Wednesday, November 23, 2011

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS: The Meek Shall Inherit The Mirth

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (Dir. Sarah Smith, 2011)

Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace and Gromit, takes another step further away from clay animation with this 3D CGI holiday spectacular that roots for an underdog who wants no child to be left behind this Christmas without a present.

The underdog is Santa Claus's youngest son, the lanky accident-prone Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), who gets in the way of his brother Steve's (Hugh Laurie) high tech military operation-stlye method of distributing gifts throughout the world from a ginormous STAR WARS-style air cruiser with a war room-esque bridge manned by elves.

Steve is primed to take over the Santa business, but his father (Jim Broadbent) announces that he's not stepping down just yet from his position at the North Pole. Meanwhile, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the oldest living Santa from a long line of St. Nicks, gripes about the newfangled technology calling Steve "a postman with a spaceship."

Arthur discovers that their "Christmas Accomplished" banner is premature as one present was not delivered, and with the help of Grandsanta and his oldschool sleigh, a spunky elf from the giftwrap battalion (Ashley Jensen), and, of course, flying reindeer, he sets out to right the wrong and save the day - or at least one child's day.

Like many 3D productions (with the mighty exception of Martin Scorsese's HUGO), the in-your-face imagery looks kind of cool at first, but that sensation fades fast. I wouldn't recommend spending the extra money, unless you happen to be a diehard fan of the 3D format.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS has a lot of entertainment value, especially when it's satirizing the ridiculous logistics of Santa's one night a year occupation, but it feels more frantic than funny at times, and the stakes don't feel high enough.

It's still likable enough as a lark, though the premise of a lovable loser that wins out because of his purity has been done ad nauseam.

However, kids will be too caught up in all the swirling shininess on screen to care.

More later...

Martin Scorsese's Amazing First Foray Into 3D

HUGO (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2011)

As I've reported many times, I'm not a fan of the current 3D trend. I've found it to be a headache inducing gimmick that gets in the way of, rather than enhances, the movie-going experience.

However, I was still incredibly eager to see what master film maker Martin Scorsese could do with the format, so I put my bias aside and happily donned the glasses to take in his grand adaptation of Brian Selznick's 2007 novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

I was delighted from start to finish, as Scorsese's HUGO is an amazing experience in the third dimension.

Asa Butterfield portrays the title character, a 13 year old Parisian orphan who lives inside the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station in the early 1930s. While not maintaining the station's many clocks, Butterfield spies on a toy stand run by the cold Ben Kingsley.

Butterfield is trying to finish building an automaton (a mechanical man) that his father (Jude Law) was working on before he death. Kingsley catches Butterfield stealing parts from his stand, and confiscates his father's notebook filled with important instructions.

While attempting to get the notebook back, Butterfield befriend's Kingsley's goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), who happens to have a heart-shaped key that perfectly fits the automaton's key hole.

To maneuver through the mysteries of the movie, Butterfield gets help from Moretz, a wise old bookshop owner (the great Christopher Lee), and as a kind film historian (Michael Stahlberg), all while staying one step ahead of a bumbling station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen who has just the right light comical approach to what could've been a standard fool on the sidelines role).

Butterfield learns that Kingsley is the legendary French film maker Georges Méliès, whose technical innovations in the art of movie production had folks dubbing him the world's first "Cinemagician."

There is certainly a lot of cinemagic on display in Hugo. From the inner workings of the train station's clocks, to the depth of details making up the Paris surroundings, there are a wealth of intoxicating visuals.

However, what's really stunning about HUGO is how touchingly personal a film it is. Scorsese successfully recreates the sense of wonder that he felt as a kid in the audience of a Brooklyn movie palace, with his love of movie magic culminating in a breathtaking mixture of original Méliès footage, and wondrously faithful re-creations.

Scorsese's first family film (indeed his first PG-rated film in almost 20 years) contains the best use of 3D imagery I've see yet, but it's such a work of overwhelming beauty that it would still be fantastic in 2D.

As the film's wide-eyed protagonist, Butterfield brings a lot of infectious spirit which is charmingly complimented by Moretz's precocious pluck. The subtle power of Kingsley's presence is also nicely matched with the poignancy of Helen McCrory as his wife who was once an actress in his films.

