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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from November 2011

Martin Scorsese has made some of the most violent films ever made.  The scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci stabs a guy in the neck with a pen is pretty brutal, but watching Pesci get beaten to death with baseball bats and then buried alive in Casino is even worse.  So when I heard that Scorsese's new project was going to be in 3D, I was worried I'd see a head shot coming at me; but after finding out it was also going to be a children's movie shocked me even more than a head shot would.

Hugo is based on the children's book by Brian Selznick about a young boy who lives in a famed train station in Paris and is trying to fix a complex robot left behind by his dead father.  However, he also befriends a man who runs a toy shop at the station named Georges Melies and his goddaughter, Isabella.  I never read the book but I'm guessing that Melies was a small character because if the book became more about him than it did about Hugo, I wouldn't imagine the book would be as popular among children.  That is not the angle that Scorsese took with his film and by doing that, he's lost most of his audience.

Georges Melies was a real person.  In the film he's played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, Sexy Beast), who might get an Oscar nomination out of Hugo.  But in real life, Melies was the first filmmaker to use special effects.  His most famous film was A Trip to the Moon, made in 1902, and it has that iconic shot of a rocket hitting the "man in the moon's" eye.  Melies was one of the most influencial filmmaker and it's amazing to see Scorsese's love of cinema personified in Hugo by making a film about the creator of special effects with state-of-the-art special effects and 3D.

However, the movie becomes ABOUT Melies and in that, I'm not sure who this movie is made for anymore.  The second half of the film is a tribute to cinema and has some moving scenes if you appreciate classic film.  But kids couldn't give two farts about classic cinema and will be lost and bored by the second half.  The first half of the film features slapstick, luke warm comedy provided by Sacha Baron Coen (Bruno, Borat) and is too childish for adults who can appreciate the rest of the film.

Overall, the film moves too slowly to really impress either way.  Sure the visuals are spectacular and the 3D is some of the best you'll see, using gimmick techinques and legit depth, but all that isn't enough to get you through the two hour plus runtime.  Even a skilled young actress like Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass), who is only 14 in people years but 30 in thespianic years, can't increase the pulse of Hugo.  I'm not gonna put all the blame on Asa Butterfield (The Wolfman, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas), who plays the titular character, although he's not half as good at acting as his adorable appearance would have you believe.  

It's a shame that Scoresese, a man who's made some of the fastest paced, action-packed, fun movies in the histroy of cinema, created such a slow film.  That's not to say that it's not great in parts, but those parts are all going to be different for everyone and the film as a whole isn't very enjoyable to one person.  Maybe it should have had more head shots.
Hugo  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade:  B- 
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The Muppets
Full disclosure: I'm one of the biggest Muppet fans you'll ever meet and all of this is about to sound really biased coming from me.  The only person that rivals my Muppet Mania is star Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man).  I knew this even before he started doing press interviews for this film.  When I interviewed Segel a few years ago, he leaked it to me that he was working on this script and he was doing it as a labor of love.  We instantly hit it off with our chat about Muppets and how they needed a huge comeback.  He flexed his Hollywood muscle and totally delivered.

It's been 12 years since The Muppets have released a movie and some could argue that the famous characters were falling apart ever since the death of their creator, Jim Henson.  After lack of solid management, being sold around to international companies and finally landing as used goods on Disney's doorstep in 2002, they were shelved in the back with other has-beens.  But that is no place for The Muppets!  They took it upon themselves to stay relevant among their hardcore fans with viral videos online that gained them several awards in that community.  That and Segel's hilarious script mixed with his persistence was all Disney needed to take a gamble on this.

The film is exactly what it should have been.  No more of the "Muppets Do Literature" movies where they don't even play themselves.  It's about The Mupppets coming together again to put on a benefit show to raise money to save The Muppet Theater from being destroyed by the evil Tex Richman, who's played by Chris Cooper (American Beauty, The Company Men).  The self awareness at their irrelevancy lends itself to many tear-jerking scenes for us hardcore Muppet fans that involve things like Kermit (listen to my interview with Kermit the Frog at the bottom of this review) singing a heartbreaking song called "Pictures in My Head" as he wanders through his house looking at old, dusty pictures of his long lost friends.  Anyone who has missed The Muppets this past decade and grew up on a steady diet of felt and fuzz will get a lump in their throat.  Especially when lines like "Will anybody watch/Would anyone care?" are sung by a defeated Frog who's had better days.

