Hugo

Article first published as Hugo on Blogcritics.
Sometimes a film comes along that I think of as perfect, not because it was made well or even acted well, but because it gave me a space in which to think clearly. These types don’t tell you what to think like so many modern ones try to. Hugo is about life and more specifically the role movies play in our lives.

When I first saw the previews for Hugo I thought it was a kid’s film about a rapscallion pre-teen who lived in a train station and called everyone “gov’na.” It isn’t that at all. Ben Kingsley’s character says when addressing his movie fans, “I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true dreamers.” Are you one of those? If so, you’re who Hugo was made for.

Hugo is based on the bestselling book by Brian Selznick. It was produced by Johnny Depp and directed by Martin Scorcese. It’s about a 12-year-old named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a huge clock in a train station. His father was a tinkerer and repairman who died in a museum fire. He left his son a broken automatron, a sort of 1930’s version of a robot, and Hugo is determined to get it working. He thinks there is a message in it from his dad. He meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) a girl of his age who has a mysterious grandfather, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). He has a toy stand in the station and seems to despise Hugo for some reason. He is unusually cruel.

There is also a ruthless inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) with a Doberman and a leg brace who captures vagrants in the station. He sends them to jail or to the orphanage. He is a sort of lingering nemesis of Hugo throughout the movie, although he provides few scenes of subtle comic relief; I laughed out loud watching him try and pick up a woman.

The boy is on a quest to make the automatron work, and through the process learns a lot about the people in the station and Isabelle. There is a message here about the role of fantasy in our lives as well as the role of movies.

In conclusion, Hugo is a little slow in the beginning but the 1930s sets, costumes, and Parisian music makes the slow beginning worthwhile. When Hugo steals a croissant from a food cart you feel like you can taste it. The colors and attention to detail are so convincing, you feel like you are in the movie. The stalled action en principio is important in that it develops the characters. I really enjoyed Hugo. Once the ride began, I never wanted it to stop. If you want to go on a cinematic ride and be inspired, watching Hugo should be on your to-do list. I gave it 5/5 stars. Oh yeah, and if you love the history of movies, Martin Scorcese knows a thing or two about that! He certainly says it well in Hugo.

Straw Dogs

Article first published as Straw Dogs on Blogcritics.
Straw Dogs was directed by Rod Lurie, known for the Contender (2000). He is an ex Los Angeles film critic who took on quite a challenge directing a remake of the original Straw Dogs from 1971 which starred Dustin Hoffman. Surfing around the web I found this remake has similar controversy to the Cape Fear movies: volatile opinions exist.

I believe any remake will have its detractors and Straw Dogs appears to have its fair share. While I enjoyed some aspects of the movie I found the script unrealistic and the characters under-developed. Had those two features been enhanced, it could have been a great remake.

The film centers on LA screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth). They have just inherited a large house way out in the boonies of the deep South since Amy’s father’s passing. They decide to spend some time there in the town where Amy grew up so David can work on his most recent movie script presumably away from the noise of the city. Amy’s high school flame Charlie (Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd) comes on to her right away and there is a tension there that hints at trouble. Charlie works with a group of ruffians that have long since graduated from high school but still cowtow to the coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) with regards to drinking games in the local saloon and other important facets of their small lives.

We learn very little about these washed-up football players. When they commit horrible acts we have no idea why. This is due to plain and simple shallow character development. There is something going on with the coach’s daughter and that makes for a side story that I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say it is once again, shallow character development and weak screenwriting. The premise of the movie is that ex-high school football stars in a small town often become feared villains. This group, defined by David Sumner as “Straw Dogs,” are in no way cute or interesting. They are savages and their criminal behavior wreaks havoc until the final scene.

I found the plot very predictable. Something done with a bear trap piqued my interest just minutes before the credits rolled. Too bad that was the only high moment for me. Perhaps it should have happened an hour earlier and I would have liked this film more. If the writing were better along with the character development of both the straw dogs and the other characters, it could have been an awesome new concept of a classic. As it is, this remake “drops the ball” in more ways than one.

Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

Movies give us a specific point of view. For this reason, it is possible to NOT GET IT in the same way you might not get someone different at work or in your life’s travels. In my years reviewing movies here on my blog (as well as my entire lifetime watching movies) I have suffered from “jumping to conclusions” about movies. I did that with Nacho Libre. Jack Black didn’t seem funny the first time, but my perspective changed. My gate opened up and after a month or so, that film was my second favorite of all time. Gentlemen Broncos was directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite). It is as camp as camp gets. All (I am) saying is give “camp” a chance.

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Sam Rockwell plays Bronco, an interstellar futuristic hero from the imagination of a teenage writer. He is made out to reference the futuristic movies of the 1960’s, usually starring Charleton Heston. He is actually one layer below the reality one, being in a book. Michael Angarano is our true protagonist. Reminiscent of the children’s comedy Big Fat Liar, his manuscript is stolen by a more established sci fi writer and used for his next book. The best parts of this movie are the flashback sequences into the book. Everyone is searching for yeast, it is the lifeblood of a dying species. Does that sound ridiculous? There’s much more. Some of the real life sequences are slow and unnecessary. I don’t know why the director did so many of them. He could have stuck more to the manuscript story and only gone back occasionally to real life. I think tht would have improved the movie. The director seems like he is filling up dead space with snake diarrhea shopping with mother scenes. The manuscripts are where it’s at.

Envision stags with explosive rockets mounted on them. It’s camp effects again (see what I was saying about camp?). This movie will not resonate with a large audience because it is just too loosely joined. I probably will not recommend my friends and family to watch it but for those who have “seen it all” I offer this as a refreshing laugh with truly stupid intentions. If you laugh at this movie or even walk out, you are doing exactly what the director had hoped you would. I like movies like that, just not every day. Check out the clip below of Gentlemen Broncos.

3/5

Beauty And The Beast (2017)

Disney has done it with its big screen, live action adaptation of the animated musical Beauty and the Beast. The opening scene’s of Belle’s “provincial” town might as well be take straight from the cartoon classic. They are done well however and live-film aspects are utilized fully. I’m sure many were skeptical of what the film might do but it’s this author’s opinion that it entertains more than the animated classic.

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Bill Condon directed it will all the accolades of directing 2 Twilight films and experimental ones like Kinsey. He’s been around the block and it shows. Emma Watson does an excellent job as Belle. She has the chops to deliver and I found her to be “Belle” very shortly into the film. Like everyone, i was waiting for her to sing and when she did, it wasn’t small or nasal, she commanded the songs with a voice like an instrument.

The music remixes most the earlier songs. There are some added that have already brcom instant classics. One way Disney got this film right was by not making it too musical and conversely not too “drama film.” I think they achieved that balance well.

Dan Stevens was the best casting choice in the film. He emoted the beast in and out of costume. He probably had the most lines and screen time so it was integral to the success that he be liked and “bught.” I bought it! Every minute of him. The CGI wasn’t perfect but the acting and voicing was so good, I don’t feel the need to criticize. The wolf fight along with the Gaston jump fight at the end are some of the best action scenes in all Disney movies.

There are other amazing actors in this who do not fail to satisfy: Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, and Emma Thompson. The acting is first rate and part of what makes this an outstanding film experience. The animated clock and candlestick figures were among my favorite. They are very relatable, just as much if not more so than the prior animated ones.

The story is probably known to all by now. A sorceress’ spell keeps a Prince in the beasts’ body until true love sets him free. This is kind of like the life story of anyone who has sought love. The process of patience and understanding is chronicled much more clearly in this live action film than in the cartoon. We live among the characters and there are scenes where there was not a dry eye in the house. It’s not just a chick-flick either, there are wolf attacks and beast fights, and all the other sort of exciting stuff you’d expect from a legendary tale such as this. Most know that true love wins.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Listen, we all know the story here. It can easily appear that Disney is simply cashing in, once again, on a classic anmated musical to make a sure thing. That isn’t true though because we have learned through time that remakes don’t always succeed. This film is a success in its own rite. Emma Watson delivers as Belle and Dan Stevens is a knockout power punch as the Beast. Then there are 6the smaller successes in the music and the smaller roles. There is a reason this film keeps packing theaters, people want what it gives and they’re ready to pay at the box office. Hollywood should take note for future remakes of such classic animated films.

