Published at KCActive.com on February 8th, 2013
It’s a good thing MGM went bankrupt. If it hadn’t, the James Bond series might have gotten stuck in the creative rut that was Quantum of Solace. The bankruptcy gave 007’s handlers time to write a real script for Skyfall and make sure it lived up to the standard set by star Daniel Craig’s first outing in Casino Royale.
It does that, and then some. Skyfall may not be the best Bond movie of all time, but it’s definitely in the top five. The plot, involving a cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) endangering MI-6’s agents, is slightly more linear than most Bond narratives, although if you’re still trying to untangle the
se things after 50 years, you should re-evaluate your priorities. What matters are the great action scenes, the colorful supporting characters, and how good 007 looks in a suit.
Director Sam Mendes is best known for smaller, more personal films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, but he acquits himself spectacularly here. He stages the kind of set pieces we’ve all come to expect (the Shanghai sequence is the best), but he also gives the film a calmer, more focused feel than usual. Ironically, that seems to help the more amped-up scenes — they’re easier to appreciate when you’re not annoyed/worn out by jittery camera work and bad editing.
The attempts at humor and emotional backstory don’t always work, and the only interesting female character is Judi Dench’s formidable M. But those are minor quibbles compared to the sheer fun of watching Skyfall. Maybe more studios should go belly-up every few years. It can do wonders for a franchise.
Extras: Four making-of features on the standard DVD, with several more on the Blu-Ray; Blu-Ray also has commentaries by Mendes, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, and production designer Dennis Gassner; premiere footage. (PG-13) Rating: 4 – LL
After making gazillion dollars with his Madea plays and films, Tyler Perry has decided to branch out into serious roles, written and directed by others. With this rebooted adaptation of James Patterson’s crime novels, Perry succeeds in not embarrassing himself, but that’s about it.
Going back to its title character’s Detroit roots, Alex Cross pits the psychologist and detective against a twitchy, torture-loving madman (Matthew Fox). As the bad guy threatens the people he loves, Cross uses his considerable deductive skills to track the man down.
Perry and Ed Burns (playing Alex’s partner) do their best work in the movie’s quieter moments, where they have a likable buddy-cop rapport, and moments of real emotion are allowed to play out. Those scenes are few and far between, thanks to director Rob Cohen (XXX), whose response to every storytelling dilemma is “blow something up!” He can’t even use a location like the old Michigan Theatre ruins effectively — the climactic fight takes place there, but it’s so dark and hyperactive, there’s no way to really see what’s going on.
Fox seems to take his director’s style to heart, hamming it up to an alarming degree. When the man who played Madea is the subtle one, you know you’ve got a problem.
Perry could probably continue playing Cross in future installments, but he’ll need a much better director to make this work in the long term. Either that, or the studio could just turn these into full-on dumb action movies, and dispense with the drama entirely. It won’t make them any better, but at least everyone will know what they’re getting into.
Extras: Commentary by Cohen; a feature on the adaptation process; deleted scenes. (PG-13) Rating: 2 – LL
Published at KCActive.com on December 7th, 2012
The marketing for Hope Springs makes it look like a comedy, but don’t be fooled. While it contains plenty of humorous moments, this is a serious film about the difficulty in reviving a stagnant relationship.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold, whose long marriage has become a hell of routine and detachment. At least it’s hell for Kay – Arnold is completely unaware of any problem. In a last-ditch attempt to get her husband’s attention, Kay books a trip to the town of Hope Springs, where Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) runs a renowned counseling clinic. Arnold is a jerk through the early part of the sessions, but as he realizes he may actually lose his life partner, he begins to see that he and Kay really do need help.
Much has rightly been made of the performances in Hope Springs. It’s a given that Streep will be wonderful in any role she tackles, including that of an otherwise bland housewife, and she gives Kay touching emotional depth. Jones is playing a variation on his usual grouchy persona, but he also reveals more vulnerability than he’s shown onscreen in years, if ever. Anyone who has been in a long relationship, or knows someone who has (and let’s face it, that’s pretty much everyone), will recognize these characters and sympathize with even their most difficult qualities.