This film is not on a quest to make you sad though and scenes like that are few and, if you're not a fan, will be uneffective.  But what's guarenteed to work is the comedy.  Segel captured the tongue-and-cheek, on-the-nose comedy that Henson emphasized with The Muppets his whole career.  It was almost as if Henson was writing through Segel, despite what co-creator and best friend of Henson, Frank Oz, has been saying in recent interviews.  This film pumps in the same veins as everything Henson did for The Muppets.  It's aided by fun songs written by director James Bobin, who also directed HBO's Flight of the Concords and Da Ali G Show.  That level of hard adult edge is masked so masterfully in The Muppets by Bobin and Segel.

Not everything in the film works.  Parts feel disjointed and I have a feeling it's because a lot was cut from the final film.  At 120 minutes, it's already pretty long for a kid's movie and I know for a fact there was a lot more.  Some of the songs are a little weak as well.  Amy Adam's (The Fighter, Enchanted) song "Me Party" is a stinker that falls flat and just ends up eating 90 seconds of film.  But these instances of medicore Muppet action flitter by quickly and you move on to the funny.

The biggest accomplishment of The Muppets happened at the very end when the audience was leaving.  A 4-year-old girl that was sitting next to me, stood up to leave and screamed out to her dad "I love The Muppets!"  THAT is why this movie is so great and needed to be made.  It has introduced a new generation to the characters that used to be responsible for so much joy and happiness.  A throwback to a time when characters for kids weren't just shallow noise and color machienes but made children aware of soulful, warm, emotional thoughts of self reflection.  Not to mention the fact that it was the first introduction to comedy to many of today's top comedic minds, such as Segel.  That's why the cameos are so plentiful that some of them were even cut; the influence of The Muppets is deep and important and now, hopefully, with this film...it will continue on.
The Muppets  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: A

Listen to Gavin's interview with Kermit the Frog here:

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The Descendants
Alexander Payne is a name that not a lot of people know.  He's a director/producer/writer that doesn't take too many swings at the plate but when he does, it's a homerun.  Other points he's put up on the scoreboard have been About Schmidt, Election and the Oscar winner Sideways.  His latest is The Descendants, which at a shallow glance appears to be an excuse to get paid to work in Hawaii for a couple months but is, in fact, his finest movie.

George Clooney stars as a man trying to corral his daughters and pick up the pieces after his wife goes into a coma from an accident.  Early in the film we learn that his wife was also having an affair.  What would you do in that situation?  How sympathetic would you be?  Would you confront the other man?  Could you forgive your commatose wife?  All these questions are answered in a tragic and heartbreaking way, but all the while still making you laugh.

This is easily George Clooney's finest performance.  He's the frontrunner for Best Actor and he's lapping anyone else up for the title.  I find it refreshing when someone as dashing as Clooney can pull off an every man who's at a loss so well that I believe he's ever had moments of his life that resembled that.  Not only is he relatable, he's funny as hell.  A simple activity like running down the street or hiding behind a bush is made laugh out loud funny by his physical comedy.  On the other side of his performance is a man who's ripped apart by his kids, by his unfaithful wife, by his job, by his family and claws desperately to hold it together.  His performance creshendos at the end of the film with a monologue to his wife that makes it impossible to hold back tears.

It's not just Clooney though that makes this film shine.  Everyone in it is excellent and gives Oscar caliber performances.  Namely Robert Forester (Jackie Brown), Shailene Woodley (ABC Family's Secret Life of the American Teenager) and especially Judy Greer (13 Going on 30, The Village Listen to my interview with her at the bottom of this review).  Greer, although not getting a lot of screen time, fills each scene she's in with epperfescent light and goodness.  

Not only is this movie a tribute to love and forgiveness and family; it's also a tribute to the state of Hawaii.  The Descendants is based on the book by Hawaiian, Kaui Hart Hemmings, who's in the film as Clooney's secretary too.  She and Payne successfully capture the spendor that is Hawaii in both a script and in visuals.  Clooney may seem like a unorthodox choice for a lead where Hawaii and it's heritage are featured but the title is a hint to why it's not.  It applies to those to come before Clooney...and after.

It's rare that a film comes along like The Descendants.  Not everything works in it and it does clunk along here and there, but its message and Clooney's performance linger in your mind and heart long after you see it.  That monologue I mentioned earlier still haunts me and makes me think that a final set of phrases to a loved one hasn't been uttered on screen in a while.  The Descendants is a shoe-in for Oscar nominations, but as far as winning them...let's just say the bar is set.  Your move, Hollywood.
The Descendants  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A+

Listen to Gavin's interview with Judy Greer here:

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Breaking Dawn part 1
When you're talking about one of the Twilight films and discussing whether or not it's good or bad, you need to grade it on a curve.  See, all the Twilight movies are bad; it's just a matter as to what degree.  

