Thursday, November 24, 2011

Movie Reviews: "Hugo" and "The Muppets"

This been a busy two days, what with Thanksgiving and three major releases this week that I wanted to see. I still have yet to see Arthur Christmas, I plan on seeing that sometime soon, and hopefully the sneak peek of potential Oscar contender, We Bought A Zoo. I still managed to get out and see two new release movies these past two days, one I loved, the other, not so much. Guess which one: Hugo or The Muppets? Read the reviews:



The art of adaptation is tricky. Often filmmakers manage to find nuances from the book and expand upon those nuances to make a movie that is as deep and affecting as the book, unfortunately Hugo is not one such movie.

This adaptation of Brian Selznick's enchanting novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret lacks the taut structure and emotional heft of its source material, resulting in a cinematic experience far from enchanting. Director Martin Scorsese did put together a nice ensemble of craftsmen to create some breathtaking sets, costumes, and cinematography, but the thrill of the expertly crafted crafts only lasts for maybe ten minutes, then one would think the story should draw the viewer in, but it never does.

Hugo is an orphan living in the walls of a 1930's Parisian train station, winding the clocks whilst rebuilding an automaton that his father found before he died. Here is the thing, the actors do the best with what they were given, but the script lacks any real life and feels like a workman's paycheck. Time is never given in the editing or the pacing of scenes to let the audience reflect on the emotions of the moment, so we never see the actor's reacting or showing any emotion to the events transpiring.

For example, after Hugo's notebook is taken by the owner of a toy shop booth that he has been stealing from to get parts for the automaton, he should be devastated, right? But instead we see Hugo, immediately after, winding the clocks and watching people in the train station, laughing at their humorous situations. Not to mention, these attempts at comedy always fall flat, in particular with Sacha Baron Cohen's Station Inspector, whose antics just take too long to develop and fills up far too much screen time. The script by John Logan is just poorly paced, with scenes going from high tension and a hankering for a huge pay-off, to the brakes being hit to deliver a laugh.

While Scorsese obviously shows his penchant for film history near the end with a nicely put together ten minute mini-doc in the movie that details the life of pioneer filmmaker Georges Meilies, ten minutes of enchantment do not make up for a haphazard hour and fifty minutes before all of that. As much of a fan I was of Selznick's novel, Hugo is an adaptation that perhaps should have never happened.

I give Hugo an F!

The Muppets

Did I have a grin on my face throughout the entirety of The Muppets? Yes, I did. Did I nearly cry at times? Yes, I did. Is The Muppets worth your time? Yes, it is.

The Muppets
is a classic getting the gang back together story told via the point of view of Walter - the Muppets' biggest fan - who after over-hearing an oil tycoon's plan to tear the old Muppet Studios down to drill oil, appeals to Kermit and the gang to put on one last show and prove the world hasn't forgotten them. Does the basic concept feel formulaic? Yes, but screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller keep the flick from having a predictable ending, a true feat when dealing with such a standard Hollywood story.

Kermit and the gang have never been funnier, with great new additions like '80s Robot as Kermit's butler, and as usual, Fozzie the Bear is my personal favorite (plus, who doesn't want to travel by map now). However, it is Kermit who carries the emotional weight of the film on his back. How does one apologize to old friends for not staying in touch with them? How do they reforge a broken relationship? These are real human themes that Segel and Stoller chose to deal with here, and director James Bobin manages to somehow make it work within the world of puppetry, where their eyes never blink!

While the script juggles around a few too many characters and plot lines, where near the end certain moments lack tension because the story is constantly shifting from character to character to keep their plot lines going, The Muppets manages to keep the train on the track and arrive at the station on time. Ultimately, the emotion always comes through, with great aid from the fantastic songs, in particular "Pictures in my Head" and "Man or Muppet."

I give The Muppets a B+!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Top 6: Muppet Movies

In honor of the release of The Muppets today, I have decided to rank the Muppet movies from my least favorite to my personal favorite. I love the Muppets and every single one of these movies have their moments that make me laugh and wanna cry, but some are better movies than others, and this is where the deciding factor lies. Hopefully after today The Muppets will top this list, but as you will see that is no easy task. (Note: I only included the theatrical release Muppet movies, not the made-for-TV or direct-to-video movies). As well, I included my favorite quote from each Muppet movie underneath each movie. So here it is, the Top 6 Muppet Movies of All-Time!