Carell is the real revelation here, playing it completely straight as the understanding therapist. Dr. Feld is never the script’s focus, but his presence is a comforting counterpoint to the many awkward moments between Arnold and Kay. Director David Frankel is known for light fare like The Big Year and The Devil Wears Prada, but he handles the drama in Vanessa Taylor’s script extremely well. Hope Springs may not be groundbreaking cinema, but it says important things about the nature of long-term relationships, and does so with warmth and wit.
Extras: Commentary by Frankel; several making-of features; alternate scenes; a gag reel. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 - LL
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is either brave, crazy, suicidal, or a combination of all three. In a country where dissent is a crime, Ai speaks boldly against the government’s treatment of its citizens, and has become world-famous for doing so.
Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry offers both a biography and a fly-on-the-wall look at Ai’s provocative artistry. He doesn’t get overly emotional, but he does get passionate, especially when he sees harm done to everyday citizens.
Klayman zeroes in on Ai’s attempts to draw attention to the number of children killed in shoddily constructed schools during a 2008 earthquake. He literally flips off symbols of oppression (like Tiananmen Square) then sends the photos around the world, to the delight of his fans and the dismay of the government.
Ai has been doing this sort of thing throughout his career, earning constant harassment from Chinese authorities. His fame protects him somewhat, but his apparent fearlessness remains astonishing. When he’s beaten by police, he doesn’t stay quiet – he files aggressive, formal complaints, bringing cameras with him everywhere. He’s been criticized, in fact, for making himself the focus of his art, and there may be some truth to that. But when he literally risks his life exposing the misdeeds of a massive, powerful government, you can see that this self-aggrandizing eccentric is also a true patriot who loves his country, if not its leaders.
Extras: Commentary by Klayman; deleted scenes; filmmaker interviews. (R) Rating: 4 - LL
Published at KCActive.com on September 7, 2012
The Hunger Games
When they started casting the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA novels, I was in the middle of a weeklong Hunger Games marathon. As the cast took shape, I began to hear the voices of those actors in my head as I was reading. That’s when I knew the people of Panem were in good hands.
In case you’ve been living in total media isolation, The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a future version of America, devastated long ago by some unnamed catastrophe. After a failed rebellion, the wealthy, decadent Capital began demanding a “tribute” of two teenagers from each district. The kids are put into a high-tech arena and forced to battle to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are the tributes from District 12, and their actions during the games shake up the ruling class’ status quo.
Gary Ross, who directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, handles the disturbing, action-packed material with surprising skill, keeping the dark tone intact while staying within the bounds of a PG-13 rating. The movie is slow to get started, with some very clunky exposition, but once the characters enter the arena, there’s no slowing down.
The aforementioned cast, which includes Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Hemsworth, is so perfect it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing those roles. All of this bodes very well for the forthcoming sequels. The odds are definitely in their favor.
Extras: A making-of doc, plus others on special effects and the book-to-film phenomenon; an interview of Ross conducted by Elvis Mitchell; a collection of Sutherland’s writings on the story’s philosophy; a marketing archive; an unedited version of the propaganda piece seen early in the film. (PG-13) Rating: 4 —LL
For a country with so much official censorship, Iran has a terrifically vibrant film industry. Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning drama A Separation is the latest in a long line of thoughtful, fascinating glimpses into the lives of ordinary people who aren’t quite as different from Americans as we may assume.
The story involves a long-married couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who are on the verge of divorce. Simin wants to take their teenaged daughter (Sarina Farhadi) out of the country, but Nader refuses to leave his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). A judge grants them a temporary separation, which forces Nader to hire a caretaker when Simin moves out. Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman who takes the job, has her own set of problems, and the family’s struggles soon become much bigger than they could have expected.
Most of the action takes place in Nader and Simin’s apartment, which lends a suffocating air to the film. Even when the characters venture out, it’s into a busy street or crowded courtroom. The marriage itself feels like a trap, especially to Simin, but issues like gender, religion and social class constrict everyone as well. Razieh is much poorer and more devout than her employers, with a temperamental husband who cannot find work. Nader is a good man and a doting father, but he can’t resist the patriarchal nature of his society. Simin wants her daughter to have better opportunities, but doesn’t take into account that her child is thriving in spite of the cultural restrictions she faces.
