Archive for November, 2011


Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on November 29, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketHugo is a children’s fantasy set during the early 1930s at a Paris railway station. Our story concerns a 12 year old boy, Hugo Cabret, who maintains the congregation of clocks around the train depot. He’s an orphan and lives between the air ducts and hidden passageways that connect the timepieces. Hugo’s primary passion is refurbishing a broken automaton his father was fixing before he perished in a museum fire. The gadget looks like a metal mechanical man who writes with a pen. Hugo now spends his days locating the numerous hard-to-find parts so that he might get it to operate one day and complete his father’s work. The mechanism is still conspicuously missing a heart-shaped key.

THE GOOD: Hugo is a beautifully shot, big-budget, family epic in 3-D. In fact it’s probably the best use of 3-D since Avatar. In an era where movies are converted into 3-D for the purely monetary reasons, Hugo actually utilizes the format to its advantage. For example, when Hugo and Isabelle locate a small wooden box in the ceiling of her home, a mass of paper, sketches, and paintings are expelled from within after it comes tumbling to the floor. The effect is a perfectly realized vision of drawings flying throughout the theater. On the surface, the action involves getting this automaton to run, but there’s much more. The plot delves deeper and exalts the formative years of film and the importance of French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Ben Kingsley is engaging as the pioneer. The story has a real appreciation for his important contributions to the development of cinema. This is much more than simply a kid’s picture and anyone with an appreciation for movie history is sure to be engaged.

THE BAD: The pacing of the narrative is incredibly lethargic. The first half is at times painfully slow. Our callow star doesn’t help. Young actor Asa Butterfield is too vague and lifeless as Hugo Cabret to carry the picture. A sad little boy, he’s the human equivalent of a tranquilizer. Sacha Baron Cohen provides mild comic relief as the Station Inspector, but he too becomes tiresome. Only in the second half do things pick up with the focus on Ben Kingsley’s character. Even then, the exposition frequently feels more like education than entertainment.

Hugo is a sincere valentine celebrating the value of film preservation from the heart of Martin Scorsese. An admirable perspective and one that definitely will resonate with any lover of the medium. But the chronicle can be a bit didactic. An adventure should be fun and this often feels like a lecture. Luckily production design wins out over those dilemmas. The re-creations of George Méliès’ cinemas are extraordinary and some of the most elegant images I’ve seen all year. It inspired me to seek out his most famous film made way back in 1902, A Trip to the Moon. Granted the story is probably more appreciated by adults than children. Even I struggled with the momentum at times. However it’s a gorgeously realized work of art. Without question an exquisite use of 3-D. Hugo celebrates a lot of what I love about movies and for this film fan, that was enough.

Like Water for Chocolate

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 28, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketA young woman is forbidden to marry the man she loves by her domineering mother. Mamá Elena insists Tita de la Garza honor a timeworn tradition which dictates the youngest daughter must not marry so she may care for her aging mother instead. Established Mexican character actor Alfonso Arau (The Wild Bunch, Romancing the Stone) directs this adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s debut novel. The two were married at the time. The title comes from a Latin American expression. In these countries, hot chocolate is made with water instead of milk. The phrase refers to someone who has reached their boiling point, in this case it could refer to anger, but also repressed sexuality. Tita is like water ready to be used for hot chocolate.

This drama became one of the biggest foreign language hits ever in the US and it’s easy to see why. It has all the attributes of a glossy Hollywood romance: beautiful cinematography, lush music, sensational soap-opera storyline. It’s melodramatic and touching. The main difference – the action is set in Mexico and takes place in the past (1910 to 1934). Food is a recurrent theme as Tita is at her best when cooking. Her dishes have the ability to create emotions in the one who partakes of them. Those feelings correspond to what Tita was experiencing when she prepared them.  This blending of magical elements with the real world gives narrative a whimsical tone that is reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale. It’s incredibly effective. The combination has a dreamlike quality that is both fanciful but also realistic.

