Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Clockwork Orphan: “Hugo” is a Perfectly Crafted Ode to Movie Magic

Silent movies don’t really "do it" for my generation. We’ve been raised to watch movies with talking and sound effects. Hey, it’s not my fault I wasn’t born in the early 20th century. However, it is possible for someone of my generation to at least appreciate where movies started. If that’s what you’re looking for you need not look any further than “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s terrific adaption of the young adult novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” The story, set in 1930s Paris, follows a young orphan named Hugo who lives within the walls of a Paris train station where he secretly maintains all of the mechanical clocks. He hopes to unlock a secret message from his recently deceased father, and a young girl who he meets one day just might have the key that he needs.

“Hugo” tells a wonderful story in a wonderful way: we slowly learn about the main character and what motivates him. Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield who disturbingly channels a young Elijah Wood circa “The Adventures of Huck Finn”) has been raised by his clockmaker father (Jude Law). His father dies in a mysterious father and he’s left in the care of his alcoholic uncle and learns how maintains all of the clocks at the railroad station. When his uncle seemingly disappears, Hugo continues to live in the walls and maintain the clocks. He steals food to eat. And he must much out for a pesky security guard played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen who likes rounding up orphan children who loiter. In the meantime, Hugo attempts to steal gears and other parts to fix his father’s mechanical man invention, which he hopes to complete one day. He also must deal with a grumpy toy shop owner who will turn out to be more important than Hugo could have ever imagined.

A story about an orphan boy who fixes clocks doesn’t exactly seem like a wonderful tribute to the birth of cinema. And that’s because the story slowly unfolds and we learn more. We learn that Hugo’s father used to take him to the movies. His father was particularly fond of the films of Georges Méliès, who directed the famous silent film “A Trip to the Moon” and many others. Hugo’s father’s mechanical man invention will lead Hugo on a wonderful adventure with a new friend named Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Isabelle’s godfather is the disgruntled toy shop owner, who is played by Ben Kingsley. John Logan’s script follows with what has to be some of the most touching and affecting tributes to the era of silent cinema in recent memory.

Martin Scorsese who is no stranger to gritty, violent cinema, takes a complete departure from the movies that made him famous to give us a family friendly ode to the magic of movies. It’s so obvious that Scorsese is a lover of cinema and he knows it so well it’s almost disturbing. He is able to capture such beautiful images and the work of his cinematographer Robert Richardson (who also shot his gorgeous film “The Aviator”) is simply a standout. The use of colors and the stylistic elements completely transport you to another time and place. There are some truly wonderfully tracking shots that are a trademark of Scorsese’s work. And working with 3D for the first time, the filmmaker takes full advantage of the technology to completely immerse you in this world. When Cohen’s menacing face slowly leans into the frame towards our young heroes (and the audience) you react by moving your own head back even further. There are just some truly jaw dropping visual moments.

I can’t say enough good things about “Hugo.” The entire film is filled with the work of true artists. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the performances; everything feels authentic. It’s a truly wonderful escapist entertainment that can be enjoyed by children who no nothing about the time period in which it’s set and yet can be enjoyed by film history fans. “Hugo” reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place. Like we could ever forget? GRADE: A-

Paradise Lost: “The Descendants” Features Great Performances But Remains Rather Bland

Alexander Payne is an expert in extracting comedy in awkward and dramatic situations. He has told stories that take place in high school and vineyards. In his latest film “The Descendants” he takes us to Hawaii to tell us a story about a middle-aged man who’s dealing with his wife tragic boating accident. She’s in a coma and now he’s forced to deal with the possibility of raising his two daughters by himself. This man is Matt King and he’s brought to life by the always reliable George Clooney. Matt soon learns a secret about his wife that forever changes his relationship with her, but she’s in a coma and there’s nothing that can really be done. A movie about a woman in a coma sounds rather maudlin and doesn’t seem ripe for comedy, but Payne manages a few great laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, these laughs don’t come nearly as frequently as they should, and therefore I was left wanting more from a director I know is usually pretty reliable.