People everywhere can identify with the stress of caring for an elderly parent or the tensions that arise in even the most stable marriages. As A Separation gets more complicated, its themes actually become more universal, which should lead to many interesting post-movie discussions.
If this sounds like a lot to process, it is, and there’s more. Farhadi takes the time to explore the topics he raises, without attempting to provide easy answers. He knows there aren’t any.
Extras: A subtitled commentary and two Q&A sessions with Farhadi. (PG-13). Persian with subtitles. Rating: 5 —LL
Published at KCActive.com on August 3, 2012
The Best Man
The recent death of writer Gore Vidal has led many fans back to his books. For film buffs, however, one of the finest Vidal efforts is the 1964 adaptation of his play The Best Man. And in this election year, its portrayal of political dirty dealings is as relevant as ever.
In the days when presidential candidates were actually chosen at the parties’ conventions, William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) are vying for the all-important endorsement of the popular incumbent, Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy). Russell is an upper class intellectual in the Adlai Stevenson mode; Cantwell is a fiery anti-Communist inspired by Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. Despite Vidal’s liberal leanings, he treats both characters as fully complex human beings, and uses Hockstader (a Harry Truman type) to articulate why they’re each half of a perfect candidate.
Russell’s integrity makes him indecisive in key moments, while Cantwell is an ideological fighter who often goes too far. Their true mettle is tested when each learns damaging personal information about the other. Do they use it to win, in the service of what they consider the greater good? Do they keep their hands clean and risk defeat? Do they fight to a draw and let another potential candidate win?
Vidal’s script is as morally gray as you’d expect, with the kind of wit and insight that makes The Best Man timeless, even though so much of it is rooted in a specific era. Director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton) keeps the pace up, using the smart dialogue to effectively mask the stage-bound nature of the material. It never stops being a filmed play, but it never stops being great, either.
Extras: This is part of MGM’s Limited Edition DVD-R collection, so there are no extras. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 4 —LL
No matter how far away the ‘60s get, there will always be something slightly romantic about the idea of living on a commune. That’s especially true for George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), whose rat-race life in New York City comes to an abrupt halt. Jobless and nearly penniless, they travel to Atlanta to stay with George’s awful brother (Ken Marino), and stumble upon Elysium, a rural throwback to the free-spirited fantasies of 40 years ago.
This peaceful, back-to-basics existence seems like a nice change from the way George and Linda have lived for so long, and most of Wanderlust is about their ambivalence toward this new possibility. The people they meet at Elysium are easy stereotypes — the weird guru (Justin Theroux), the sexy free love advocate (Malin Akerman), the cynical old hippie (Alan Alda), and so on. While there, George and Linda learn a few uncomfortable truths about themselves and their relationship.
Rudd and Aniston anchor the film with funny, down-to-earth performances that counter the uninhibited wackiness of their costars. Director David Wain (who co-wrote with Marino) has no idea when to stop, pushing some gags so far past their limits, you want to yell “Cut!” at the screen. He still captures the charm of the Elysium lifestyle, while legitimately making fun of its silly excesses.
When George and Linda finally have to make a decision about their future, it backs the writers into a corner. They could go back to some semblance of their “normal” life, but that seems like a copout. Embracing the adventure of Elysium is exciting, but also unrealistic. The filmmakers’ ultimate solution feels like it was written by a focus group, aiming to please everyone instead of coming up with something that makes sense. That may be a fun way to run a commune, but it doesn’t do much for a movie.
Extras: Commentary by Rudd, Wain and Marino; a making-of feature; a blooper reel; several gag documentaries; the Blu-Ray contains a “Bizarro Cut” which splices together deleted material in chronological order, introduced by Wain and Marino. (R) Rating: 3 —LL
Published at KCActive.com on July 6, 2012
When The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar, there were people who groused that it was a “conventional” choice. What’s conventional about a silent, black-and-white French film with no big stars? “Old-fashioned” is a better term, as director Michel Hazanavicius has composed an unabashed love letter to the glamour and romance of classic Hollywood.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film star who resists the coming of sound, with disastrous consequences. Luckily, he has befriended an up-and-coming young actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who refuses to abandon him when the rest of the industry does. With her help, and that of his faithful butler (James Cromwell) and the coolest dog since Lassie, George learns to adapt or get out of the way.