What makes the picture so compelling is the appeal of our central heroine. Actress Lumi Cavazos is gripping as Tita. By keeping her emotions bottled up, her meals are essentially the only way she has to express herself. On the surface she seems passive at first, but she remains a fundamentally passionate individual. Her story is rather epic in scope and the many people that she meets along the way are involving. The relationships with her overbearing mother and her true love Pedro, are affecting but so is her relationship with Dr. Brown, her sister’s obstetrician. If there’s one thing a romance needs is heart and Like Water for Chocolate has that in spades.

My Week With Marilyn

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 25, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketProduction assistant Colin Clark’s reminiscence of legendary actress Marilyn Monroe while working on The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956. Colin has just graduated from college and is eager to work in the movie industry. Having met Sir Laurence Olivier once, Colin relies on a promise Olivier made to give him employment after graduation. After showing up every day to wait at the studio, Olivier finally arrives and honors his pledge. Colin’s first job is to find a suitable place for Marilyn Monroe and her new husband Arthur Miller to stay at while they are in England. Miller leaves the country soon after which then gives Colin the opportunity to spend a lot more time with Marilyn. The pair eventually become quite close.

The tale is a fairly even handed representation. At times the portrait is mildly critical and at others it’s tenderly fawning. It nicely documents Marilyn’s erratic unreliability but it also depicts the way her handlers enabled her behavior. I was fascinated with how other people reacted to her persona. We meet her entourage when she initially arrives: her husband, Arthur Miller, business partner Milton Greene and her acting coach Paula Strasberg. Her interaction with Vivien Leigh, Dame Sybil Thorndike, and of course Colin Clark, provide fascinating drama as well. However I found Laurence Olivier’s interaction with her to be the most engaging. Kenneth Branagh is memorable as the revered English actor. I found the contrast between Olivier and Monroe’s personalities to be an inventive technique to dissect her character. You have one of filmdom’s most accomplished thespians, next to a superstar of the Hollywood cinema.  It’s not surprising that these two would have difficulties seeing eye to eye with one another. He clearly desired her level of celebrity and she desperately craved his legitimacy. The comparison is fascinating.

Monroe’s beauty and charisma are presented to stunning effect by Michelle Williams. She perfectly embodies her nervous anxiety, lack of self confidence, constant need for approval, and ability to charm. She’s suitably captivating playing someone everybody thinks they already know. Yet perhaps the platinum goddess is too iconic to accurately interpret. For all of William’s talents, never did I once forget that this was an actress playing the part of Marilyn Monroe.

My Week with Marilyn is essentially a minor picture about the making of a minor film. It’s successfully done nonetheless. An accurate profile of the definitive sex symbol of the 20th century is a daunting task. The chronicle is brilliant in not attempting a full fledged biography, but merely a brief vignette of her existence. There’s a brilliance in setting the story far away from the frenzy of glamorous Hollywood, amid the quiet English countryside. We get a more intimate version of the woman. This tale is actually based on two memoirs Colin Clark wrote documenting his relationship with her: The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn.  From a narrow perspective – seven days of her short life – it ultimately provides a lovely glimpse into the world of the immortal silver screen star.

The Muppets

Posted in Comedy, Family, Musical with tags on November 24, 2011 by Mark Hobin

The Muppet Show was a British television program, syndicated in the US, that originally ran for 5 seasons from September 5, 1976 — March 15, 1981. What made the production such a watershed in Jim Henson’s career was the capacity for both young and old to enjoy it, as opposed to his creations for Sesame Street which were strictly aimed at toddlers. Indeed The Muppet Show was born out of American puppeteer Jim Henson‘s concern over being labeled a children’s entertainer. The Muppets were highly successful and their popularity reached a zenith of sorts with The Muppet Movie in 1979 becoming one of the top 10 box office hits of that year. Since then the Muppets have released six theatrical features of varying quality with the original cast, but nothing has ever quite captured the lightening in a bottle of that original picture. That is until now.