A cinematic love letter from one master to another, this film is as deserving of your ticket money as it is another Best Picture Oscar for Scorsese (Robert Richards' cinematography deserves an Academy Award too).

HUGO is one from the heart that will go down in history.

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THE MUPPETS: Go Ahead, Call It A Comeback

THE MUPPETS (Dir. James Bobin, 2011)

It’s not surprising that somebody would try to reboot the Muppets. I mean, every other franchise in the world has been dusted off in the last decade so why not Jim Henson’s once wildly popular creations?

And it’s not surprising that that somebody would be Jason Segel, the oafish man-child best known for his work with Judd Apatow and the hit TV series How I Met Your Mother. Segel is a huge Muppets fan, who previously proved he could provide puppetry power in the Dracula musical climax of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, so there’s that.

But what is surprising is that THE MUPPETS is really good.

Segel, with the assistance of co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin, has wonderfully captured the spirit of the Muppets I knew as a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s, making it feel like the muddled Muppet movies made in the ‘90s never existed.

The film has quite a lengthy, yet quite enjoyable, buildup before we see our old felt friends in which we meet a new Muppet named Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who lives in a small town (named Smalltown) with Segel as his brother Gary. You see, somehow Muppets can be related to humans – we never see their parents or get any explanation, which is just as well.

Segel, and his longtime girlfriend Amy Adams, take Walter to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Theater and Muppet Studios, only to them find them to be abandoned cobweb-covered tourist attractions that an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is targeting to tear down so he can drill for oil.

So it’s up to Walter, Segel, and Adams to re-unite the Muppets so they can save their old digs. They find Kermit living in a dark mansion alone with his memories (well, and an ‘80s robot that serves Tab and New Coke – nice fitting retro joke, huh?).

Once they convince Kermit to join them, they’re off to find Fozzie Bear (in a sleazy Reno casino tribute band called “The Moopets”), Miss Piggy (now Fashion Editor of Paris Vogue), and the Great Gonzo (currently a corporate CEO of a plumbing empire). Most hilarious is Animal in court-appointed anger management therapy with Jack Black as his sponsor.

With the help of a montage they locate the others (Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beeker, Dr. Teeth, etc.), and they got a back-to-basics ‘hey, everybody let's put on a show' thing a-happenin'.

They have trouble getting a network to broadcast their telethon, as TV executive Rashida Jones tells them: “You guys aren’t famous anymore.” However Jones still gives them a shot, and the gang go full throttle to put on a money-raising spectacular in which almost every Muppet gets a chance to shine.

Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords, whose series was also helmed by director Bobin , wrote a few catchy songs for the production including the recurring theme “Life’s a Happy Song," and the Linz and Segel sung “Man or Muppet.”

I could’ve done without a few of the song/dance numbers – Amy Adams/Miss Piggy’s “Me Party” is a screen time waster, and Cooper’s rapping on “Let’s Talk About Me” is just plain awful - but for a great deal of its breezy 2 hour running time THE MUPPETS is a lot of fun.

Even the tacked on Segel/Adams rom com subplot (i.e. he forgets their 10th anniversary dinner in the midst of Muppet madness) doesn’t detract from the large amount of pure cinematic happiness on hand here.

I loved how so much of the meta material was laugh out loud funny, really enjoyed the abundant cameos which I won’t spoil, and was impressed at how dead-on the Muppet voices are – especially Steven Whitmire who has been doing Kermit since Henson died in 1991, and has often sounded a little off, but thankfully not here for the most part.

It’s certainly the best Muppet movie since Henson died, but it’s much more than that. Segel and co. have pulled off a tribute that revitalizes the furry family friendly franchise in the most welcome way.

More later...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: The Film Babble Blog Review

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Dir. Sean Durkin, 2011)

If you can get past the title, this is a stunner.

Elizabeth Olsen is Martha, but while she was living with a cult for 2 years in the Catskills she was called “Marcy May.” “Marlene” is the name all the women group members are given to identify themselves when answering the phone (the men go by “Michael”).

Got it?

The film begins with Olsen fleeing the cult’s farm, and calling her older sister (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. Olsen stays with her sister and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their Connecticut vacation house as she recovers.

But getting back to normal is going to be difficult as she is haunted by memories of what she’s been through.

“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” She asks Paulson, summing up what most of the movie is like.