5/5

Everything Must Go (2010)

Everything Must Go was directed by Dan Rush. This is his debut as a director. Will Ferrell (Nick Halsey) lends an everyman face to suburban failure and renewal in this dark comedy. Alcoholism and depression are addressed in this movie, hefty topics for an independent film but they are handled deftly and respectfully.

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It begins with Nick Halsey losing his job. If you think it can’t get worse than that for a suburban married man in a mortgage, it does. When he gets home, he finds all his possessions, including clothes, strewn across the front lawn. Can’t get worse? Yes it can. Soon after he arrives home he finds he cannot get into the house as his wife has changed the locks. This is when we begin to see he is an alcoholic. He plops down on the easy chair in the yard and decides to have a yard sale. The course of events that follow involve a young kid who visits him on the lawn (Kenny Loftus played by C.J. Wallace who is the son of Notorious B.I.G. in real life). Their interplay is marvelous because it is tender and human.

Kenny doesn’t judge Nick for his misgivings. Instead, they find a common ground where they share a love of baseball and a common theme of loneliness. For me, this relationship was the most significant. There are other ones in the movie though. Samantha (Rebecca Hall), Nick ex-wife, is adamantly against him. Though we don’t know the details it can be boiled down to the well-known failings of an alcoholic in a marriage. Details show us that Nick was not just a casual alcoholic but a raving black-out type. He’s quite lucid and sensible in the movie though. The cop that drives by and has befriended Nick, Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), seems to have Nick’s best interest at heart but that remains to be seen. Needless to say, Nick’s days on the lawn must come to an end. When they do, we see a transformation. While a bit predictable, it is the journey that held my attention. What would you do if you lost everything in a day? This movie let’s that “what-if” play out to a clear conclusion.

I enjoyed this movie immensely, it was an image of our humanity. Who has never been afraid of living out in the street? At a time in history when so many people are being forced out of their homes, it can be cathartic to watch this. Will Ferrell shows us in this film that he can act. Sure, he is funny but his acting makes it easy to believe he is homeless.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Watching Nick and Kenny together is touching. With all the bad going on in Nick’s life, he takes the time to get to know Kenny. I know from personal experience as a teacher kids require patience. The other relationships are a little flat and I thought could have been developed more. Still, this movie was valuable in the way it portrayed Nick’s relationship with Kenny. There is a lot to take away from that and it makes Everything Must Go highly entertaining.

4/5

Meek’s Cutoff

Because it is missing the conventions of a mainstream western, it’s tempting to write it off. On the other hand, when you look deeply into the simplicity of it, Meek’s Cutoff has a lot to say about being human.

It’s great when you find a movie by a budding director because you know they haven’t sold out yet. Meek’s Cutoff is one of those movies, directed by Kelly Reichardt. This movie is close to a western but it lacks the John Wayne hero and Tombstone “shoot em up.” Because it is missing the conventions of a mainstream western, it’s tempting to write it off. On the other hand, when you look deeply into the simplicity of it, Meek’s Cutoff has a lot to say about being human. Because of that, I judge it on how well it reflects humanity in its characters and in the story. On that level, it fares well.

Michelle Williams is Emily. We see her in the first half of the movie taking orders from the men and in the latter half, all but taking control of the wagon train. Her transformation, or revelation, is important. It shows the importance of women on the trail and in mankind. Unfortunately women in 1845 were relegated to servitude and rarely took command of any larger decision-making. Who knows if they would have gone off course if Emily had the reins. Bruce Greenwood is Stephen Meek. He talks up a storm but can’t seem to deliver. The movie’s title tells us that he has some ownership of the direction they choose. For that alone he is an important character. He is ethnocentic, chauvanistic, and driven by greed. He feels like God is on his side and vice versa. It’s because of him that the Indian is tortured along the trail. If not for Emily, the Indian would have died early on in the film. I think we can all imagine the equivalent of Meek in our modern life.