The Muppets plot is ingeniously clever in it’s simplicity. Walter, a puppet, discovers that evil oil magnate Tex Richman has purchased the historic Muppet Theater. Tex maintains he plans to turn it into a Muppet museum, but Walter overhears Tex’s real intention to raze the hallowed site so that he can drill for oil. Apparently the sale may still be halted if $10 million can be raised to buy the theater back. The Muppets and Walter, along with his human brother Gary and his girlfriend Mary, all band together to put on a telethon to raise the money. The narrative is perfect because it allows the action to reunite all of our favorite characters by first portraying what they have been doing. Then it inspires them to put on a song-and-dance variety performance, much in the same way that The Muppet Show used to do every week. In other words, they get to be themselves, something 90s efforts like The Muppet Christmas Carol or Muppet Treasure Island didn’t permit them to do. The story often brilliantly straddles the line between naiveté and cynicism. The self aware script even addresses The Muppets waning place in pop culture but without ever being disrespectful. The Muppets offers everything a longtime follower could desire as a fan and everything a newcomer would need to become a fan.

Music has always been a big part of the Muppet universe and this soundtrack is flawless. It reproduces those song parodies that made original series so great with updated material. Just try and detect the virtually unrecognizable “Smells Like Teen Spirit” re-imagined as barbershop quartet. Later, Camilla and the chickens cluck out the entire “Forget You” song for a seemingly unending 2 ½ minutes. It’s sidesplitting how long they carry the joke. Even the classic “Rainbow Connection” from the original film makes an appearance. But I think the most memorable musical interludes are the new songs from music supervisor Bret McKenzie of the New Zealand-based comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. They encompass all the superlative sounds of the 70s, from Amy Adams and Miss Piggy’s disco ditty “Me Party” to the soft rock of Jason Segel and Walter’s “Man or Muppet”. It’s the greatest song Paul Williams never wrote. When Kermit sings “Pictures In My Head” it actually brought tears to my eyes. I’m not lying when I say I adore the Muppets.

The Muppets is sarcastic, hilarious, self knowing, adult and nostalgic but also warm, tender, sweet, childlike and modern. The dialogue zings with a love of life rarely seen in modern cinema. It’s almost as if the film was created in a simpler, more innocent time. It’s surprisingly touching at times. I wouldn’t have thought that writer/star Jason Segel and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (who wrote and directed the raunchy Get Him to the Greek) could have duplicated the 70s ethos of the Muppets so accurately in their script, but they do. They were clearly inspired by the benevolent spirit of Jim Henson. He most definitely would be proud of this unadulterated celebration of his beloved creation. Without question, the best Muppet movie yet.

Like Crazy

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 22, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketAnna and Jacob are college students in Los Angeles taking the same writing class. Anna is from England studying in the US on a student visa. She hopes to become a journalist one day. Jacob is studying furniture design. Anna is smitten with Jacob and invites him to coffee to which he accepts. Their romance blossoms. In fact, they plunge so deeply in love that after graduation, she makes the conscious choice to remain in the U.S. with him overstaying her visa. It’s imperative to believe she is so head over heels in love with him, an indefensible decision like that would makes sense. As expected, complications arise.

The romance displays some nice chemistry between Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as the young couple separated by distance. We learn the minutia of their lives: they share a love for Paul Simon’s Graceland album for example. He builds her a handcrafted chair. How touching! Their connection feels honest and the details charmingly complement their sincere love affair. We recognize that they love each other. The problem is there simply aren’t sufficient reasons to wish for this relationship to continue given the way things plays out.

At times it’s hard to support these characters. Anna’s refusal to leave the U.S. at the appropriate time, has dire consequences that have lasting repercussions. These consequences could have been easily avoided by following the law. I kept thinking, “you brought this on yourself.”  Additionally, it’s not clear if these two are even right for one another. Other paramours enter the picture that call into question whether Jacob and Anna are truly a perfect match. I guess there’s artistry in a movie behaving like real life. People fall in and out of love, yes. But there’s also majesty in a fairy tale about true love.

