Monthly Archives: November 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Even this late in his career, Martin Scorsese can still reinvent himself, even if it means not changing at all.

“Hugo,” based on the award-winning children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, is the rare PG-rated Scorsese film. However, that does not make it a children’s movie as many have labeled it. “Hugo” is for everyone.
“Hugo” is mechanical, yet magical. In the early 1930s, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives inside the walls of a Parisian train station, operating all of the station’s clocks. He has been doing this ever since his father (Jude Law) died and left him as an orphan. His life inside the walls gives him an innate ability to sneak around totally undetected. He steals in order to get by, which puts him at constant odds with the scheming and ill-tempered station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). As the inspector, Cohen looks like a more over-the-top version of Charles De Gaulle.
All that Hugo has left of his father is a broken automaton which he spends his spare time trying to fix. He steals parts from, and eventually gets caught by, George Melies (Ben Kingsley). That name doesn’t mean a lot to young Hugo at first, but he later discovers that he is none other than the legendary pioneer of filmmaking himself. Melies was one of the first filmmakers to figure out that moving pictures could tell stories.
“Hugo” is based on a book and its about the power of imagination, but it is also about Scorsese’s love of movies. At one point, Hugo takes of Melies’s daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to see a movie in order to cheer her up. He believes that the movie theater is the only place where he can escape from reality. Viewers will also be treated to a history of film as well as footage from several key movies of the silent era. “Hugo” is a film buff’s dream come true.
From looking at the early movies shown in “Hugo,” there really was magic in them. The less realistic the special effects were, the more creative and deceptive filmmakers could be. Melies was equal parts filmmaker and magician.
Early silent films involved many tricks to feign depth and perspective. “Hugo” itself attempts this, and it contains some of the best 3D there has ever been. The third dimension is usually wasted by those who don’t understand the potential of it. In “Hugo,” 3D is not a gimmick but rather a way to add a layer of physical depth, and make this complex world of mazes and winding staircases even more immersive. I am not a cheerleader for the cause of 3D. However, if more directors used 3D the way Scorsese does here, then perhaps this new trend won’t necessarily spell the demise of movies as we know them.
As with any great movie, none of the special effects would mean anything if they did not support a great story. “Hugo” is an uplifting fantasy that is also very real. It balances out its darkest moments with comedy. Best of all, “Hugo” is not just about Hugo. The longer the audience spends in the train station, the more it gets to know the characters that occupy it. The subplots involving the inspector’s attempt to woo the flower shop owner (Emily Mortimer) and another including an old man at odds with a small dog are entertaining and actually tie in with the story as a whole. These segments of “Hugo” reminded me of the subplots seen in the windows of the apartment complex in “Rear Window.” Neither of these movies would be able to function without their settings, or the variety of people who occupy them.
The latter part of Scorsese’s career has been a mixed bag. While he won his first Oscar in 2006 for “The Departed,” few of his latest efforts have matched the brilliance of his earlier efforts. “Hugo” is his finest achievement in years, but there is just no way to compare it to his earlier works. There is nothing wrong with creating something that defies comparison.
Even if no one is shot in the head or shoved into the trunk of a car, “Hugo” could only have been made by Scorsese. His version of Paris transforms the City of Lights into something much grittier. The Paris of “Hugo” looks more like New York via “Gangs of New York”: snowbound, destitute, and industrial. Then there is Hugo’s world, which is one marked only by turning gears, with the great city surrounding him being just outside his reach. The only light of hope that ever shines is from a film projector.
In a way, Hugo is Scorsese in his youth. During his childhood on the mean streets of Little Italy, the movies were his only means of escape. Even as time passes, movies will always remain. The fact that “Hugo” is about a young boy saving the lost films of a once great artist is the kind of warm, moving act that doesn’t usually occur in a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Even though “Hugo” claims that humans are just parts of the larger machine of the world, that can’t explain the feeling of being moved to tears by the movie’s end.
There is a scene in “Hugo” where Hugo and Isabelle watch “A Trip to the Moon” for the first time, and learn that each frame was colorized individually by hand. In the present, a camera can do that, and a computer can create any special effect imaginable. Therefore, it is hard for any movie made today to ever feel hand-crafted. When as much care, love, and devotion goes into making something like “Hugo,” it is then that the director’s, and not a computer’s, fingerprints are all over it. This is one of the best movies of the year.
As a side note, has anyone noticed that whenever a major movie is released that takes places in a foreign country but is spoken in English, all of the characters have British accents? When will Hollywood get that people can tell the difference between a French accent and a British accent?
Here are links to some of the silent movies featured in “Hugo”:
The Great Train Robbery (There is an allusion to the final shot at the end of “Goodfellas”)

Movie Review: The Muppets

It’s a testament to the enduring legacy of The Muppets that their latest film, aptly titled “The Muppets,”can open with Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and make most of the audience giddy. Before the movie began, there was a trailer for the latest “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie which involved the chipmunks singing and dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” It’s things like these that make me thankful that The Muppets are back.