Breaking Dawn is the first part of the last book and they took a page from the Harry Potter playbook and split it into two.  Make no mistake that moves like that are only to make massive gobs of money and not to superserve the fans of the books.  Comparing the splitting of a book to how it was handled in Harry Potter, I have to admit that the makers of Breaking Dawn did it better.  

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, hurdles when splitting a book is establishing a climax in a movie that is essentially only half-a-story.  Harry Potter failed at that and we ended up with a movie that was all build up and no pay off.  Breaking Dawn has a climax and it builds and pays off in the same film with still more to come.  It ends on a great cliffhanger and actually excited me a bit for what's to come next (I have to admit, part of that anticipation is simply looking forward to it ending).  

The problem with splitting Breaking Dawn into two movies is that there's no need at all for it.  Harry Potter is littered with massive plot twists, exciting action and crucial, intricate details but the first half of Breaking Dawn consists of a wedding, a honeymoon, a baby and that's it.  Everything in Breaking Dawn part 1 could be condensed into an hour without missing anything.  The result is a rather boring, uneventful movie.  

The one thing I love to hate about the Twilight series is that it's turned into a competition for bad acting.  Kristen Stewart has improved from unwatchable to annoying but everyone else seems to have gotten worse.  Robert Pattinson does another statue-esque performance that really makes you wonder how he gets other acting gigs.  But the winners of the bad acting award in Breaking Dawn, however, goes to the members of Jacob's, played by Taylor Lautner, wolf pack.  I know that Native Americans are hard to come by, but good God you'd think they'd be able to find better actors than this lot.  

This brings me to a scene that must be talked about.  Now, I'm not one for spoiler alerts and I don't believe that this is, but for anyone who hasn't read the books...you must be warned about this scene.  It involves a fight between the werewolves where they are having a conversation telepathically.  This scene is handled so poorly that it's utterly laughable.  Yes, there are lots and lots of parts in the movie that are silly, melodramatic to the point of parody and pathetic, but it's possible to control your reactions to those.  This wolf scene challenges you to not laugh and I failed (as did many others in the theater).  Keep in mind this scene is not meant to be funny in any way.  

Okay, it seems like I'm dumping on this film.  That's not entirely fair.  It's still better than the first two films.  Director Bill Condon (Chicago, Gods and Monsters) is a skilled director.  He is clearly the best at directing an enstallment of the series and I'm glad he's doing the last one too.  I'm sure he felt frustration having to use the cast and cheesy gimicks established by the first film since they are still the weak parts of the movie.  

But as hard as he tried, this is a franchise that has been set on autopilot.  It's lazy in every aspect minus the direction.  It stinks of a movie that knows it will make box office bank and do so without lifting a finger.  No one in the movie is trying.  No one writing the script cares.  It's executed with the exertion of a daytime Soap Opera and that's downright insulting for a major Hollywood movie.  

I'm not going to say that this movie is complete garbage, although many will.  Twi-Hards need to understand that their extreme reaction is what causes an extreme reaction on the other side of the spectrum.  I don't understand the Twi-Hards though.  See, if I was as passionate about a book as you audibly are, I would be furious that the living visual representations of those books were done so piss poorly.  Your standards were lowered and you justify it.  I loved the books The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, but the movies sucked.  You have to be able to say that or really you're not a true fan.  Of course if the Twilight films are your definition of top quality and meet your standards for what you love so much, then we just have very different ideas of what makes a great film and we'll never see eye to eye.
Breaking Dawn part 1  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C- 
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I love and appreciate what director Tarsem Singh attempts to do.  His former movies were met with ugly reactions from people but I enjoyed both The Fall and The Cell with Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn.  It's almost as if this guy suckers major Hollywood studios to give him big bloated blockbuster-sized budgets to make art films that he sees in his head.  The end result is a movie that may not tell a great, original story or develop characters that well, but the visuals alone are dazzling enough to enjoy it.  Immortals is keeping that tradition perfectly. 
The story of Immortals is from Greek legends.  I can't really say it's from one in particular since it mixes all different kinds and makes a large portion of it up.  A real shame since the actual Greek legends of the Gods are interesting enough to not have to fudge it so much.  That's why when the Romans took over the world, they kept the stories exactly the same and just changed all the characters' names.  So if it's good enough for the Roman Empire...why wasn't it good enough for Singh?
The film stars Henry Cavill (HBO's The Tudors, Stardust) as Theseus, the man born from a human mother and Zeus for a father...although that's not the origin for this movie.  He's joined by Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2, The Wrestler), Stephen Dorff (Blade, Public Enemies) and Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Rise of the Planet of the Apes).  Each one of these actors does the best they could with the limited script that they had.  Even Oscar-nominee Rourke tried to mumble through the lines he was given to create some kind of character but aside from a thinly spread plot, there are no discernable characters.
Just like with any movie from Singh, the visuals are stunning.  Out of the films he's done, this one seems the least imaginative but that could only be because 300 and every film of that time period since has now made those iconic images seem hackneyed.  Regardless, Immortals keeps every scene interesting with at least something to look at.  Some points need to be docked though for early scenes of Theseus' home village being shot on a set that makes it look like a life-sized diorama made by a 5th grader for school.  Maybe that was the intention though since his journey gets bigger and bigger as does the sets.
American audiences are totally prepared to sit and chomp popcorn at a movie that is poorly scripted and vague in story as long as you give them great action.  Sadly for Immortals, it doesn't.  Make no mistake that the final half hour more than makes up for it with an orgy of bloody violence and fantastical fight sequences, but the other 80 minutes are relatively barren of action.  That could be a fatal mistake for most people who will flock to the theaters still searching for the thrills that 300 gave them, only to be rewarded at the end if they manage to stay awake.
Immortals  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C+

