up as the ultimate in main-character-is-a-nerd comedy. It’s this combination of New York Jewish (this is a distinct style, I promise) and nervous energy, heavily seasoned with the flavors of the generation that came of age in the 1970s and began the process of de-stigmatizing therapy. Anyways, Midnight in Paris is obviously Allen, but it’s quieter. It’s a dialogue-driven film, as every Allen character (ever) is rather relentlessly verbal, and I have to admit I would never have expected Owen Wilson to pull off such a fascinating and truly nuanced performance.  Marion Cotillard is gorgeous and seductive and entirely French, not to mention fragile in her characterization of Adrianna, the woman courted by Picasso, Hemingway, and even Wilson’s character.  Adrianna is a little lost in her world, wistfully wishing to live in Paris in the 1890s as much as Wilson’s character aches to experience Paris in the 1920s.  In some ways, the message here is the same as that in Rango: No man can walk out on his own story.  Allen shows that we can long for a past golden age, but that every era has its own definition of what the golden age was, and thus the escape to the past is only temporary.  He does not encourage us to avoid the escapes, but wants us to understand that after a while we will have to come back to our own time and work to make that some future generation’s idea of the golden age.

Hugo

I have to say, I have been pleasantly surprised by a few actors I had written off as one-type characters. Aside from the charming and moving story portrayed in Hugo, which I will get to in a moment, I want to offer props to Sacha Baron-Cohen.  I’m pleased to be proved wrong about him – I had him pegged as only able to do comedy that involves offending people, as in his characters of Borat, Bruno, and Ali G. His station Inspector in Hugo is at times terrifying, endearing, and incredibly funny.  Having not read the book that the film is based upon, I can’t speak to the way the character has been enlarged but I do know that the film incarnation has been complexified (not a word but it should be), as well as being given a love interest to soften him. The problems with his mechanical leg brace make him both sinister and very sympathetic, as the movie as a whole is as well.  The film is sometimes scary, but mostly it is so very wistful that it about breaks its own heart.  Audience members feel for the child Hugo Cabret (and holy moly was that casting brilliant – kid’s amazing), and also for the initially unlikeable but increasingly fascinating toy shop owner portrayed by the chameleon known as Ben Kingsley.  Critics have described Hugo as a love letter to the film industry, and I have to agree.  It is a celebration of the development of film technology and a reminder to preserve and value what has gone before.

Shame

I wanted to see this but I was worried about it. And unlike some of the others in that audience, I expect, I was not there simply to catch a glimpse of Michael Fassbender in the buff.  I saw Daniel Radcliffe in Equus a few years ago, and the nudity in Shame was much the same.  At some level, I was aware that the actor was nude, but it didn’t really register as something to pay much attention to.  Shame is a difficult movie to watch because of the agony and self-hatred of the main characters, admirably portrayed by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.  Some of the reviews I’ve read of Shame ask what would be left of the movie if the sex scenes were removed, and I agree that they were somewhat relentless, but I also believe they were necessary for the impact of the film.  Fassbender’s Brandon is a sex addict.  The sex scenes are vital to show his addiction and how he feels about it, especially once his sister, Carey Mulligan’s Sissy, unexpectedly shows up to crash on his couch for a while.  One thing that struck me about the film is the use of color.  The only places that are shown in vividly life-like color are the places Brandon goes to pick up women, the places outside his home that are not where he has sex.  At home, on the train, it is grey and industrial.  His home is white and grey and black, and the woman he finds attractive on the train is the only splash of color in that part of his life.  When he goes outside the home for sex the lighting and the color make that space somehow unreal, a bubble separate from the rest of the world.  What’s unclear, and could be argued either way, is whether the colored places are more real than the others.  When is Brandon more alive, when he is fulfilling his compulsions or when he’s in pursuit of his next fulfillment?

The Adventures of Tintin

Oh man was I excited for this movie.  I read the Tintin comics over and over as a kid, and I still read them today!  I love the over-the-top world the characters inhabit, where everyone, good or bad, is just a teeny bit ridiculous.  It’s much more compelling to me than the Marvel or DC comics, maybe because superpowers aren’t involved.  The stories are ridiculous, but it only takes a little stretch of the imagination to consider the plausibility of the elements involved (taken together, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine they’re real, but individually there’s just that chance…).  Anyways, this movie was a conglomeration of the minds I might have picked for it – Spielberg, Jackson, and Steven Moffat, creator of the BBC sitcom Coupling, which is equally sort-of-plausible-but-not-really. Reviews have been mixed – seemingly divided between people who have and have not read the original Hergé comics.  I loved the movie. It is over-the-top, larger than life… it is just plain exuberant fun.  It is so clear that this film was a labor of love on the part of the creators – it is full of sight gags referencing other Tintin comics.  This film will never be a critical favorite or even considered as great literature.  The best it can hope for is status as an excellent example of motion-capture animation and a beloved rendering of a favorite comic.  Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

Finally, just to keep you all on your toes for the upcoming awards season, the Oscars have released their first trailer:

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