Carey Mulligan stars in Shame, in theaters Friday. Photograph courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Hunger, the 2008 debut film from British video artist turned director Steve McQueen (no, not that one), is an artful and unforgiving look at the 1981 Irish hunger strike led by IRA member Bobby Sands, and was a career maker for both the director and the star, Michael Fassbender. With Fassbender’s profile continuing to rise, it’s great to see him returning to a small project with McQueen for the director’s second feature, Shame. Instead of ’80s Ireland, the film takes place in modern-day New York City, and stars Fassbender as a comfortable New York yuppie with a dirty secret: He’s living with a sexual addiction that leaves him unable to rein in his own libido. The arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan) to live with him throws off the delicate balance that’s been keeping his life from tipping completely into chaos.
Judging from the box office returns, plenty of folks took advantage of this film’s holiday opening last week to relive Muppet joys past or to newly introduce their kids to the wonders of Muppetdom. Jason Segel was born in 1980, and so is of an age where the Muppets have been a part of his life from the very start. For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, whether it was old reruns of The Muppet Show, or the movies, or Sesame Street, these characters seem more real than puppet, and occupy a special place in the heart and mind. For someone like Segel, a performer with an interest in that specific place where comedy, music, and puppetry meet, co-writing a film for this cast of creatures had to be a dream come true.
But even the most hopeful fan probably couldn’t have guessed that the result would be such a great return to form, exactly the balance of goofy comedy, adventure, and great music that makes the Muppet movies so unique. In the film, Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller imagine that the Muppets, long having gone their separate ways—some to fairly ignoble ends—must reunite to save their original theater from a slimy oil magnate (played with scene-chewing glee by Chris Cooper). The celebrity cameos are frequent, hilarious, and wonderfully executed, and the original songs by Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie coexist quite happily with classics like “Mahna Mahna” and “Rainbow Connection.”
Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield star in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Don’t be fooled by the silly marketing campaign. This other excellent holiday holdover is Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s illustrated historical fiction children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and it isn’t quite the goofy, straight-up kiddie movie it’s presented as. In fact, the children’s adventure portion of the movie is sometimes where it’s least successful, and smaller children may get impatient—particularly when the second half of the film turns into perhaps the most heartfelt homage to the early days of cinema (and most entertaining public service announcement for the importance of film preservation) ever made.
Scorsese’s film blends the real-life story of early silent-film fantasist Georges Méliès—maker of hundreds of films that nearly vanished into history after World War I, who wound up selling toys at a small shop in a Paris train station—with a fictional adventure about a little orphan boy, Hugo, who winds the clocks in that same station and occasionally steals toys from Méliès. Any film lover will likely be overcome by emotion in the second half as Scorsese examines the importance of art in our lives, and of following one’s dreams, in ways that are never maudlin, enhanced by some of the best 3D filmmaking the medium has yet seen.
Two festivals with a particular cultural focus get underway this week. The Washington Jewish Film Festival, presented by the DC Jewish Community Center, is now over 20 years old and has an impressive collection of more than 50 movies, screening at the JCC as well as E Street, the AFI, and the Goethe-Institut. The program contains new films and older titles, features and shorts, narratives and documentaries. Meanwhile, Solas Nua, DC’s Irish cultural institution, has 13 features and four programs worth of shorts on tap over the next couple of weeks, screening at E Street and the Goethe-Institut.
The film from the opening night of this year’s AFI Silverdocs festival is on screens at West End Cinema this week. It follows a few years in the touring life of the band Swell Season, who shot to fame on the strength of their semi-autobiographical performance in the 2006 little-indie-that-could hit, Once. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová starred in the film as a pair of musicians who meet and fall in love in the course of recording some music together, a story taken from their real-life meeting. If you want the unabashed happily-ever-after romanticism of that film to remain intact in your mind, it’s perhaps best to skip this documentary about the eventual unraveling of their relationship on the road; however, if you’re interested in seeing an honest and moving (if sometimes heartbreaking) look at how different people deal with success, and how that success affects their relationships with one another, The Swell Season is an affecting observational piece. You can read my complete review here. And check out our Q&A with Irglová from earlier this week here.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: The Future
Adapted from a staged performance piece by Miranda July, The Future stars July and Hamish Linklater as a thirtysomething couple who decide to adopt an injured stray cat they’ve rescued and take it to the vet for treatment. It’s a very adult-feeling decision that reveals to them their reticence up till now to commit to anything substantive in their lives. They must wait 30 days to pick up “Paw Paw,” and in that month, they turn their lives upside down. The film follows them on quirky flights of fancy into magical realism and surreal territory, including narration by Paw Paw himself (July, affecting a twee rasp), clothing that moves on its own, and a scene in which times stops. If it all looks incredibly quirky and perhaps a little precious, well, that’s because it is. But July, in her second feature as writer and director, makes the off-kilter trappings work, in a film that can be profoundly affecting once one accepts its affectations. You can read my full review here.
View the trailer.