6. Muppet Treasure Island
The Muppets tried to repeat their success they had adapting famous literature with A Christmas Carol by adapting Robert Louis Stevens' classic. The problems with Muppet Treasure Island is that the story simply focuses too much on the Muppets playing caricatures of the Treasure Island characters rather than having moments to be the Muppets as created by Jim Henson. As well, the songs and the gags are probably the weakest of all the Muppet movies.
"We've got cabin fever!" - Crew Members

5. Muppets From Space
The last time the Muppets appeared on movie screens till now, and unfortunately this may have been the reason for their long hiatus. While the story features a great character exploration of Gonzo, with a great cameo by Ray Liotta, the use of modern music rather than specially written song-and-dances and the constant modern references to late 1990s culture, just hurt what makes the Muppets the Muppets: They are pure and timeless.
"What, have you been tap dancing on the barbecue again?" - Rizzo the Rat

4. The Great Muppet Caper
Possibly some of the sharpest comedy in almost all of the Muppet movies, however the story features sluggish pacing and shallow characterizations, never taking enough time between gags to let emotions stir between the characters. However, with this case, even through the slow-moving paces the laughs keep coming, so that keeps this one enjoyable.
"It's plot exposition. It has to go somewhere." - Lady Holiday

3. The Muppet Christmas Carol
One of my personal favorite Christmas movies of all-time, unlike Muppet Treasure Island, here the Muppets re-enacting a literary classic actually worked to their advantage. The Muppets are not simply trying too hard to fit into the roles of the Charles Dickens' classic, they are allowed to be their Muppet characters first while still serving the character roles of each character as written by Dickens. Not to mention the narration by Gonzo and Rizzo is hilarious, the songs are catchy, and Michael Caine shines as Ebeneezer Scrooge.
"Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat! Put me out, put me out, put me out!" - Rizzo the Rat

2. The Muppet Movie
What can you say, this was the Muppet movie that started it all and the reason why there have been so many Muppet movies, and this one definitely earns its importance. The songs are the best of any Muppet movie, with, "Rainbow Connection," and, "Moving Right Along," being the two best Muppet songs of all-time. Not to mention, the movie utilizes the novel approach of telling the Muppets' origin story, so seeing these characters first meeting one another, forging their friendships, and learning to live with one anothers' eccentricities is both funny and heart-warming.
"A bear in his natural habitat. A Studebaker." - Fozzie the Bear.

1. Muppets Take Manhattan
This is the finest Muppet movie simply because it has the best mixture of character development, story, musical numbers, and gags. This is the most emotional Muppet movie as the Muppets all embark on a journey where they break up and then have to come back together again. We actually see the relationships between the Muppets tested for the first time, and so when they manage to pull it back together in the end, you almost forget you were watching a movie with the Muppets because you had gone on such a well-crafted journey of character. Not to mention, the scene in the restaurant with Liza Minnelli is one of my favorite Muppet moments of all-time.
"I didn't know this cave was co-ed." - Fozzie the Bear

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Filmmaker's Blurb About Charlie Chaplin

The other night I watched the Charlie Chaplin movie, Limelight. It was one of his final movies to be made, and one of his first to be made after he moved permanently to Great Britain, after coming under McCarthy scrutiny post-WWII. This movie is one of the rare Chaplin works that is a talkie, and in so many ways I think sound finally lends Chaplin's ideas a clarity that his silent films never had. This leads me to my biggest point here. The thing that separated Charlie Chaplin from all of his silent companions like Buster Keaton, is that he actually had something to say when the time came.

Chaplin was known for making movies with messages in them, but his characters were always slight archetypes in his silent days, and even in some of his early talkies. With Limelight, Chaplin plays an aging stage comedian in London whose career has all but ended, he just cannot seem to get work, and when he does the crowd doesn't laugh anymore. However, all changes when he meets a suicidal ballerina and the two of them work together to rebuild their fallen careers.

This movie, being somewhat autobiographical for Chaplin, is one of the few Chaplin movies that has genuine character development to it. Perhaps it was the added bonus of dialogue, with the characters saying one thing but the actors' faces saying another, but I really think it is primarily because with this movie he just had so much to say.