The thing with Alexander Payne is though, sometimes his movies tend to feel rather slow. There’s never really anything that interesting visually, which is fine when you have an interesting story and fascinating characters. And that was the main problem I had with his previous effort “Sideways.” I didn’t like those characters and I don’t really know much about wine, so to me I felt rather disconnected. “The Descendants” is much improved and what I did like most about it was how much you get a sense of Matt’s wife Elizabeth (played by Patricia Hastie) even though she spends the entire movie in a coma. The script (co written by Payne and Nate Faxon and Jim Rash) is rich with character development and what I liked most about the story was Matt’s relationship with his two daughters.

Shailene Woodley plays Alexandra King Matt’s rebellious teenage daughter, and she gives a surprisingly strong performance for an actress her age (she just turned 20). Having to deal with her mother’ accident and her wishy washy father is hard on her. Sometimes she’s left to look after her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller in her feature debut) who’s rather rebellious herself. Scottie likes throwing the lawn furniture in the pool for no clear reason except that it’s just something to do. Alexandra also amusingly insists on dragging around her surfer dude guy friend around played by Nick Krause; let’s just say he doesn’t get along with Alexandra’s grandfather.

Matt soon learns a secret about his wife from Alexandra: Elizabeth had been having an affair and was planning on leaving him. This throws a much needed comic spin on a truly dire situation. Matt’s best friends, a couple played by Rob Hubel and Mary Birdsong, have known about this and tells him about the man she’s been seeing. He’s played by Matthew Lillard, who probably has his best role since the original “Scream” from 1996.

“The Descendants” is really about the journey of a man who has to deal with a situation that no one really wants to face. He wanted to be a better husband and he wants to tell his wife, but he can’t. And it seems like her prognosis is not good. It’s important to know that the people we love won’t be around forever and we don’t usually get a second chance. The Hawaiian setting works because, like Matt’s opening narration reminds us, this island community isn’t always just paradise. Sure there are sandy beaches and beautiful locations. But it’s still a place where bad things happen. No one here in “paradise” is immune to the pains of life. And I think that’s where the film lost me: I don’t think the movie’s quite as funny as it could have been. The film would rather be a drama with a few moments of comedy, but those few moments almost feel out of place in such a dramatic setting.

“The Descendants” features great performances and a richly developed script, but I found the opportunity for humor rather lacking. The film feels too slow and dramatic to be truly funny. Payne knows how to make dramatic situations funny, but I think something about the way he handled the film’s story left me wanting a little bit more. It’s a film that I’m sure the Academy will surely eat right up, but for me maybe a second viewing will be required. I think I just might have missed something along the way. GRADE: B-

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

No Strings Attached: The Magic is Back with the “The Muppets”

Has it really been twelve years? Everyone’s favorite felted friends are finally back on the big screen in the wonderful Muppet reboot appropriately titled “The Muppets.” Long-time Muppet fans Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller (who both worked together on the hilarious “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) have brought the magic of the Muppet characters back after a too long silver screen absence. All hope seemed lost after the so-so reception of “Muppets from Space” back in 1999 which explored the origins of the big-nosed chicken-loving Gonzo. That movie was alright but not up to par with the gang’s previous efforts; that movie’s cameos were reduced to D-list stars like Kathy Griffin and Hulk Hogan. “The Muppets” is definitely up to par with the best of the Muppet films. It might even be better than the original “The Muppet Movie.”

