Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets Review

What can I possibly say about The Muppets besides praise? I mean really, you can’t speak negatively of puppeteer Jim Henson’s beloved creations that spanned a popular television show as well as a number of successful movies. And why would you, honestly? They’re completely harmless and so in their latest cinematic outing (simply titled “The Muppets,” directed by James Bobin) you get what you pay for and if you’re not satisfied then you’ve gone to wrong movie. Bobin’s direction is energetic and he stages every song and dance number fantastically.

Yes, the whole thing from start to finish is silly and ridiculous but seriously? What do you expect? We’re talking about a world where miniature cloth puppets coexist with humans with no questions asked. And the movie is funny, mostly because they make fun of themselves and the fact that their humor is a tad outdated (Fozzie Bear’s “wocka wocka” jokes).

All the original Muppets are back. The ring leader Kermit the Frog, his on again off again girlfriend Ms. Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Swedish Chef, those two old guys who heckle the rest of the Muppets and many many more. With the addition of a brand new Muppet named Walter, they’re all a delight to watch.

Even more so are the human actors. Jason Segal as Walter’s older brother (I wonder which parent is Muppet?) is perfectly jolly the whole way through, his girlfriend played by Amy Adams hits her high notes like a Disney princess and major props go to Chris Cooper as the movie’s main bad guy Tex Richman, who does the diabolical villain act straight and even goes the extra mile when he performs a rap. Not to mention the dozens of celebrities that make their way onto the screen, from Jack Black to Alan Arkin, who all look like they’re having the time of their lives.

I’m not sure how well “The Muppets” will do against other animated films. There’s nothing wrong with the movie but I have a feeling only fans will go see it. But The Muppets have nothing to lose. What they don’t make in box office bucks they will easily make in merchandising sales. I’m sure thousands of kids will beg their parents to go out and buy them a Kermit the Frog or Ms. Piggy doll.

Hugo Review

You’ve got to hand it to Martin Scorsese. The 69-year-old director is always trying something new. Last year he had his hand in the mystery-thriller genre with “Shutter Island” and this year, with the family adventure/fantasy “Hugo” (based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret” by Brian Selznick), he has shown us again that he is a master of cinema.

To call “Hugo” great would be an understatement. It’s not great, it’s a living, breathing enchanted entity from start to finish. It’s a wild adventure, as well as Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema. And it’s the best use of 3D and CGI this entire year.

 Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson don’t just throw a bunch of visual objects in your face; they move the camera in ways that you don’t expect. In the fantastic opening sequence our hero, the scrawny orphan boy Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) --who lives within the walls of a post World War I Paris train station, where he makes sure the clocks stay in tune--runs along the boardwalk, gazing out through the holes in the massive chronometers at the busy bustling life of the train station.  Then he climbs and shimmies his way through the revolving metal clock gears and slides down a tubular slide to another level, the camera quickly but deftly following him, keeping us right up there with him. 

Among many things,  “Hugo” is about movement. The moving gears, the smoke and fog that rises above the ground, the constant snowfall. Everything is in tune, following a rhythm, like the very clocks young Hugo tends to.

However, “Hugo” isn’t just flash. There’s a very endearing and delightful story tucked within its visual flair, a story with many complex layers.  On the outside the movie is a story of the wonders, fears and dangers of childhood and growing up.  When he’s not working on the clocks Hugo steals food or other supplies to fix up his automaton (a metal wind-up figure that’s used to perform some function, which his father left him when he died). He frequently has to look behind his back to check if the cruel station inspector (an amusing Sacha Baron Cohen) is there to snatch him up and take him to the orphanage. 

 One day he meets a cold reserved old man named Georges Meillies (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy store at the station, and his goddaughter Isabelle (an eccentric Chloe Grace Moretz who as always holds the screen every time she’s on it, even with such big stars as Kingsley). The old man literally holds the key to Hugo’s automaton and its secrets. This leads Hugo and Isabelle on an adventure to discover the mysteries that lie within the automaton and Meillies.

This brings us to the next and the richest layer of the movie. The two kids find out that Meillies used to be a silent moviemaker (Meillies is an actual person) and a true innovator, being the first person to experiment with special effects and illusions. This is what I meant by “Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema.” While learning about him, they and we the audience get a lesson in early movies from the very first (a train riding to a stop) to Harold Lloyd hanging from clock hands in the 1923 movie “Safety Last.” Scorsese is reminding us how well movies were made back in the silent era and through his movie he shows us how a scene like a train pulling into a station or a person hanging from clock hand is still a spectacular sight and also that the visual aspect of moviemaking can be stronger than dialogue. Some of the strongest character interactions in “Hugo” involve little or no dialogue, instead focusing on facial expressions and body movement, like when the station inspector tries to woo a flower vender played by Emily Mortimer.