He was always a political guy who seemed to have his own opinion on everything, but out of all of Chaplin's movies that I have seen, this one seemed the most personal. The movie never really dabbles into politics like Modern Times or The Great Dictator, or even City Lights, the movie is simply about the pursuit of art, something Chaplin knew better than just about anything. It is very easy to be political and make statements from your mind, but it is very hard just to go from your heart, which is what Chaplin did here with Limelight.

It truly is, I think, Chaplin's masterpiece and needs to be seen. The two primary characters are just so deep, with fleshed out backstories doled out by dialogue (which is something that silent films struggled to deliver and make you feel when it was usually just relayed through text screens). However, the sheer passion that every frame of this movie exudes, is just an inspiration for me as an aspiring filmmaker.

It simply feels here that Chaplin made what he felt at the time, rather than what he was thinking or thought what people wanted to see, and that means all the world to me. It is something I want to do every single time I get behind a camera and shoot a movie, and it is something that I am not sure I have ever fully done. Turning off one's brain is the key. Go with your heart, not your mind. That is what I have learned from Charlie Chaplin, and I am going to try and apply that from now on.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What defines a Cult Classic?

In terms of movies, literature, television, pretty much any form of entertainment that revolves around storytelling, there are those stories that seem to only ever find appeal with a certain key demographic -- i.e., cult classics. Some of the more popular cult classics of recent years have ranged from things like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to more esoteric fare like anything that has come from director Lars Von Trier. But where do you draw the line between what is a genuine classic and what is a cult classic? In essence, what defines a cult classic? I've decided to try my hand at answering this question.

This past week there was an internet uproar because BBC commissioned a feature film version of the Brit. show, Doctor Who, to be scripted in hopes of hitting theaters within a few years. Obviously, the diehard fans of Doctor Who were outraged, because the movie will have no continuity ties to the show and will not feature the Doctor from the TV series either. In some ways I feel the idea of those involved is to take a fairly popular British show and turn it into a popular film series Worldwide, and it makes sense that a clean slate is the best place to attract new fans. For me, both points of view are understandable, and obviously the bigger question isn't the stupidity of rebooting a franchise that is still currently healthy (which is my biggest point of contention with this), but is: Is Doctor Who a classic or a cult classic?

To me, this always makes the difference when it comes to remakes. Remaking Star Wars is one thing, remaking a little known sci-fi flick from the '50s may frustrate a few, but to the larger public it's fresh and invigorating. While I am always one for originality in movies, usually the reason a movie or TV show relegates a cult status is because it is a flawed piece of entertainment, or it was because the entertainment in question just was not acceptable enough to a mass audience and only appealed to a small demographic. Case and point, The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and then I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Both are based off of the same novel, but I feel the Will Smith movie is a better movie simply because it is more accessible to a casual moviegoer.

And here is the thing with Doctor Who, the TV show appeals to its key demographics, but there is something about British film and television that can often be off-putting to American audiences. Whether it be the dry humor, the often slower pacing, or even something as face value as the lower production values. This is why Doctor Who does not have a bigger fan base in the States, and it is why to many, this Doctor Who movie may be the best thing to expand the fanbase. Case and point, compare the original Star Trek TV series to the Star Trek movie from two years ago. The original Star Trek took a slower, campier, and more philosophical view, where as the movie amped up action and adventure. Both are good, but the movie found a reach beyond just science fiction fans; this is very much how I see this Doctor Who situation. Of course, this still does not answer the question as to whether or not Doctor Who is a classic or a cult classic.

The thing is, there are very few movies, TV shows, and books, that are generally agreed upon by everyone as classics of the form (like: Gone With the Wind, I Love Lucy, or The Great Gatsby). But there are a ton of movies, TV shows, and books, that have devoted fans and think that they are classics even if the casual audience does or does not. What I am trying to get at is that a classic is only a classic in the eyes of the beholder. I mean, I consider the movie Johnny English a classic, but that does not mean it's a classic to the larger entertainment population. At best, it's a cult classic. And I believe the same can be said for Doctor Who, at least in America where its popularity is not quite as high as it is in Britain.

The thing is, worldwide the show is not as big as a Star Wars or even an Avatar. People see a lightsaber and know immediately what it is, but when they see Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver, more than half wont know what it is, unless you are in the appropriate setting. This is the thing, would it be awful if the movie managed to go beyond the fans of Brit. TV or sci-fi buffs? I personally don't think it would be. The bottom line is, even if the movie is bad, the fans will still have the TV Show to comfort them. No harm, no foul. I mean, I did not like Spider-Man 3, but does that decrease my love of the first two Spider-Man movies? No. In fact it makes me realize just how lucky and special they are.

