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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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