Since I was an English major, I am trained to see symbols in everything. Having said that, I believe there are many symbolic elements in this film. One very strong one being the bird in the cage they are carrying with them on their journey. The bird represents the human being, wanting to escape the trappings of a cage. The keepers of the cage feed the bird and never allow it to escape. It is in essence free in its confinement. Religion is part of that confinement as is the prejudice against other races and by men against women. I hated the ending at first but later I played it back to examine it with a more open mind. I now like the way it leaves things open for the viewer. What would you do? Follow the Indian and accept the fate he has for you or go down your own path as an ignorant and starving person held by convention? Because this film portrays humanity accurately in a rural, quasi-western setting, I give it 5/5 stars.

Monkey Kingdom

Every time one of these Disney Nature films comes out, my wife and I are Johnny on the spot to take our family. The last 2 we saw at the world famous El Capitan theater in Hollywood. This one we saw in the theater here. It was amazing as expected. It p…

Every time one of these Disney Nature films comes out, my wife and I are Johnny on the spot to take our family. The last 2 we saw at the world famous El Capitan theater in Hollywood. This one we saw in the theater here. It was amazing as expected. It presented the idea of a natural order, potentially upset by the underdog. I will give you no spoils as to the outcome. I felt this movie broke away from the convention Disney has used in the past and brought us some inspiration practically applied. It’s fitting that Disney, the champion of Princes and Princesses in the movies, challenges that concept. Our family liked that most about the film.

For a nature film, this movie is perfect in every way. Every family with young children will love it. The incredible architecture of the fallen monument they make their home is spectacular. It’s a perfect way to tell a story. I would imagine the recipe for making these things is sort of like: 1) Put cameras everywhere and shoot 2) look for what can be made into a story and 3) Make it into a story. Obviously the monkeys are not actors. Cheap labor right? Wait until the union hears about it. The monkey union? At any rate, there is love, struggle, heartbreak, and all the emotions of families trying to make it. Though the monkey’s nature is a different house than ours, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the connections to being a human in our society. This one’s a winner. I give it 5/5.

All Good Things

This film is long and tiresome but it has some interesting aspects. It is based on a true story. The main character was tried and convicted for murder as well as the improper disposal of a body.

The story is basically centered upon the protagonist who marries the Kirsten Dunst figure. His family is a group of real estate tycoons and unfortunately for her, a very “The Firm with Tom Cruise” sort of group. After she finds out she will probably never be able to pursue a career being married into it, she has an abortion and tries to divorce the protagonist. Shortly after that, she goes missing. She has not been discovered since.

While I disliked this film, it is possible you may like it. I found handfuls of reviewer who said the acting was worth the ticket so don’t take my word for it. The reason I did like some of it was because it was indeed a true story.

I suppose toward the end it held my interest but I have to say there is a reason Netflix has it at 2/5 stars. As for my rating? I give it:

[xrr rating=1.5/

Swiss Army Man

For some it may appear like a survivalist and a dead-body comedy. Attentive audiences, however, will find something far more original and life-affirming.

The debut feature film from “Daniels,” aka directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, has a lot of people talking: mostly good, a tiny percentage bad, all expressive because this is an atypical movie that emanates expression. These guys are known for their quirky short films that reveal a human side struggling in a dark society. Swiss Army Man falls right into that category only in a feature length.

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Swiss Army Man
Cast

Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Directed by

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Duo Credited as “Daniels”)

Written by

Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Other Info

Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Rated R
1hr 37min

Swiss Army Man is a story about Hank who is stranded on a desert island. He is trying to hang himself when he sees a man wash up on show, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). He rushes over to him to find him dead but the dead man keeps farting. He discovers it isn’t a loss that the man is dead, he has farting powers that make him function like a jet ski for Hank. Hank is able to use the dead man to get to the other side of the island. As Hank continues his quest to “get back” to civilization, he discovers Manny has all sorts of special functions that help him survive. This is where the title comes from: “Swiss Army Man.”