The final piece to this intricate clockwork of a movie is the sense of finding your place. That the whole world can be viewed as a machine with every form of life functioning as a working gear, whether it’s an avant garde filmmaker or a lowly orphan. Meillies has lost his way and it takes two children to put him back in his place.

When we get to see a sampling of Meillies’ work, it’s a pure cinematic treat. You sit there in your rocking theater chair, munching on your popcorn and sipping your beverage watching the Meillies’ movie “ A Trip to the Moon,” where a rocket hits the eye of the man in the moon and think, “how on earth could someone accomplish something like that in the Twenties?”  In the end “Hugo” becomes a celebration of technology. Scorsese shows us how far we’ve come and at the same time reminds us what we accomplished back then.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Twilight Breaking Dawn part 1 Review:

Here it is, the moment thousands of preteen girls, Team Edward and Team Jacob alike have been waiting for. The conclusion to one of the most successful vampire book/movie franchises of all time:  The “Twilight” saga. Where we learn the fate of everybody’s favorite interspecies love triangle. Edward Cullen the vampire, Jacob the Native American werewolf and Bella Swan, the human girl stuck in the middle.

Well…not quite. You see the producers of the saga saw the immense success the “Harry Potter” franchise had with splitting the last book into two movies, so they figured they could cash in on their fans as well. So instead we have “Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 1.”

Except the seventh “Harry Potter” book actually had enough story to fit two movies. Now, I haven’t read any of the ‘Twilight” books (by Stephanie Meyer) but judging by this movie the final book doesn’t have enough material.

So now we have two problems on our hands. “Breaking Dawn Part 1” is half a movie. You could fast-forward through the first part and you wouldn’t miss anything. It does pick up in the second half but it’s a long journey.

In addition, all the other problems from the other movies still remain. Mainly that the whole thing is nothing but a soap opera. The actors take the material way too seriously. At times it’s like watching a B movie with high production values.

The film begins with Bella getting ready for her marriage to Edward. There’s lots of smiling and staring and people telling her how proud they are of her and that they love her. Then after about ten minutes she’s walking down the aisle with her doofy mustached father Charlie. There’s some gasping and awwing. Then there’s the wedding reception scene that feels longer than the wedding reception scene in “The Deer Hunter”(and that was a long scene), where there is more staring, smiling and people telling Bella how much they love her and are proud of her.

Before I go any further let’s check in on our stars. Kristen Stewart is still dull, pathetic and weak as Bella and setting a horrible example for women everywhere. Which is really too bad because Stewart is not a terrible actress. She’s proven herself worthy in other movies, like “The Runaways” or “Adventureland” but the role of Bella gives her nothing to do. Robert Pattinson as Edward is still droopy eyed, and has that look of constipation in his face (aka the smoldering charm women love) but luckily he’s not as stiff and sad as he’s been previously. And finally Taylor Lautner as Jacob is still overly dramatic about everything, keeping the same intense look on his face. Thankfully, he doesn’t take off his shirt too many times, although I suppose that’s a loss for all the women in the audience.

Anyhow, back to the gripping plot. Edward and Bella go on their honeymoon at a small island near South America where they do such exciting activities as: playing chess, swimming in a water hole, staring at each other across the beach, more chess, and more staring. They do have sex for the first time, which is important because vampirism in the world of “Twilight” is one big metaphor for chastity.

 Then…Hallelujah! The inciting incident finally makes its way into the movie. Bella gets pregnant and since vampire babies and human mothers don’t mix, the baby is slowly killing Bella from the inside. Making her skinnier, paler and even more useless then she was before. This of course leads to a feud between the vampires and werewolves, who want to kill Bella and her baby for everyone’s safety and we get to see some fantastically choreographed fight scenes and chase scenes. The few enjoyable moments of the movie.

The big question remains: How on earth are the producers going to make another movie? Because this one doesn’t leave much in the way of a thrilling conclusion to look forward to. “Breaking Dawn Part 1” isn’t the worst of the series (“New Moon” still holds that title) but that’s not saying much. The director Bill Condon does what he can but like Stewart the script doesn’t give him very much to work with.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jack and Jill Review

I would love to sit in on the pitch meeting for the new Adam Sandler vehicle “Jack and Jill.” Well, perhaps love isn’t the word I’m looking for. More like curious and then stunned at what I see.

“Hey, so how about for my next movie I play a crabby/cocky advertising producer and at the same time play my twin sister in drag. Oh! And she can be obnoxious and annoying, and mess things up but also really care about Jack and his family.”

“Why that’s perfect! And we can call it ‘Jack and Jill,’ it’s catchy! And then we can throw in as many celebrities as we can. We’ll start with Al Pacino. He can play a main part as himself being romantically obsessed with Jill and he can take shots at himself too.”

“Oh, I don’t think he would do that.”

“I bet he would with the right amount of money, I mean have you seen the last few movies he’s done? Then we can get Johnny Depp, Regis Philbin, and Drew Carey. Even Jared from Subway.”