The film stars Jason Segal as Gary. He’s dating Mary (Amy Adams), but Mary sometimes feels neglected because of Gary’s close relationship with his brother Walter (Peter Finz). Walter is a new felted friend who is one of the Muppet’s biggest fans. He feels a closeness to the likes of Kermit, Miss Piggy and Gonzo, etc because he feels different. He lives in Smalltown, USA and his biggest dream is to tour the old Muppet Studios in Hollywood, California. So the trio takes a trip to California, where they learn that an evil oil tycoon played by Chris Cooper is planning on buying the studios so he can tear them down and dig for oil. You know he’s evil because he forces his Muppet minion to do a maniacal laugh. Their only hope is to reunite the Muppets, who have since disbanded, and have them raise money to save their old stopping grounds.

Anyone who is expecting Kermit and the gang to be onscreen from the start will be disappointed, but that’s not really a problem. Segal has come up with such a fun story about getting the gang back together that is really the only story that could possibly make sense following the Muppets’ long hiatus. Segal and Stoller have wisely created a very tongue-in-cheek story. You may even call it meta-Muppet. The film takes place in a world where “The Muppet Show” was an actual network program. But now in a world filled with stupid realty television, like the almost too real seeming “Punch Your Teacher,” the Muppets need all the help they can get to seem relevant again. A TV executive played by Rashida Jones reluctantly gives Kermit and the gang a chance to put on a show. They need a celebrity to help them out, so they kidnap Jack Black.

“The Muppets” maintains the spirit – and, most importantly, the strange quirkiness and comedy- of the previous Muppet films while finding its own way in a world where family entertainment is dominated by beautiful CGI creations. It’s amazing how well the puppeteers and voice actors make these pieces of felt and fur come to life and that’s because of the genius of Jim Henson. Even though he’s no longer around, it’s wonderful how the company he started is able to make such fun and memorable characters. Even after decades of entertaining the world, they’ve proven there is still a place for these fun-loving characters. There are even memorable musical numbers featuring songs written by Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” fame. Director James Bobin couldn’t have asked for a more terrific feature directorial debut. He has worked the smart and sassy script into such a wonderful and joyous film filled with colors and music and magic you’d have to be Oscar the Grouch not to be moved by it all. GRADE: A

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Gato Superstar: “Puss in Boots” is a Surprisingly Fun Adventure

I wasn’t too excited to find out that the Shrek character Puss in Boots was getting his own big screen romp. It felt like stale and worn out territory destined for the Direct-to-DVD litter box. Especially after the 4th Shrek movie was so desperate for a story that they had to use the filler “it was all a dream” plotline. Puss in Boots was a fun addition to the series but not exactly a character I personally went gaga over. I guess I’m more of a dog person. However, “Puss in Boots” is a unexpectedly fun and fresh take on the French fairy tale character that no one really knew about until he was added to the cast of “Shrek 2” and reimagined as a Zorro-like swashbuckling feline fighter voiced by Antonio Banderas.

“Puss in Boots” works as a prequel to the Shrek films and explores Puss’ origins. In keeping with the style of the Shrek films, Puss in Boots takes place in a fairy tale world. As a child in an orphanage Puss befriends Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). There the whole “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall” legend is worked into the story as the point where Puss and Humpty become estranged. When they’re reunited later on Humpty enlists his old friend to find the magic beans that will lead to a golden egg. Cue Jack and the Beanstalk.

The film weaves in familiar fairy tales stories and characters much like the Shrek films without ever becoming too obvious or redundant. There’s not an overabundance of pop culture references that sometimes tend to be relied upon by DreamWorks. Who have actually had a rather good track record as of late. Of course, this is no “How to Train Your Dragon” but it can’t be compared to that. Although, and this isn’t say much, it’s extremely better than “Cars 2.”

One of the better ideas besides having Humpty Dumpty as a character, is having another female feline character who could play off Puss well – and that’s Kitty Softpaws voiced by Salma Hayek. They play rather nicely off each other that was enjoyable and fun. I also like that they were able to mash up the Jack and the Beanstalk characters with that of the Jack & Jill rhyme, where Jack and Jill here are big scary ogre-esque rednecks voiced by Billy Bob Thorton and Amy Sedaris.