As many scenes form, we are unsure if what is happening is past or present. We see flashbacks involving John Hawkes as the cult’s leader, who is as scary as he is charismatic. Hawkes trains the cult members how to handle guns, perform home invasions, and participate in forced sex rituals. Even when softly singing an old ‘60s folk song (aptly titled “Marcy’s Song), Hawkes is creepy as can be.

Olsen is understandably frightened about being abducted again, constantly feeling she’s being watched. Her behavior is unnerving to Paulson and Dancy who are trying to have a baby. At one point Olsen climbs into bed with them as they are having sex. Yep, the girl ain’t right.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a disturbing, unsettling experience. A lot of it drifts like a dream, but the kind of dream that's on the edge of a nightmare.

First time writer-director Durkin has crafted a stirring film, a different kind of psychological thriller than the formulaic fodder that usually goes by that label.

The material here may be a bit vague – we never get much of a backstory to the cult, and don’t get how Olsen got caught up with them in the first place – but this is a movie about moods and a fractured mindset, it’s not about details or exposition.

The ambiguous ending is sure to put many people off, but I found it to be fitting in keeping with the film’s eerie atmosphere.

Olsen’s performance never falters. It’s a challenging character that she infuses with an effective frazzled fragility, which is really impressive for her first leading role in a feature film.

Recently it was reported that the President ordered up this film for a screening at the White House.

Interesting choice. Maybe that will add some Obama buzz to the hugely favorable reviews this has already gathered. This is not a film to be ignored, and since the Commander in Chief himself sought it out, with hope many moviegoers will follow suit.

More later...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Michael Shannon Needs Shelter From The Storm

(Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Ever since Michael Shannon stole REVOLUTIONARY ROAD out from under Leo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet a few years back, I've been waiting for the man to carry a movie as the lead. Here, he gets to do just that as a man tortured by apocalyptic visions.

Shannon plays a blue collar father in a small town in Ohio - so small that everybody knows each other - who continually sees ominous clouds, strange formations of frightened birds, and rain that looks like orange soda when it pours into his palm.

Nobody else sees this scary stuff so his wife (Jessica Chastain), best friend/co-worker (Shannon's Boardwalk Empire co-star Shea Whigham), and everybody else think Shannon is going crazy.

Shannon thinks he may be going insane too, as there is a history of mental illness in his family - Kathy Baker has a brief bit as his mother suffers from dementia.

Still, his awareness of his possibly delusionary state doesn't stop his from building a bomb shelter in his backyard.

There have been many stories about protagonists who may be crazy, or they may be on to something (that saying about paranoiacs being the people that know what's really going on comes to mind) - it's Twilight Zone 101.

I wish I could say that TAKE SHELTER brings something new to the table, but it doesn't. It's far from fully fleshed out, there's one too many fake-out nightmare scenes, and I don't think I took away what they wanted me to take away from the ending. I say I don't think so, because I really don't know what director Nichols (who also scripted the film) wanted folks to take away from it.

Chastain doesn't really have much to do as Shannon's wife except look worried - a part that resembles her role in THE TREE OF LIFE - but she brings a believable presence regardless.

It's Shannon's show though, and he owns the movie indeed. It's Oscar worthy work that's pretty much the sole reason to see this movie. His brow has never looked as furrowed before than in this excellent portrayal as a honest working man plagued by fear.

It's a performance that will stay with you for days.

More later...

Friday, November 11, 2011

The MacGuffin in MARGIN CALL

MARGIN CALL (Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2011)

Most movie-minded folks know what a “MacGuffin” is, but for those who don’t – it’s a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, meaning an object or event that drives the plot. From the Maltese Falcon to the Ark of the Covenant to the Dude’s rug, MacGuffins are inescapable plot elements in many many movies.

In “Margin Call”, we are introduced to the MacGuffin in the form of a USB drive that Stanley Tucci, just downsized from risk management at the fictitious firm the film is set at, gives to one of his former underlings (Zachary Quinto) with the warning “be careful.”

Quinto appraises the flash drive’s content after his co-workers leave, and, after crunching some numbers, he urgently calls everybody back to the office. Senior trader Paul Bellany calls Kevin Spacey as a senior broker, stressed out about business as well for his dying dog, and the news spreads throughout the firm leading to a tension filled all-nighter.