The joy of The Artist is more than superficial — Hazanavicius not only knows how it should look, he understands how it should FEEL. In the one major scene where sound is used, it feels like something crude and clumsy has invaded this pristine world, which is exactly how George experiences it. Its final use is more hopeful, a representation of his evolution, as well as technology’s. It’s an incredibly clever technique, and shows how fully Hazanavicius has thought this through.
Dujardin is a charming, energetic cross between Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, and Bejo could easily have stepped out of an early Ernst Lubitsch comedy. If you get those references, The Artist was practically made for you. If not, here’s your chance to enjoy a most unconventional “conventional” film.
Extras: A making-of doc; Q&A with the cast and director; blooper reel; features on the locations, set design, costumes, score and cinematography. (PG-13) Rating: 5 —LL
Act of Valor
Imagine Team America: World Police as a serious, live-action movie, and you have an idea of what Act of Valor is like. They may as well have put “America, Fuck Yeah!” on the soundtrack. On a continuous loop.
What makes Act of Valor stand out is its use of real Navy SEALs to portray the kinds of missions they undertake on a regular basis. There’s a connecting fictional storyline about drug dealers and terrorism, but the tactics — and the ammo — are very real.
Not surprisingly, the action scenes are the best things about the film. Directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy are former stuntmen, and they allow the audience to see what’s going on, without drawing attention to themselves with choppy editing or hyperactive camera work. They respect the guys they’re filming, and these sequences have a brutal, visceral power. You can practically hear the bullets whizzing past your head.
If this were a documentary, it would be uncluttered and powerful. Since Waugh and McCoy went the feature route, however, they felt it necessary to include lots of awkward drama that their non-actors simply can’t pull off. Some of them have real screen presence, and would have done fine just being themselves. When they’re called upon to emote, they suddenly get very uncomfortable.
As an action movie, Act of Valor is first-rate. As a tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of America’s elite forces, it’s a respectable hagiography. As a drama that could evoke genuine emotion, it’s a clichéd, manipulative mess.
Extras: Commentary by Waugh and McCoy; deleted scenes; the Blu-Ray also has features on the SEALs and their participation in the film; a making-of featurette; a Keith Urban video with its own production doc. (R) Rating: 2.5 —LL
Published at KCActive.com on June 1, 2012
The Woman in Black
You don’t see many old-fashioned Victorian ghost stories nowadays, and that alone makes The Woman in Black worth a look. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, it has an interesting plot and creepy atmosphere to spare. Add a grave, grown-up performance by Daniel Radcliffe, and you’ve got a modestly successful attempt to bring back an old-school genre.
Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young attorney in 1910s England assigned to settle the estate of a recluse whose house lies outside a depressing, marshy village. The locals have good reason to feel gloomy — they’ve been haunted for years by a spectral female figure, connected to the house, whose appearances coincide with horrific child deaths. And she’s not too happy about Arthur’s visit.
Director James Watkins is working here for the revived Hammer Studios, and his pacing and visual style do his bosses proud. He’s also got a bunch of great character actors in supporting roles, including Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer as a troubled couple Arthur befriends.
The ghost herself is terrifying, although Watkins regularly undercuts the impact of her appearances with lots of screeching sound effects and an annoying musical score. Arthur engages in the kind of rock-stupid behavior that propels so many horror plots, never missing a chance to wander down a dark hallway or force open a locked door. Radcliffe is too sympathetic to make you actually root for the ghost, but it’s not much easier to root for someone this clueless.
Extras: Commentary by Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman; a standard making-of doc and one on Radcliffe’s casting. (PG-13) Rating: 3 — LL
Some of the best Shakespeare adaptations are set in very non-Shakespearean environments. Ian McKellen’s brilliant Richard III took place in a quasi-Nazi England. Baz Luhrmann got millions of teenagers to pay attention to Romeo and Juliet by putting the lovers in the middle of an urban crime drama. Now, Ralph Fiennes tackles Coriolanus, giving one of the Bard’s lesser-known tragedies a very modern polish.
Fiennes both directs and stars as the title character, a brilliant military leader whose skills give him access to political power. He disdains the citizens he’s expected to lead, however, and his tactlessness eventually gets him banished from his home city, “a place calling itself Rome.”