Before I delve in to some very deep, fourth-wall-breaking Muppet matters, I’d like to clarify that I am not an aficionado, nor a connoisseur, of Jim Henson’s creation. The Muppets have come in and out of my life in various forms, but I cannot claim to have grown up on them as many have. Having said that, “The Muppets” is a wonderful 90 minutes of holiday escapism. If you think you’re too old for this movie, then I sentence you to a lifetime of watching the new “Alvin and the Chipmunks” trailer on loop.
The Muppet gang needs no introduction, but perhaps this movie does. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, the duo responsible for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and make a movie with The Muppets. That is why “The Muppets” is so heavily nostalgic.
Stoller and Segel do add a few new Muppets to the gang, most important of them all being Walter (Peter Linz), who grew up idolizing the Muppets in Smalltown, USA. His brother Gary (Segel), who also happens to be both human and five feet taller than him, is just as obsessed with The Muppets as Walter is.
When Gary plans to take his long time girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) out to Los Angeles for their anniversary, Walter comes along. Along the way, their goal becomes to help Kermit unite the gang for one last show in order to save Muppet Studios from the evil oil man Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). For anyone hoping to fill their children with environmental awareness, this is not the movie for you.
Segel’s and Stoller’s choice to make this a self-aware musical is a wise choice, and one that makes this an even more pleasurable viewing experience. I spent a large amount of time learning about the marketing of this movie in my film business class this semester, and for that reason I thought this movie would make me hate both The Muppets and Disney. In actuality, it made me admire both even more.
The story of “The Muppets” is truly about the making of itself. As Walter tries to get The Muppets back together onscreen, the movie does the exact same thing for the audience. Because of this, there are a lot of jokes in the movie that kids probably won’t understand. But for every time a character directly addresses the audience, or makes a joke about the lunacy of the huge dance numbers onscreen, there is a visual gag involving fart shoes. What more could anyone ask for?
The Muppets have been known throughout the years for rounding up a variety of celebrities for their shows and movies. This movie is no exception, and I will leave you with the surprise of most of the cameos that occur. I will say though, that “The Muppets” does include a rap by Chris Cooper. Only these puppets could make an Academy Award winner rap.
This is a version of The Muppets made largely for those who have been following them since their creation. But then again, isn’t every Muppets product like that? There is no reason that this movie shouldn’t be able to introduce new fans to the characters. Some thought that adding in new characters and the implementation of fart shoes were a desecration of The Muppets. That is an outrage. The Muppets are, and always have been, about the spirit and fun of chaos and anarchy.

What Your Thanksgiving TV Watching Says About You

James Bond Marathon (SyFy)
The Bond marathon is a staple of just about every Thanksgiving. You are likely knocking a few back, and desperately wishing you were James Bond. Given that this marathon consists largely of the most recent movies, it will most likely be an excuse for your dad to talk about how everything was better during his day.

Arrested Development Marathon (IFC)

Your family is loud, insane, and probably a little dysfunctional. Watching the Bluths lie to each other as they cheat and steal might make you feel a little better about your own dysfunctional family. Watching the many insults of Lucille Bluth will put that racist comment your relative yells about Barack Obama into a lighter perspective. You’ve also seen every episode over 200 times, but you can still find another pun in Tobias’s dialogue every time you watch. And for that, I salute you.
The Godfather Marathon (AMC)
This is a different kind of dysfunctional family story. Here’s if your family enjoys talking about the secret sauce in their cooking, and occasionally killing people. But more likely you enjoy stories about American history as much as your dad; you will also likely be switching between this and the History Channel all day long. You are also probably a movie buff, and drool over the mise-en-scene during the scene in which Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey. And for that, once again, I salute you.
The National Dog Show (NBC)
Dogs are more entertaining than cats. There, I said it. Watching this also probably brings up great memories of “Best in Show” for you.
NFL Football: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (FOX)
Thanksgiving wouldn’t make sense for you without football. That, or you just really enjoy watching Detroit suffer (current score: 24-0).
Now, get off the internet and go stuff your faces. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Movie Review: Moneyball

Does every sports movie have to end with a victory in order to inspire us? If “Moneyball” teaches us anything, it’s that a failure is just one small step on the road to success.