“Puss in Boots” features some truly wonderful computer animation (although Pixar is still tops in this department) and it has some truly memorable characters. It’s a movie that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike and whether or not you got sick of the Shrek movies like I did, you’ll most likely find something to enjoy here. GRADE: B+

The Mathletics: “Moneyball” Hits a Home Run

“Moneyball” is a great movie. And I know why. It achieves something only great movies can: it turns a subject that I’m not interesting in and makes it fascinating. Baseball fans, and sports fans in general, will like “Moneyball” because it’s about a subject that interests them. I’m not a sports nut and yet I found “Moneyball” to be an engrossing, moving, smart and well-made film that solidly hit every base a good movie should. It sort of felt like “Jerry Maguire” but without that dopey love stuff.Filmmaker Bennett Miller’s last directorial effort (which was his first if you’re keeping track) was the Oscar-nominated “Capote” which netted him a direction nomination (and star Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award). That was a biopic that was fascinating because it was about an eccentric character. Here we get the true story of Billy Beane who was a Major League baseball player who eventually ended up as general manager of the Oakland Athletics (the A’s for short). He was arguably a much more successful manager than ballplayer. How do you make your movie’s main character instantly likeable? You case Brad Pitt, who gives a subtle but nuanced and extremely good performance as Beane, a man who is determined to turn his team around.

The film begins with the A’s losing to the Yankees in the postseason in 2001. The majority of their star players have been traded to better teams. And they have an extremely low budget. Beane cannot afford to spend millions of dollars getting top baseball talent on his team. A trip to Cleveland lands a chance meeting with a young Yale graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Brand is a based on a real guy, but his name is not Peter Brand. Brand was an Economics major and he has a sort of unorthodox way of drafting players in that he focuses on players ability to get on base. He doesn’t look at the traditional things that scouts and managers generally look for. He has some kind of fancy mathematical equation that you and I cannot understand, but it makes sense to someone who majored in Economics at Yale. Beane, who I truly believe was at his wits end hires Brand and wants him to use his magical mathematics to make the A’s a strong team. He does so but recruiting players that no other team really wants including a pitcher who “pitches funny” and a guy let guy from the Red Sox who couldn’t really throw a ball because of an injury. This new strange method of recruitment is met with appropriate reluctantly from the other managers and scouts Beane works with. Beane truly wants to believe that this is going to work.

Anyone who knows a lot about baseball and this team in general knows the whole story. But there are people out there who don’t know this story. Myself included. And I found it simply fascinating. It’s usually difficult for me to root for a sports team mostly because to me I don’t really see what the big deal is. It’s just a bunch of guys playing a game. Why should I care whether a team wins or loses? It’s hard to become emotionally involved in sports, but it’s a lot easier to become emotionally involved in a film. And that’s where the movie succeeds. Pitt and Hill are great at getting viewers to care about them. Pitt is so determined that he’s a substitution for any time in our lives we’ve wanted to succeed so badly. Miller, working with a screenplay from Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin wisely intercuts moments from Beane’s past as a young college baseball star having to make a tough decision: go to Stamford on a full scholarship or sign a deal to play for the New York Mets. Towards the end of the film Beane has to make a similar decision and we’re on pins and needles the whole time.

“Moneyball” is a sports movie for people who don’t really like sports movies. Maybe I liked it because it was as much about math as it was about baseball. Sports fans will love it yeah, but it’s wisely made with the non-fan in mind. It doesn’t use fancy lingo we don’t understand (the way Sorkin’s script for The Social Network did) and it presents us with characters worth caring about. I particularly enjoyed Chris Pratt’s portrayal of Scott Hattenberg. And while the film isn’t all that particularly flashy it includes some great work from cinematographer Wally Pfister. “Moneyball” is a winner through and through. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Time Bandits: The Stylish and Fun “In Time” is Certainly Worth Your Time