This version of Rome could be any floundering democracy, and Fiennes cannily uses images of bloodshed and protest to drive home just how universal the play’s themes are.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s toughest characters to make sense of, especially when he joins forces with his longtime enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), in what seems like the world’s deadliest tantrum. Fiennes is up to the task, and he has a dream supporting cast in Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and especially Vanessa Redgrave, as Coriolanus’ ambitious mother. This is the kind of movie that should be shown in English lit classes — not to mention political science, media studies, acting and film production. Just show it everywhere.
Extras: Commentary by Fiennes; a short making-of feature. (R) Rating: 4.5 —LL
Published at KCActive.com on May 4, 2012
The Iron Lady
In case you were wondering: Yes, Meryl Streep is our greatest living actress. There is clearly no role this woman can’t play, as her Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady attests.
The movie itself is a mess, which makes Streep’s accomplishment stand out even more. Director Phyllida Lloyd shows the elderly Thatcher puttering around her house, having imagined conversations with her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). As she observes the changing world around her, Thatcher recalls key moments in her life, from her days as a politically aware teenager to her controversial run as Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Thatcher emerges as a tough leader who shattered the glass ceiling without ever being overtly feminist, but The Iron Lady stumbles when dealing her less admirable traits. We see her alienating former allies, but with little understanding of why she turned on them. Her intelligence is never in question, but she is rarely shown giving serious thought to her decisions. She’s just right, and she knows it, and that’s that.
Abi Morgan’s screenplay is strenuously apolitical, which is fine up to a point. I don’t need a filmmaker to tell me what to think about a historical figure. However, it would be nice to get some insight into how the British political system works and what larger impact Thatcher’s decisions had. Instead of offering that kind of depth, Lloyd and Morgan just go through the usual biopic checklist, depending on their actress to overcome the poorly structured script. That Streep does so is as much a testament to her stubborn brilliance as it is to Thatcher’s.
Extras: A handful of making-of features, focused on elements like casting and costumes. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 —LL
We Bought a Zoo
Cameron Crowe’s heartwarming family film is very loosely based on the story of Benjamin Mee, a journalist who operates a private zoo in England. We Bought a Zoo turns Benjamin into an American widower who makes a fresh start by purchasing the rundown property, now located in rural California. It’s a blatant attempt to Hollywoodize the story, as is casting Matt Damon in the lead role, giving him two precocious/troubled kids, and pushing Scarlett Johansson as a would-be love interest.
Astonishingly, this does not ruin the movie. Crowe has an innate resistance to tear-jerking schmaltz so the emotional scenes earn your involvement by resembling real human interactions. Damon is terrific as a man who deals with his grief by taking on a nearly impossible project, then realizes that connecting with his children is even harder. Colin Ford holds onto audience sympathy as the sullen teenaged son, and Mary Elizabeth Jones, as Damon’s young daughter, is all kinds of adorable.
The animals provide plenty of comic relief, as does the ragtag group of zoo employees, but they aren’t just there for laughs. They all have important roles to play in the Mee family’s recovery, and some genuine dramatic moments of their own. If We Bought a Zoo wraps up a little too neatly, or has a few too many obvious gags, it still engenders enough good will to make you ignore its problems. For the most part, anyway.
Extras: A commentary track by Crowe, editor Mark Livolsi and co-star J.B. Smoove; a making-of doc (which is much longer on the Blu-Ray); additional Blu-Ray features on the real Benjamin Mee & the musical score; deleted scenes; a gag reel; a photo gallery. (PG). Rating: 3.5 – LL
Like most of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jason Segel was a big fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Unlike most of us, he became a successful actor, who could convince Disney to let him write and star in a new movie about the beloved icons.
He does everyone proud with The Muppets, introducing a new generation to the dormant franchise without skimping on the nostalgia. Segel plays Gary, a small-town boy with a pretty girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a brother named Walter who’s a little … different, as in noseless and made of felt. When Walter tags along on Gary and Mary’s vacation in Los Angeles, he not only discovers his true identity as a Muppet, he leads an effort to save the gang’s old theatre from demolition by an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper).
This involves rounding up Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest, and convincing them to reunite for a fundraiser. It’s not exactly an original premise, but it is very much in line with the “let’s put on a show” Muppets ethos. It also plugs directly into the brains of longtime fans, which are equally excited to bring back these characters and their sweet, clever humor.
Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin (along with Bobin’s Flight of the Conchords cohort, Bret McKenzie) understand and respect what Henson created, adding appropriate touches of their own. They’re better with the Muppet characters than the human ones (I never much cared about Gary and Mary, honestly), but that’s part of the appeal, too. Anyone can grab a banjo and sing “The Rainbow Connection,” but only Kermit can reduce jaded Gen-Xers to tears.
Extras: Lots of typical DVD features (gag reel, making-of, screen tests, etc.), which treat the Muppets as real actors, as well they should; a commentary track by Segel, Bobin and Stoller; an extended version of Cooper’s infamous (and very funny) rap number. (PG) Rating: 4 —LL
Was J. Edgar Hoover a closeted, cross-dressing gay man? That seems to be the only question anyone cares to ask about him anymore, and even Clint Eastwood can’t resist making it a big part of his 2011 biopic. He also wants to portray Hoover’s professional accomplishments, but can’t seem to decide which is more important.
The challenge comes from Hoover’s very private personality. Most of his work for the FBI is public record, and J. Edgar is at its best when it shows the energy and innovation he brought to the bureau in its early years. Even as he ages, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance has the obsessive drive that marked Hoover’s rise to the top, as well as his eventual fall from grace.
It’s the portrayal of his personal life that crashes the movie. Rumors have long swirled around Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, played gracefully by Armie Hammer. He was also close to his assistant, Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts), and the three form a strange professional/love triangle. When you add Judi Dench as Hoover’s domineering mother, you have a perfect recipe for the kind of shallow pop psychoanalysis that Eastwood usually avoids.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote such a solid script for Milk, has no idea how to structure this story or what to do with all the behind-closed-doors speculation. It would have been much more interesting if Black and Eastwood had made Hoover’s secretiveness a plot point unto itself. This was a man who believed he had a patriotic duty to pry into the lives of others, but who guarded his own life so carefully no one really knows anything about him. That’s the kind of complexity that makes for a fascinating biography, but it requires acknowledging that your central character is an enigma.
J. Edgar takes the easy way out, filling in those interesting blank spaces with tired, formulaic melodrama.
Extras: A short documentary on Hoover’s life and career, especially as it relates to the movie. (R) Rating: 3 —LL
A 3-D children’s movie … by Martin Scorsese?! That was how many people reacted to the news that the auteur of violent dramas would be adapting Brian Selznick’s popular book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What on earth does the man behind Mean Streets know about family-friendly entertainment?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Scorsese has famously credited his 12-year-old daughter with encouraging him to make something she could see, but it’s the director’s own childlike love of movies that makes Hugo so special.
Set in a fantastical Paris train station, circa 1930, the story concerns the orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who has been abandoned by his alcoholic uncle to maintain the building’s elaborate clockwork. If the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) discovers him, Hugo will be sent away, not only from his tiny apartment in the walls, but from the beautiful automaton left to him by his father (Jude Law). Hugo’s attempt to repair the contraption puts him in the path of Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her godfather, Georges (Ben Kingsley) — who just happens to be real-life early film pioneer Georges Méliès, now nearly forgotten and operating a toy shop.
Once Georges’ identity is discovered, Hugo is transformed from a charming fantasy into a breathtaking tribute to cinematic creativity. Hugo and Isabelle gradually draw Georges back into the spotlight, and Scorsese provides what may be the most delightful film history lesson of all time. Méliès’ work is ideal for 3-D, and he undoubtedly would have loved the format. It’s enough to make a grown geek weep.
Hugo makes a few tiny missteps, notably in the slapstick nature of Cohen’s character and the odd mix of kid-friendly adventure with a plea for film preservation. But for fans of early cinema, it’s a delightful celebration of why people like Méliès matter. For everyone else, it’s just delightful.
Extras: A general making-of doc, plus others on special effects and the work of the real Méliès; a short comedy bit with Cohen. (PG) Rating: 4.5 out of 5 —LL
A movie with Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson ought to be many things: Crazy, funny, strange, provocative. The Rum Diary tries to fulfill that mandate, but it ends up just being dull.