The bottom line is, there aren't enough American Doctor Who fans to stage a boycott or nothing, casual moviegoers will still go see it if it has tons of explosions and a big name. As is evidenced with the successes of countless movies like Fantastic Four, which found fan ridicule, but box office success. And the fanboy audience is not big enough to sell a big budget movie alone, which is why it is impossible to make a David Tennant Doctor Who movie, because he has no name recognition and the movie would flop. I mean, studios relied on the fanboy crowd to sell Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and look at how badly that one crashed and burned at the box office. This is why studios are now putting less stock in things like Comic-Con because fans will eat it up on a convention floor, and they think this is gonna be a hit, but then when it comes out the movie never had enough of a straight appeal to catch the average joe moviegoer.

So whether or not a Doctor Who movie is made, is simply irrelevant. If you believe the show is a hallowed classic, then, good or bad, this movie cannot destroy your love of the show as it already is.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What If Harrison Ford Had Played Alan Grant?

Jurassic Park is what I believe to be a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is one of those rare movies that I feel the script was perfect, the directing was perfect, the acting was perfect, there just is nothing I do not love about the movie, but as always with any movie there is the, "What If?" What if this actor had done this part? Or what if this director had chosen to do this movie rather than this director? As it is, I find it almost impossible now to see anyone other than Sam Neill as dinosaur expert, Alan Grant, but that was not always the case. Spielberg's first choice for the role was none other than Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Now, Ford turned the role down for still undisclosed reasons, but that is neither here nor there. The real question is what would Jurassic Park be like had Harrison Ford portrayed Alan Grant rather than Sam Neill? This is what I am going to try and figure out through some good ol' speculation.

Now, for a frame of reference, the early 1990s was Harrison Ford at the peak of his career. He was one of the world's biggest box office draws, after successfully starring in three Indiana Jones films and Star Wars films, then nabbing a new franchise in the form of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series, he was a hot commodity (not to mention he was coming into his own as an actor in films like Regarding Henry and The Fugitive). On the other side, there was Spielberg, the most financially successful director to ever live, having previously worked with Ford on all three Indiana Jones' flicks, offering Ford the lead in his new sure-fire mega-hit, which Jurassic Park was, surpassing Spielberg's own E.T. as the highest grossing film of all-time.

Taking into account Ford's star status at the time of Jurassic Park's making, I believe that the movie itself would have remained the same, but the audience perception of the movie would be different. Ford has never really been the sort of star who argues over screen time or whatnot, so I do not think he would have wanted Alan Grant to of been in every single frame of the movie, and as it is, I feel he would have knocked the role out of the park, having already played similar roles of curmudgeonly guys with kids in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Witness. But what Sam Neill ultimately brought to the role was a face that you felt like you knew and could trust, but with a name that you did not know unless you loved movie credits.

Ford's star power would have overpowered Jurassic Park to where the star of the movie would have become him, rather than the dinosaurs. When Indiana Jones and Star Wars was made, Ford was much like Neill was when Jurassic Park was made, but by the time Jurassic Park came around, he was a household name. I think it is safe to say, the dinosaurs are the stars of Jurassic Park and the humans are there to give emotional weight to the proceedings. I believe had Ford been in the movie, the dinosaurs would have played second fiddle, rather than being the thing that drives the audience through the story.

Just imagine for a second if Ford had been Alan Grant, what would the marketing have been like? It probably would have had Harrison Ford's face front and center on the poster with his name in as large lettering as the movie's title, rather than this great poster showcasing the dinosaurs:

This would have more than likely changed the entire perception of the movie, that this is not a movie about this fantastical situation and how human beings have come so little since the days of dinosaurs. People leaving the theaters would had more than likely raved about Harrison Ford, rather than telling their friends how awesome the dinosaurs looked and how crisp the action was. Ford might have even overshadowed Jeff Goldblum's brilliant performance as Ian Malcolm!

Looking back on it, I am happy that Ford did not portray Alan Grant. While I can see him in the role, Sam Neill is the perfect Alan Grant, and always will be because he was just that, a face and not a name.