I want to address the film’s use of farting, since it has become a point of criticism online and it print. Apparently, a small percentage people walked out of the theater at Sundance during one of the farting scenes. I find that laughable that critics would walk out on any movie, much less one screening at film festival. The Daniels addressed this as an exxageration. They say of the 1500 people in the theater, maybe 12 walked out which was 1% of the occupancy. I had a completey different reaction to the fart scenes. I saw them as representative of life. Fart sin this film are the things that bind Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) together. This film doesn’t concern itself with the cool things that usually make up a popular movie. Instead, it points out that things like farts separate us from dead bodies. If a dead man can fart that much, it’s like he is alive. The use of farting to make a point is minimal in my opinion and shouldn’t be criticized.

swissarmy-2Though we’re not sure if Manny ever really comes back to life, though I’d assume he doesn’t, Hank has lots of conversations with him. It brought to mind the way we objectify friendshsips. We assign meaning to our friends and imagine them as they play out our fantasies. Hank teaches Manny all about life as he knows it, and that is pretty grim. He has no courage to approach a girl who he knows has a husband and who he has seen on the bus and taken a photo of on his phone’s wallpaper. This is disturbingly odd when her identity is brought out. if he has a stranger’s photo on his wallpaper, can he even have any relationships on his own? We are given a lot of information but left to interpret it for ourselves. One interpretation might be that Hank is clinically depressed and a sociopath, unable to have relationships with others. As a result, he has taken to the woods with a dead body to serve as his companion. While that may sound extreme, he could be a murderer and a stalker living in the woods as well. There are many shades you can see Hank as.

One hugely effective aspect of this film is the music. It is performed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell from the indie rock band Manchester Orchestra. There is even some singing, though not a lot. Music is used artfully and weaves throughout this film making it half orchestral and half rock sound.

There is so much life in Hank and yet he is cloistered away from others, except Manny of course. As Hank “teaches” Manny about love and girls, he makes dozens of props to replay his day on the bus and many other times he can in contact with love. There are some heavy statements made about religion and sex. It gives us a chance to look at these things, even look at our own lives in a safe environment with no one there except a dead guy.

There is a lot of unraveling that goes on at the end. It happens so fast, it’s hard to formulate exact answers to some questions. Was the island real? Where were Manny and Hank REALLY? How long was Hank out there? I certainly have my suspicions about what the answers could be but this film is put together loosely so it many me impossible to prove one conclusion over another. For what it’s worth, here’s my spoilers of the plot and ending:

swissarmymanI think the beach was a figment of Hank’s mind. I think he was not lost but “camped out” in the wooded area right outside Sarah’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) house like a stalker. Sarah was the girl on the bus that he took a picture of for his wallpaper . I think Hank was already psychotic but he was still a warm, compassionate person while in the woods. Again, the Daniels’ recurrent theme of the oddball, the outcast being as normal as anyone but unable to break through society’s walls. I haven’t figured out where the dead guy Manny came from but with him there, Hank was able to examine his life for the first time in a long time, maybe ever. In the end, my guess is Hank was shot by a policeman and then he dreamed the final scene as he died.

I say this knowing full well there are other rational and valid ways to inerpret the film. Please share your thoughts in the comments. This film was awesome and I am so glad I drove 60 miles to an independent theater to see it. It lost nothing with me. I’ll be watching for more spectacular, cerebral stuff from the Daniels. This is one of those movies I call perfect.

10/10

Super 8

Since I was age 10 when this movie takes place (1979) I was really excited to see the custard colored refrigerators and old school gas stations as well as other stuff from that year. I remember it as a humanistic and inspiring time. Some images of 1979 really made me nostalgic in the first hour. After that however, the movie began to sputter like a 70’s moped in need of a fill up. The homes, schools, and connectedness of the kids all was like 1979. Unfortunately, the story couldn’t continue in that era and turned to your typical violent alien film of the 90’s or 2000’s like Independence Day.

Spoiler ahead (sort of). One difference from other alien movies is that there is just one alien. It is quite ugly but not much different from most in movies extant. The alien is not as scary as the gratuitous shocks the director gives the audience. I counted 6 but there are surely more. Be warned, especially if you are annoyed by these things. There is only one thing that can save a movie with these, in my opinion. That thing is a great ending. Unfortunately, you won’t find that here either. Young kids aged 15 and below will like this movie. A couple times it looks like Transformers. Most above that age will look at their iphone to see the time as it plays out.

[xrr rating=2/