The sports movie formula has become a giant cliche: assembling the team, training, and then against all odds, winning (usually in slow motion). “Moneyball” does right in veering from this formula, but its biggest folly is that it thinks it’s the smartest sports movie ever made.
I guess this could only occur in a movie about Billy Beane. Beane, portrayed with ever relatable qualities by Brad Pitt, was general manager of the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s. He joined as the team was about to lose Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. Beane was looking not only to turn his team around, but to totally change the game (pun intended).
On a trip to Cleveland, Beane meets a young, Yale-educated analyst for the Indians named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). In a secret “All the President’s Men” style meeting in a parking garage, Brand shares his unconventional method of finding players: judging on the numbers rather than the looks. The fact that all of the talent scouts were well into their 60s shows how out of touch management was with the actual game.
So Beane takes Brand away from Cleveland and the two apply his new system to the A’s. The statistic-based way of recruiting angers many and takes a few hits to the team’s reputation. Beane builds up a team of outcasts and misfits, and through some training and semi-inspirational speeches, the A’s pull off the longest winning streak in Major League Baseball history.
“Moneyball” is less about the actual game and more about what happens behind-the-scenes of the game. As someone who never got too into sports, it speaks great volumes of how invested this movie got me into baseball, if only for this two hour span. There are more brains that goes behind creating a good team than I ever could have imagined. Some of the logic is still a little fuzzy to me (I don’t have a mathematician’s brain), but the fact that it works is absolutely fascinating.
This is also where the film faults the most. “Moneyball,” written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, lacks the absolute clarity that Sorkin injected into “The Social Network” that made the world of computer programming so intriguing. Sorkin should have written this one by himself. Zaillian, while a talented writer, tries to put in the same sentimentality that defined most of his other screenplays such as “Schindler’s List” and “Gangs of New York.”
It wouldn’t be shocking if adding the relationship between Beane and his daughter was Zaillian’s contribution. This wasn’t a terrible addition, as it makes Beane seem more relatable. However, there is no real conflict put into this relationship, as well as in Beane’s relation with his divorced wife. Therefore, this whole plot line just feels thrown in, and the ending isn’t as moving as it should have been. It also takes away from the goal of making “Moneyball” reminiscent of a 70s thriller. That little girl really can sing, though.
“Moneyball” might just miss the mark, and it might suffer from Multiple Ending Syndrome, but it is still a solid, if not spectacular, two hours of entertainment at the theaters. The real highlight of the movie though, is Jonah Hill. Comedic actors give their best turns in dramatic roles when they still act like they are in a comedy. If I could give one more compliment to “Moneyball,” instead of all out dissing it, I’d say it has great comic relief.

Movie Review: About Schmidt

It’s almost 5 o’clock on some weekday and Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is on his last day of work before retirement. He’s not so much paying attention to the paperwork on his desk, but rather for the very second that the clock strikes 5 PM and he’s a free man. Then again, this was probably what every single day of work was like for him.

I think it would be a gross generalization to say that Warren Schmidt, the titular character of “About Schmidt” is no different from me and you, as there are many things that make me and you different. Rather, he begins the movie with no unique characteristics to establish him. He is vice president of an insurance company, working in a blank office in a plain, white skyscraper. Later, we will find out this was never the job he hoped to end up with.
Warren then goes home every day from work to a wife (June Squibb) he doesn’t think he loves enough and a daughter (Hope Davis) who is marrying a deadbeat (Dermot Mulroney). The Schmidt household is a picture of lost potential.
Warren’s life post-retirement has come down to a single Winnebago, the one he will drive cross country to his daughter’s wedding. But Mrs. Schmidt suddenly, inexplicably, drops dead. This drives Warren into a second, even worse rut. But still, he must embark on that cross country road trip. Most say that long trips are best made with a companion. Well its a long road to Denver, and the only thing accompanying Warren are his thoughts.
“About Schmidt,” like just about every other Alexander Payne movie, boils down to a road trip. While his films are usually about how friends or family resolve their differences on the road, making Warren go it alone shows that this is truly a film about a man who doesn’t only need to redeem himself in the eyes of his family, but rather he must redeem himself in his own eyes. That’s why when he begins writing letters to a boy he adopted from Africa, it sounds a lot like he’s talking to himself.
“About Schmidt” certainly isn’t Payne’s best film. No, that honor still belongs to the twisted “Election.” Yet, it captures an essence and a feeling that all of his films try to convey better than anything he has ever done. “About Schmidt” shows that the idea of America lies on the road. This is a country of people who feel the need to explore, from the pioneers to Warren Schmidt. This might sound like too much of an overanalysis but once you see this movie, it’ll make sense.
“About Schmidt” shows in finest form that Payne and his frequent co-writer, Jim Taylor, know how to write natural sounding dialogue like few others working today can. The conversations feel colloquial yet relatable. No matter what, “About Schmidt” always gives off a warm, welcoming vibe, even when the characters act totally detestable.
Usually, a lone road trip would seem dull, and more like in-between time between big scenes rather than an entire movie. But Payne makes Schmidt’s trip a deep, introspective one. While most road trip stories are interesting for what the characters see, this one is most interesting for who our character meets along the way, and the moments they all share together. There is something about the kindness of strangers that can make someone want to tell them anything. Or that is, if you don’t feel comfortable saying anything to your own family.
I said it once before in my review of “The Descendants” that Payne can get established actors to go totally against type, and deliver some of their finest work. Jack Nicholson’s most familiar character is a loud, outcast rebel. In “About Schmidt,” he plays someone facing the consequences of a life of not taking any risks. It is a quieter performance than we are used to seeing from him. He unlocks something in the character that no other actor could in that he takes someone who is so plain and unextraordinary and makes him vibrant and extraordinary. Then, when he finally realizes how little time he has left, and how much of life there is to enjoy, his revelation feels earned rather than contrived.
For that main reason, the ending of “About Schmidt” feels right when it could’ve felt wrong. I am not saying that “About Schmidt” is going to change your life, as that is not the point of it. Rather, it might just make you want to look around, appreciate where your from, and then do something you wouldn’t normally do. How often does that happen?