Based on one of Thompson’s early novels, the author’s stand-in this time is Paul Kemp (Depp), who goes to Puerto Rico in 1960 to write for a local newspaper. He spends a fair amount of time enjoying the island’s vices with a couple of fellow scribes (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi, who steals the movie), but soon gets roped into a scheme involving a developer, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), and some shady land deals. He also falls for Sanderson’s impossibly hot girlfriend (Amber Heard). After lurching around aimlessly for a while, Kemp decides to start fighting back against “bastards” like Sanderson, and basically turns into the Gonzo legend we know and love.
Rum Diary is a gorgeous film to look at, with nearly every shot suitable for framing. It’s got a great setting, too, in the booze-soaked world of hedonists and scam artists, all looking to get some excitement out of Puerto Rico’s then-emerging economy.
There’s just not much happening here, with Kemp remaining passive until a last-act personality shift that makes no sense, given his previous behavior. That leaves the substance-abuse humor to fill the void, and it is funny, but it’s also kind of straight-laced, even square. Those are words that should never describe anything involving Depp or Thompson, let alone both.
Extras: A standard behind-the-scenes doc; another, more in-depth look at Thompson’s own failed efforts to get the film made. (R) Rating: 3 out of 5 —LL
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion has many things in common with movies like Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain, with one notable exception — it feels utterly, terrifyingly genuine. It also inspires serious respect for the doctors and scientists who fight deadly diseases, a battle that often seems unwinnable.
Contagion is a multi-character epic, following everyone from epidemiologists to regular citizens dealing with a fast-moving virus that comes into the U.S. via a businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has recently returned from Hong Kong. Her husband (Matt Damon) struggles to hold the family together while everything falls apart around them, while the CDC and WHO (led by Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard) investigate and try to contain the illness. They’re hampered by a blogger (Jude Law) who is pushing conspiracy theories and quack “cures” on a desperate public.
Soderbergh covers nearly every possible angle of such a crisis, much as he did in the drug-problem saga Traffic. While Contagion has its predecessor’s great cast and thought-provoking scope, it also has weak spots that keep it from reaching the same level of brilliance. Cotillard’s storyline goes berserk about halfway through, and although Law’s character is fascinating, he gets short shrift while Soderbergh focuses on Damon and the scientists. This probably would have made a better mini-series than it does a feature film — it’s certainly interesting enough to warrant that kind of commitment.
What does work is the sense Soderbergh creates that this could easily happen in the near future. It’s an ultimately optimistic film, and it gives due credit to the people whose efforts would most likely save lives, but it’s definitely rooted in reality. You won’t want to touch any doorknobs for a few days after seeing it. Or breathe on anyone. Or go out in public without a HazMat suit ….
Extras: Two featurettes on the film’s verisimilitude and the research that went into it; a PSA on how pandemics spread and how to prevent them. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 out of 5 —LL
Gee, a movie about baseball and math. How exciting.
If that’s your sarcastic response to the plot of Moneyball, you are not alone. Give it a chance, though, because it’s actually quite engaging. Based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, Moneyball has a crackling script and energetic pace that belie its less-than-intriguing subject matter.
Oscar nominee Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as Beane, whose team gets hammered endlessly by wealthy opponents who can afford hotshot players (including some of Beane’s, who leave for higher paychecks). A chance meeting with young stats whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, also Oscar-nominated) changes the way Beane chooses players, and shakes up decades of accepted talent-scouting wisdom.
Aside from the performances, the film’s greatest asset is the screenplay by masters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian. They also wrote the script for The Social Network, another great movie about a seemingly boring subject (guys sitting at computers!), and their rapid-fire style is everywhere. Director Bennett Miller slows it down just enough to let the narrative unfold properly. This is, quite literally, “inside baseball” material, and it needs to be handled carefully for popular consumption.
Moneyball will still find its most appreciative audience among baseball geeks, who either love or hate Beane’s muckraking reforms. It won’t make fans or statisticians out of anyone else, but it will be a very pleasant surprise.
Extras: Deleted and extended scenes; a blooper reel; features on Beane’s accomplishments and the efforts to give the film authenticity; the Blu-Ray also has features on casting and the challenges of adapting Lewis’ book. (PG-13) Rating: 4 —LL