I was less concerned with the timely play-out of how our current financial crises came into being here, than I was how Chandor’s intricately plotted scenario handled its MacGuffin. All the characters (including Simon Baker as head of securities and Demi Moore as head of risk) take a glimpse at Quinto’s computer screen and are shocked by what they see.

We never see the screen, which is understandable because it would just be a bunch of numbers we couldn’t make sense of, but we get from everybody’s reaction (“Are you sure these numbers are correct?” they all seem to ask) that the info indicates that their firm is in major trouble.

The news is so dire that CEO Jeremy Irons arrives to take control. In a heated meeting, Quinto (who is one of the film’s producers) lays it out to the steely Irons: “Sir, if those assets decrease by just 25 percent, and remain on our books, that loss would be greater than the current market capitalization of this entire company.”

It is way less complicated than it sounds. Simply stated, the MacGuffin in MARGIN CALL is like a hole in a sinking ship. All the shipmates try to fix the hole, but it’s too late.

As the Captain, Irons takes desperate measures to ensure survival, but at costs that may ruin the future of the ship, and poison the waters around them.

Cold and humorless, yet still incredibly involving, MARGIN CALL takes us into the scary isolated heart of Wall Street before the rest of us had any clue as to what was going down. Its flawless cast (particularly Quinto and Spacey, who does his best work in ages), and intense tone kept me compelled from start to finish, even when I could see right through its MacGuffin.

More later...

Friday, November 04, 2011

Faulty TOWER HEIST Has A Few Laughs

TOWER HEIST (Dir. Brett Ratner, 2011)

This began life as a notion Eddie Murphy had for a “black OCEAN’S 11’” but they threw some money at it and made it into a concept, and then later turned it into an idea.

That idea is a Ben Stiller movie with Murphy as a supporting player, ganging up with Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe (PRECIOUS), Michael Peña, and Casey Affleck to rob a billionaire (Alan Alda) who stole their pensions.

Unfortunately, even with that incredibly capable cast and that promising premise, TOWER HEIST is a half baked comic crime caper that comes close to bringing big laughs, but never quite delivers.

There are a fair amount of small laughs throughout the film, and I caught myself smiling at the shenanigans onscreen a few times, but the all-too-familiar construction of the material kept holding back the funny.

The first half is all set-up with Stiller as the by-the-book building manager of a luxurious Manhattan high rise (obviously modeled on the Trump Tower) realizing how evil Alda is after the Ponzi scheming penthouse owner is charged with financial fraud.

With the help of small-time crook Murphy, Stiller enlists his co-worker co-horts (Sidibe, Peña, and Affleck) and Broderick, as a down on his luck Wall Street broker just evicted from his tower apartment, to pull off a big-time job – stealing 20 million from Alda’s penthouse safe.

The film has been touted as a comeback for Murphy, and while there’s an undeniable charge to seeing him again assume the foul mouthed quick tempered persona that he had abandoned for family fare over a decade ago, too many scenes have no payoffs.

In one scene in which Murphy is training the crew to be thieves he gives them bobby pins and locks them on a building’s roof in the extreme cold. Once Murphy says his lines (like “here’s your punk ass bobby pin”) and leaves, the scene is over – we don’t get seeing the guys attempting to pick the lock because I think screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson couldn’t come up with anything funny there and thought Murphy’s shtick would be enough.

This is a method they seem to employ throughout: let’s just get these guys bickering in set piece after set piece and people will be laughing so hard they won’t notice the predictable plot mechanics.

Director Ratner doesn’t provide a strong enough balance between laughs and thrills to make TOWER HEIST anything special - at its best it’s likably perfunctory. I also could’ve done without the Téa Leoni as an FBI agent who is on to both good guy Stiller and bad guy Alda subplot, but usually I can do without Téa Leoni so there’s that.

Like I said, I did lightly laugh here and there (not just at Murphy as Broderick, Sidibe and Peña also have their moments), and I felt a little excitement during a scene involving Alda’s Ferrarri (allegedly once owned by Steve McQueen) being dangled from a cable from the top of the tower, but with its many plot-holes and lack of payoffs this is nowhere close to how good it could’ve been.

Here’s hoping Murphy’s newly proposed project that remolds his original black ensemble comedy notion into something titled JAMAL AND TYRELL AND OMAR AND BRICK AND MICHAEL'S WACK-ASS WEEKEND gets a lot further past the idea stage.

More later...