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Martha Marcy May Marlene
Question: Would you rather be an award-winning, respected member of a field of interest but make very little money doing it or be considered a joke and an annoyance in that field but make billions doing it?  That's the personal life of the star of this film, Elizabeth Olsen.  You don't know her and nor should you; this is her first real movie of note.  But you know her sisters...they're Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, inexplicably super wealthy actresses from Full House.  Luckily for us, Elizabeth Olsen chose to go for integrity.

The premise of Marth Marcy May Marlene is about a girl who turns to her sister in a time when she's trying to flee from a cult.  I understand that this is the worst movie title ever made and it gets worse after a viewing since it makes no sense, but that's the only thing awful about it.  This psychological thriller is patient and deliberate and makes you earn its entertainment.  I appreciate films like that.  It's very much in the style of some of the Coen Brother thrillers that are so amazing, such as No Country for Old Men.

I'm not sure how writer/director Sean Durkin pulled this off.  This is his first attempt at writing AND directing and it's spectacular for a first attempt!  Even though he gets Oscar-nominated pedigree from John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, The Perfect Storm) as another Oscar-worthy performance as the chillingly sweet cult leader, Patrick; Durkin still pulls this off with very little Hollywood spices thrown in.  There's no big budget or famous faces and that adds to the authenticiy of the movie.

One thing that's so enjoyable about Martha Marcy May Marlene is the seemless transition it has while going from flashbacks to the present (or possibly even dreams) in the story telling and direction.  The scenes flow like a Monty Python or Mr. Show episode except there is not a lot funny about this tale...sans some post-cult adjustment to regular life for Olsen.  It's the way the film is told that adds to the suspense of the whole story.  Is someone coming after Martha?  Is she really remembering everything properly?  What scared her so much to have her make a run for it?  All these questions are answered but not in an overt way at all.  Again...you have to work for it.

It's not a film for everyone.  Some won't have the patience for the sluggish pace that still doesn't bore.  Some won't have an easy time with some of the more graphic scenes although it's tame compared to what they could show.  Some won't like it just because the title sucks so much and that I understand.  But if you enjoy Hitchcockian/Coen Brothers type thrillers that prey on your paranoia and are visually stunning with great characters...than Martha Marcy May Marlene has your name written all over it.  (It actually might have your actual name with a stupid title that long.)
Martha Marcy May Marlene  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A-
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Tower Heist
Director Brett Ratner is not known for comedy; he’s known more for action films like Red Dragon or X-Men 3.  Granted, the man did the Rush Hour series, but I’m not really sure if you can legally consider those movies comedies since they’re so unfunny.  But Tower Heist is a comedy compiled of a varsity team of laugh makers.  Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck (Oceans 11, Gone Baby Gone), Michael Pena (30 Minutes of Less, Crash), Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Independence Day) and Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, The Aviator) all star in this movie about the 1% stealing money from the 99%.  It’s funnier than Rush Hour but still not the great comedy it should be.

Tower Heist is a very timely plot.  The relevancy of a rich Bernie Madoff type stealing pensions and life savings from the people who work in his luxury Manhattan condo building he lives in is exactly the revenge story this country needs right now.  It’s fun to watch Alda get his vintage, Steve McQueen Ferari smashed by Still with a golf club.  It’s as if each strike is a victory for the Occupy Wall St. protestors.  In that respect, the film is a true success, but might have been better if it was handled as a thriller instead of a comedy.