This inexplicably won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Granted there’s a beauty in the simplicity of plot and emotion that makes this drama so intimate. Unfortunately those innovations don’t legitimize the aforementioned accolade. There aren’t well-founded reasons to justify why we should care about these two young adults. The immigration laws (which they deliberately broke) keep them physically apart. Once isolated, they seem to find other lovers rather quickly. You’ll be asking yourself, maybe these two weren’t meant for each other.  Like Crazy isn’t a classic heartfelt romantic drama for the ages. This is about an everyday relationship.  That can get pretty boring.


Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on November 20, 2011 by Mark Hobin

The tenuous relationship between two sisters is further tested with the possible threat of the end of the world. A rogue planet named “Melancholia” is traveling through the solar system. Melancholia is not only the name of the sphere looming close to Earth, but also of our protagonist’s demeanor.  Director Lars von Trier’s rumination on the events during and after a wedding party is the subject of this vile little picture. I’m now convinced that audiences do not enjoy Lars von Trier movies so much as they suffer through them.

Lars von Trier’s approach is not to present the days leading up to the world’s finals days as a disaster movie, but rather as the dissection of the way people react under very stressful conditions. There are no spectacles of panicked citizens or newscasts detailing efforts to stave off the impeding doom. It’s an inventive and commendable method of personalizing such a major event. Unfortunately most of the action is too middling and subdued to have any impact. What could have been a brilliant setup for characters to have intellectual discussions about the imminent calamity and their own mortality is utterly wasted. The performers don’t behave rationally given the circumstances. Emotions run the limited gamut from apathy to despair.

Kirsten Dunst is Justine, a newly wedded bride celebrating her marriage. For reasons that probably aren’t supposed to matter, Kirsten Dunst speaks with an American accent despite the fact that everyone else in her family has a British one. We’re introduced to family, her divorced parents who openly fight in front of everyone. We meet her sister, Claire and her husband, John. They’re throwing her this glamorous shindig, but she acts indifferent toward them. Then there’s her advertising-executive boss whom she actually despises. She is depressed as she is depressing, arriving over 2 hours late to her own party and then leaving the festivities before the cake is even cut to take a bath. If there is a individual that appears to behave in a rational manner, it’s that of Claire’s wealthy husband, John, the reception organizer who is thoroughly disgusted by Justine’s behavior. While I don’t condone what John ultimately does, it seemed like an understandable response given this repulsive lot.

Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her performance and I’ll admit it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen her attempt. However, I feel her portrayal is largely a failure. Director Lars von Trier is affected with severe bouts of depression himself and those experiences inform the negative worldview of the storyline. The director does not attempt to explain why Justine is unhappy in any meaningful way. I doubt he even cares, but the lack of detail makes her quite underdeveloped as a figure. Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor opined that Kirsten Dunst doesn’t play so much a person here, but an emotion. Although he was being complimentary, I found that to be a very apt description. Tolerating her miserable mood was an exercise in frustration. Her narcissistic and disaffected air is exceedingly unpleasant.

If there is a saving grace, it’s the look of the picture. The film is unquestionably highlighted by some very beautiful images, particularly in the opening and closing sequences. The cinematography is haunting. Many of the middle scenes almost exist in kind a suspended reality where time really has no meaning. The soundtrack is just as fittingly luxurious. Appropriating the prelude from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde is a genius move on the director‘s part to make his drama more accessible. The score provides an absolutely gorgeous main musical theme.