Movie Review: The Descendants

Seven years ago, Alexander Payne dispensed a masterful romantic comedy called “Sideways” on us. Then, he all but disappeared, meaning that for seven long years theaters lacked the likes of Jack and Miles and Tracy Flick. Finally, Payne’s fifth feature as a director, “The Descendants” has hit theaters, and it’s the kind of film Payne must have been working toward his whole career to make.
Payne’s early Omaha-centric films lent themselves perfectly to dark comedies, thanks to the always cloudy midwestern location. After checking out Napa Valley in “Sideways,” Payne jumps across the Pacific to Hawaii for “The Descendants.” This is Payne’s darkest film. Despite it taking place in Hawaii, George Clooney’s Matt King makes it clear from the very beginning that just because they live in paradise, Hawaiians are not “immune to life.” This is not the sequel to “50 First Dates.”
King is a lawyer, a land baron, and an absent father. Like most of the people around him, he wears a tropical shirt every day. However, rather than conveying relaxation, wearing these shirts just seem to convey stress. King comes home one day to find his wife, whom was always fond of extreme sports, to be in a coma after a boating accident. Not only must he care for someone who is on their deathbed, but also his daughters whom he barely knows.
His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) turns out to be a precocious mess without the guidance of her father. The oldest King daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is a so-called problem child who surprisingly steps up to the plate once her mother isn’t around. Matt’s attempts to rekindle his relationship with his daughters is rough at first, but every minute of the film is a representation of him making a step in the right direction and becoming a better father.
Along the way, Matt finds out the nasty little secret that his wife was having an affair with a real estate mogul (Matthew Lillard), something that Matt’s ineptitude as a husband might have forced her into doing. This all leads Matt to explore one big question: can you forgive somebody who is in a vegetative state?
Just as the eldest daughter must step up to the plate, so does Clooney in this challenging performance, and he definitely delivers, in one of the best roles of his career. Payne has a habit of getting his actors to go against character, and Matt King is the equivalent of Jim McAllister years after he decided to flee Omaha and Warren Schmidt before reaching old age. Clooney is best at playing characters who go through a crisis but this time, he gets a happier, or more accurately, uplifting, ending.
Clooney is an actor who usually gives very commanding performances. His performance in “The Descendants” is a different kind of commanding, the more quiet kind, the kind that could win him an Oscar. His character doesn’t speak in monologues in front of a crowd but rather in long monologues inside of his head. Perhaps he is trying to reach out to someone that won’t listen, or rather justify his own actions in the comfort of his thoughts. Either way, it sends the message that his neglect never came from lack of love. Perhaps a lack of understanding might be a better way to describe it.
“The Descendants” moves at a leisurely pace, making the good times better, and the tragic times more painful. Here is a film that wants its audience to wallow in both joy and sorrow. The audience is given ample time to get to know the characters, and soak in the fantastically convincing screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (yes, this guy).
“The Descendants” uses its Hawaiian locales to their full potential. While this film dispels the myth that Hawaii is a paradise, it doesn’t shy away from the images of sandy beaches and towering green mountains from the Hawaiian stock photo factory. And why not? While Hawaii is a place filled with hardships like any other state in America, it is still a damn beautiful place to live.
At the core of “The Descendants” is a tragedy that causes many other tragedies. What this film does so interestingly is disconnect its audience from the tragedy. We never do witness the tragic accident that put Mrs. King into a coma, nor do we get to witness her being alive at all (there aren’t even any flashbacks of her provided). It is this disconnect that ultimately makes “The Descendants” such an uplifting film, because in the aftermath of a tragedy, there is a certain unpredictable nature, as if there is nowhere to go but up. And that is exactly what the King family needs. And as an audience member, it’ll make you love this film even more than you thought you could.