Spicing up the comedic premises are some very talented actors.  Leading the charge is Murphy, who hasn’t actually appeared in a good movie since he was nominated for an Oscar in 2006’s Dreamgirls.  Him making bank off of the Shrek franchise, allowing him to go away for a while, is a very good thing.  He’s made a lot of very poor movie decisions and he saturated the market with Murphy.  Seeing him in Tower Heist though reminds us all of why he was one of the brightest shining stars in Hollywood once.  He crackles on the screen like Robin Williams did in his prime.  He pumps life into lines that otherwise would go insignificant, simply by being Eddie Murphy.  Of course he’s not breaking new ground or jockeying for accolades, but damnit, he’s really good.

Same can be said for the rest of the cast that do a fine job of supporting Murphy and allowing him to be the star.  Especially Stiller who has proven he can be the funny man but takes a backseat as the straight guy to Murphy’s wild card.  The only actor that gives Murphy a run for his money is Pena, who banks yet another winning comedic performance in his resume.  It’s almost getting to the point where I forget that he started and excelled at drama first.

I appreciate this film for what it is and what it attempted to do.  But sadly it falls short in quite a few ways.  The comedy stops around the beginning of the third act and the rest is allowed to be suspenseful action, albeit still fun.  The climax of the film though ventures into absurd when the entire success of their heist is dependent upon an absolutely impossible and stupid stunt.  I’m not sure if that was Ratner’s idea to show off how well he can use special FX or not, but it’s ineffective except in that it makes me laugh unintentionally.

Tower Heist is a fun movie that does no wrong.  Some of that is because heist films are always fun by default.  But allow Oceans 11 be an example of how it can be fun, funny and downright awesome by stylizing the look and tone and keeping us grounded in the plausible.  Go for the fun of it, stay for the Murphy but expect to get a little robbed of your expectations.
Tower Heist  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-

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Puss In Boots
The last time I enjoyed a Shrek movie was in 2004 when the second one came out.  Ever since then it was Shrek overload and the franchise was toast in my opinion.  When I saw that they were making a Puss in Boots spinoff from the series, I groaned out loud in the theater and literally screamed out, “Dear Lord, let it go!  Stop trying to squeeze blood from this stone!”  And that’s from a cat lover too!  Although Dreamworks has made some very quality animated movies in the past, I had rock-bottom expectations for this movie and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Yes, it’s true that Antonio Banderas is back voicing the titular character, but aside from that, there is nothing that links this film to the Shrek movies.  That might be a good thing.  It was almost as if the makers of Puss in Boots know full-well that the Shrek movies have run their course and making those characters show up again would be a mistake.  So what we’re left with is a totally separate movie about the origin of Puss in Boots.

Joining him in this new adventure is a fellow feline named Kitty Soft Paws and Humpty Dumpty; voiced by Selma Hayek (Dogma, From Dusk Till Dawn) and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover films).  The three of them are on a mission to redeem their reputations among the citizens of their hometown by stealing the Golden Goose from the Giant at the top of the beanstalk.  We have all the makings of a fun (albeit familiar) adventure story though storybook land, but the action is quite lopsided with very few and disappointing sequences rounding out the ending.

Luckily, the film is funny enough to have that error keep you from being bored.  The same writing team are back with the same style of adult innuendo that made the first two Shrek films so enjoyable.  Unfortunately, there aren’t any characters that are as likable as Donkey and Shrek, but the cuteness of Puss and Kitty are adorable enough to offer a pass.

The animation in the film is also well done enough to keep you from glancing down at your watch.  It might be some of the best animation that Dreamworks has put out since How To Train Your Dragon.  The colors are vibrant and human characters look more realistic than ever.  (I can’t comment on the 3D aspect of it since it wasn’t offered when I saw it.)

There were some pleasant surprises in Puss in Boots that I didn’t expect.  First was that it was produced by director/writer Guellermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) and he voiced one of the minor characters too.  It seems as if Del Toro is getting involved in more and more family animation entertainment, which is quite a departure from his fantastical horror that he does so well.  Another hidden enjoyment was the soundtrack.  The Shrek films also feature great songs by talented artists that you’d normally not pick for a children’s movie and Puss in Boots is no exception.  The end credits feature a great song by Lady Gaga and the movie features several selections by the very talented Rodrigo y Gabriella.

Director Chris Miller should be pleased with himself for what he created in Puss in Boots.  Sure he may be the guy that directed the Shrek films into the ground and over the shark, and Puss in Boots isn’t good enough to forgive him for that; but it’s enjoyable enough that I would consider it a good start…as long as I don’t see a Puss in Boots 2 coming soon.
Puss in Boots  (Rated PG )
Gavin Grade: B

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