Lars von Trier’s dissertation on mental disintegration is nothing new. Anyone who has seen Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris has experienced these existential themes before. But what separates Ingmar Bergman from a director like von Trier is outlook. Bergman considers the non-believer that so desperately wants to believe. Lars von Trier deals with the non-believer that has no desire to change. Life sucks and then you die is apparently Lars von Trier‘s grand statement. Its meditation on human nature is defined by a hateful point of view. His treatise on human suffering shouldn’t feel like a tortuous ordeal, but it is. As a result, he fails to engage us emotionally. By the time I had slogged through the 130 lugubrious minutes, I was ready for these people to die. Bring on the apocalypse!

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 18, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketDrippy romantic drama is the continuing saga of Bella and Edward’s tortured relationship. This is merely part one of two in Stephenie Meyer’s fourth and final novel in the Twilight Saga. Splitting Breaking Dawn into two movies might make sense if there were many situations to depict, but such is not the case. It was clearly a monetary decision rather than an artistic one. The first half of the movie is completely dominated by a sappy wedding. We see Bella practicing walking in high heels, Alice doing Bella’s makeup, Bella’s parents presenting her a jeweled hair comb. Do these details sound insipid? Because they are and they’re typical of the general milieu. Only the awkward wedding toasts provide some entertainment. The book is stretched mercilessly thin.

In the second half Edward takes Bella to a tropical island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro for their honeymoon. The events now shift to concerns over Bella’s well-being. Will her safety be threatened if she has marital relations with a vampire? There could have been some genuine excitement in portraying the dilemma, but director Bill Condon seems to pull back. The action is exceptionally boring. We get dreary conversations between the Cullens and the werewolves discussing at length what should be done. Yawn! As a result the story remains strangely lifeless. And watching Bella trying to seduce, beg and plead with Edward to be intimate with her on their honeymoon is mind numbingly dull. They play chess so many times I lost count.

The action ultimately limps along to an end, but this being simply chapter one of the finale, there is no conclusion. Just a lot of dewy eyed glances and worried looks from the principal players. Wooden performances and conventional dialogue sink the proceedings. The plot is shockingly passive, rarely arousing anything resembling real passion or emotion. Fans of the series who are among the converted, will undoubtedly enjoy the fantasy they’re already familiar with. However anyone looking for a tale of heartfelt romance will be sadly disappointed.  A definite step backward after the promising Eclipse.


Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy with tags on November 11, 2011 by Mark Hobin

King Hyperion has declared war on Greek humanity and it‘s up to a common peasant named Theseus to rise up and stop him. Hyperion is searching for the legendary Epirus Bow which will allow him to free the Titans from a mythic dungeon. This then would give him the control to enslave Greece and absolute power even over the gods. Hyperion has murdered Theseus’ mother in one of his many raids and now it’s personal for the young stonemason.

Tarsem Singh’s flashy (does he do any other kind?) sword-and-sandal movie is a mythological fantasy in the classic tradition of stories like Jason and the Argonauts or 1981’s Clash of the Titans but with the art house pretense of Fellini’s Satyricon. Think of the recent 300 that employed a similar modern graphic approach. Eye popping visuals will keep you riveted even when the story lets you down. The scene composition combined with the lighting is incredible. Everything glows, from the sunsets to the well tanned performers. There’s enough muscular, barely dressed actors to resemble an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Henry Cavill looks like a warrior hero and speaks with the self important oratory skills that the role requires. Freida Pinto is beautiful as Phaedra, the virgin (in the beginning at least) oracle priestess. They contribute to their parts, but the characterizations are merely serviceable. You’d be hard pressed to find anything resembling an actual “performance” in this picture.

The narrative is admittedly lacking. The plot slowly builds to serve to the inevitable rousing climatic battle. It’s kind of far fetched the way it plays out. Director Tarsem has described it as “Caravaggio meets Fight Club” and that’s a particularly apt description. The look of renaissance paintings is oddly mixed with extreme violence to satisfy his aesthetic – where the heroes kill villains as they are chopped, diced and spliced always in slow motion. The bloodletting is unending and crimson hued splashes of color explode like fireworks around the action. All of the carnage can get a bit wearying.