Movie Review: The Rum Diary

Before Hunter S. Thompson wreaked havoc at every hotel in Las Vegas in between mescaline trips, he downed shots of rum and turned over hotel mini bars in San Juan.

The novel of “The Rum Diary,” written by Thompson in the late 1950s but not published until 1998, remains one of the defining works of the father of Gonzo Journalism. The film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing,” while a failure upon initial release, is a cult classic. The film adaptation of “The Rum Diary,” written and directed by Bruce Robinson, may have trouble reaching this legendary status. “The Rum Diary” is a nice tribute to the brilliant rebel author, but it fails to capture the obsessive, detailed beauty of his writing.

Johnny Depp once again plays the role of Thompson, this time under the pseudonym of Paul Kemp. Kemp, an alcoholic American expatriate from New York, flees to Puerto Rico where he finds a job as a writer for a failing newspaper.

“The Rum Diary” is, in a sense, the story of how Thompson became a great journalist. At the beginning, he can’t find his voice as a writer. By the end, he realizes he must use his voice to fight against the injustices he finds. The movie only gets halfway into fully developing this point. If you want to see a truly great portrayal of the impact of Thompson’s writing, watch “Gonzo” instead.

Another part of the movie involves Kemp’s encounter with Sanderson (Aaron Echkhart), a rich American businessman living in Puerto Rico with his beautiful lover Chenault (Amber Heard), the continual source of Kemp’s affection. Sanderson’s plan to develop a resort on beachfront property feels less like a fully developed representation of Thompson’s first battle against the “bastards” of capitalism, and more like the plot of an 80s comedy.

Since stumbling upon the original manuscript of “The Rum Diary,” Depp has always been fascinated with Thompson, and turning this book into a movie has always been a passion project for him. In his performance, Depp captures the essence of Thompson through his mumbled voice, which is always moving faster than anyone can speak, and despite almost always being drunk or under the influence of a strange drug introduced to him, his always cognizant demeanor.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi steals every scene he’s in as as the disgruntled and out-of-his-mind Moburg. His lightning-fast intensity and hilarious characterization should earn him better roles in the future. As Lotternman, Richard Jenkins’s fiery way of speaking deserved more screen time. Sanderson’s intended cartoonish persona and two-dimensional nature makes it difficult for Eckhart to do much with the character. While Heard has the entrancing look of Chenault, her performance comes off as more dull than enticing.

While “The Rum Diary” is about Thompson’s quest to find his voice, the film lacks that voice completely and ends up being a squeaky-clean, Hollywood version of “The Rum Diary.” While the film is entertaining, it lacks both Thompson’s insight and indignation. The greatest absence from the film is of the novel’s haunting final lines, which embody Thompson’s early quest to be F. Scott Fitzgerald in his writing style. These words could have been said in a final voiceover, or perhaps represented by one image. Instead, it resorts to a tidy epilogue, as opposed to exploring the more indefinite freedom of the original story.

And in this lays the movie’s biggest problem: capturing the mood and feeling. Thompson’s style of journalism is driven by individual feelings rather than objectivity. In “Fear and Loathing,” the bright lights and ringing slot machines of Vegas are just a cover for the emptiness of the American Dream. In “The Rum Diary,” tropical paradise is nothing but a false romanticism to conceal the pervasive lies of those in power. The film makes Puerto Rico look exciting and pretty, but it never connects the dots.

When “Fear and Loathing” replicated the book’s famed “wave speech” on screen, it did exactly what Thompson intended: it stripped away the layers of beast and made himself look totally human, just for a moment, while simultaneously justifying a countercultural generation. There is a scene in this film similar in message, and only slightly as successful in adaptation. I don’t mean to continually compare these two stories, as they were written at two very different times in Thompson’s life, but when you strip away the layers of “The Rum Diary” that Depp and Robinson attempt to recreate, there is nothing but a hollow center.