“Alright! and don’t forget about Nick Swardsden and David Spade and all the other regulars who inhabit my Happy Madison movies. I think they need the work too.”

Directed by long-time Sandler filmmaker Dennis Dugan,“Jack and Jill” isn’t so much an Adam Sandler movie as it is a parody of an Adam Sandler movie. Like the kind of thing you would see on “Saturday Night Live,” or on “Family Guy.” The movie is scripted by Steve Koren, however I highly doubt that he was the only one working on it. When Zook turned in the first draft Sandler and his team of ten producers must have dissected the hell out of it, not caring about fluency or logic. The movie is a continuous string of sitcom gags. Jill making a fool of herself at the movies, Jill trying to ride a children’s horse, Jill having to go to the bathroom after eating too much Mexican food.  

There are emotional parts to it but it’s very difficult to take Sandler’s schtick seriously.

Then there’s Pacino. On one hand I suppose he should be commended for making a fool of himself. The funniest scene in the whole movie came when he alludes to the fact that he has somehow only won one Oscar. On the other hand, you can’t help but be embarrassed by him, like when he snuggles up to a sweat stain left by Jill on her bed. Michael Corleone everyone!

Overall though, this is the most interesting role Pacino has had in years and that’s incredibly sad. Here’s to hoping that he does well in the upcoming John Gotti biopic and that Sandler and Dugan get put on filmmaking probation from for a while.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tower Heist

“Tower Heist” is better than it looks. By now I’m sure you’ve seen the many commercials for it either in the theaters or on TV featuring Eddie Murphy up to his crazy antics, spouting goofy lines (“Man what you tryin’ to steal!”)  Or “Precious” Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe as a crazy Jamaican maid. Doesn’t exactly sound like a promising movie. But alas, it’s not wise to judge a movie by its trailer as “Tower Heist” turns out to be a surprisingly decent comedy/action movie. 

It’s sort of a spoof of the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies and other heist movies. Christopher Beck’s score is an obvious homage. It revolves around a group of people who decide to steal 20 million dollars.

At the same time, “Tower Heist” fits into the “average stiffs, who’ve never committed a crime, suddenly turn to crime” comedy sub genre. (“Horrible Bosses” from earlier this year is another example.)

The director of the film is Brett Ratner, who brought us the “Rush Hour Trilogy” and he’s definitely proven his skill for directing action movies. His direction is slick, he stages the action sequences exceptionally and he keeps the movie going at a steady pace. Fortunately there aren’t as many gunfights or high-speed car chases compared to the “Rush Hour” films but the few gunfights and car chases in the movie are of high quality.

 The main average stiff is Ben Stiller as Josh Kovacs, a devoted manager of a fancy New York high-rise apartment building, who along with all the other employees fall victim to a Ponzi scheme committed by one of the wealthy tenants Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, cold and ruthless but comes off totally harmless). So Kovac and three others, the building concierge Charlie Gibbs (Casey Affleck), a laid off Wall Street worker Mr. Fitzhugh (Mathew Broderick) and the new bell hop Enrique Dev’reaux (Michael Pena) decide to sneak into his penthouse suite and steal the money back, (which they think is in a wall safe) during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Though they can’t do it without the help of a petty thief by the name of Slide (Murphy) who becomes their coach, which leads to a few amusing scenes of Slide giving them different tests, like when they have to go to the mall and each steal something in fifteen minutes.

For the most part the cast does very well. Stiller plays his role somewhat uptight and wussy but at the same time shows some guts, like when he smashes Arthur’s prized car in the living room of his apartment. Broderick does an exceptional job playing the pathetic, geeky member of the group and Dev’reaux is funny as the young, stupid na├»ve one. Together they all play off each other wonderfully and are all consistently funny.

The only one that didn’t work too well was Murphy, unfortunately. Yes, this is the best movie role “The Beverly Hills Cop” star has had in years and the film plays to his comedic talents but it only goes so far. He’s the only one I felt who was trying really hard to be funny, with his fast talking shtick, making big, wide faces. He is funny occasionally but after a while he becomes tiresome.

The script by Ted Grifin and Jeff Nathanson is well structured. It stays on a clear path, never veering off. It doesn’t get heavy with boring side plots. Something does start to ensue between Josh and an FBI agent played by Tea Leone but it doesn’t distract the film or ruin its pace. Also, a majority of the jokes came from dialog (“I’m going to blow your face clean off your face”) instead of physical or gross-out gags.

 Now, the heist sequence is ridiculous. Even with all their “brilliant” planning it’s hard to believe that they could still just walk into the building without being noticed and while they’re penetrating the safe, you’d think someone would notice them. But it’s still entertaining and kept me alert, wanting to see how it was all going to unfold. A lot of times comedies have trouble ending smoothly but “Tower Heist” successfully comes to satisfying ending while not being too forced or random.