Finally we have a wonderfully original film that isn’t based on a book or another movie, or a sequel or even a true story. Heck, it’s not even based on a short story. It’s got to be the work of one Andrew Niccol, a talented filmmaker who constantly churns out highly original works every single time he steps behind the camera. “In Time” takes place in a Philip K. Dickian dystopian future where the currency of dollars has been replaced by time. Right, overpopulation has lead to humanity coming up with a concept that humans are genetically modified to stop aging at 25. If you want to live longer, you must work for additional time. If you want a cup of coffee, instead of paying a few bucks, you pay with a few minutes. Everyone’s time appears as a green digital countdown on their forearm. Once the numbers count down to zero, you “clock out” aka you die instantly. There are those poor individuals who work all day just to gain a few extra hours of life, while those who are rich have decades and decades of time. In essence you can live forever, unless you get reckless and you die by other means – or if someone kills you of course. It’s a wildly fascinating concept that gets immediate praise for this great idea alone.

We’re introduced to Will (Justin Timberlake). His mother Rachel is played by Oliva Wilde. You may notice that Wilde looks no older than say 28. And that’s because she is. While technically her character is about 50, no one in this movie ages past 25, which makes this film ideally a film filled with attractive actors in their mid twenties. Those who are able to get more time will have that amount of time, but their body will no longer age. Of course Rachel and her son are poor, living in a ghetto “time zone” called Dayton. Rachel only has a few hours left to live. While at a bar with a friend that evening Will comes across a 105-year-old “billionaire” named Henry Hamilton who flaunts the fact that he has over 100 years left on his clock to the poor bar patrons. Henry is played by Matt Bomer (and his piercing baby blues). Henry is accosted by a gangster named Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) who wants to steal his time, but Will saves him and brings him to an abandoned warehouse where he confesses that he’s tired of living and would rather just “expire.” He transfers the rest of his time to Will while he sleeps and then commits suicide. The police force known as the Timekeepers believe Will is responsible for Henry’s death. Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) is hot on Will’s trail, who decides to use all of new time to infiltrate the rich folks over in the New Greenwich Time Zone and hopefully help redistribute all the their hoarded time.

That’s a lot to process for a fun action thriller staring the former lead singer of N Sync. Somehow this high concept really works well. It’s simply fascinating to see how one person can “transfer” their time to another by simply grabbing onto the other person’s wrist. While in the rich high society Will comes across a young woman named Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) who seem to be into each other, and he ends up taking her hostage to that her rich daddy played by a creepy Vincent Kartheiser (doing a terrific job playing an 80-year-old in a 25-year-old’s body). The two are soon on the lame as both Leon and Fortis are after them and their time. There are several suspenseful sequences in which the characters literally have minutes or seconds left to live and we watch as they scramble to find more time – including pawning off Sylvia’s diamond earrings for a meager two days of time. And no character is really safe in this movie as anyone’s clock could tick down to zero at any moment.

Andrew Niccol proves to be a wondrous storyteller having delivered some very intriguing screenplays like The Truman Show and Gattaca. He’s even proven himself to be somewhat of a auteur behind the camera as well, as each of his films have a distinct visual style. They’re always so meticulously art directed and appropriately colorful. I loved Roger Deakin’s photography (his first digitally shot film) and beautiful use of shadows and silhouettes. Here Niccol is able to make a dystopian future without hardly any use of computer effects. There’s no need to have sweeping shots of CGI buildings or flying cars, when cars that drive on the ground will do. Heck, people even use payphones in this society. And his films always have such a stylish and lavish feel; it sort of feels like a futuristic James Bond spy thriller with a touch of “Bonnie & Clyde” thrown in. It’s just soft of, cool.

“In Time” is a highly original and chic motion picture that brings up some pretty interesting issues about class warfare and about society in general. And it’s all packaged in the style of a futuristic thriller. It features great performances – like it or not Justin Timberlake has acting talent – and such an interesting premise that it’s certainly not a waste of your time. GRADE: B+