Spectacle is Tarsem’s number one priority. Dialogue and character development are a mere afterthought. But in the end the cinematography, art direction and technique is so impressive, the audience is likely to forgive the pedestrian script. The hallucinatory optics are so terrific, they captivate through sheer illustrative force. The viewer is compelled to keep watching. Make no mistake, this film is dazzling. Give Tarsem credit for his trashy exuberance. He wows with florid visual style.

Puss in Boots

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 8, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Pleasant computer animated tale spins off the Puss in Boots character as a prequel to his first appearance in Shrek 2. The plot concerns our feline hero and his scheme to steal a goose that lays golden eggs. He’s aided by a female Tuxedo cat named Kitty Softpaws and his estranged boyhood friend Humpty Alexander Dumpty. Zach Galifianakis voices the churlish egghead and he’s memorable – a welcome addition to this cartoon universe. But the story drifts into the past and the explanation of why these good friends have now become alienated is somewhat labored. The plot involves their childhood roots in an orphanage, a long held grudge and some magic beans. The narrative is rather convoluted, but if you don‘t analyze it too much, it’s entertaining enough.

The animation is extraordinary. The texture on Kitty’s masked costume resembles actual leather and Humpty Dumpty’s facial expressions are particularly vivid. There’s plenty of eye popping style to carry the film. There’s a fair amount of humor as well. At one point Humpty changes into a shiny suit to look like a golden egg and the image is hilarious. Likewise whenever the witty quips are flying it’s pretty amusing. The action sequences are forgettable though. I suppose they’re de rigueur for an adventure of this variety, but they could have been a smidgen more inventive. It’s sort of a kiddified version of Zorro. Regardless this is a surprisingly charming bit of mindless fun. It’s actually superior to the Shrek sequels which lacked heart. Nowhere near as derivative as its spin-off origins might lead you to believe. Puss in Boots is solid entertainment worth seeing.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Posted in Comedy, Holiday with tags on November 4, 2011 by Mark Hobin

It feels like several lifetimes since we last saw the once amiable stoner duo escape from Guantanamo Bay. Things are not the same these days. Set 6 years following the events of the last film, Harold and Kumar have drifted apart and are now estranged. Harold is married and adjusting to his new wife’s family. He’s replaced his best friend with Todd. Kumar also has a new buddy named Adrian. Harold and Kumar are just not as tight as they used to be.

If that overwrought setup feels like it’s missing the joy of what made the original so winning, you’d be right. The story takes off after Kumar accidentally burns down Harold’s father-in-law’s treasured Christmas tree. The two are compelled to scour New York City for the perfect one to replace it. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is an unfunny movie and surprisingly joyless for a story set during the holidays. For much of the picture the two once close friends don’t even like each other. They’re much different characters now. Harold has grown up and acts like a respectable adult and Kumar solely lives to just smoke weed. Both trajectories are disheartening for contrary reasons. Harold is a buzzkill and Kumar just seems mentally underdeveloped. Watching actor Kal Penn in his mid-30s still driven by an all consuming desire to just smoke pot and nothing more, is not convincing. Almost like he left his position as Associate Director of Public Engagement at the White House to make a comedy about marijuana.

To be fair, this is a marked improvement over the execrable Escape from Guantanamo Bay which seems like a dated relic today. But A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas tries too hard to wallow in poor taste. The disrespectful humor is reminiscent of Bad Santa but nowhere near as trenchant. It’s soft not subversive, over-relying on moronic frat boy antics than scathing comedy. I will say the production does make good use of the 3D effects. There’s lots of scenes of flying glass shards and smoke that seemingly drifts out into the theater. There’s also a hilarious line when Harold, upon meeting his wife’s mother for the first time, mistakes her for someone else. I think there’s one more knee-slapper somewhere in there but I can‘t remember it anymore. I’ll give the stoner comedy 2 stars, one for each laugh. Hey they were pretty good laughs.