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Hugo (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?

Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.

While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.

Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.

Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.

Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.

Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.

Grade: A

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

by Steve Habrat

They may not be for everyone, but I have to say that I just love the weed-fueled duo that is Harold and Kumar. I have found their previous adventures to be uproariously funny, strangely heartwarming in their quest for those tiny steamed burgers from White Castle and their relentless quest to clear their names after being accused of being terrorists. Yet their adventures never seemed meaningless, always riffing on stereotypes of all races and confronting every taboo under the sun. Who can forget the preppy girls bathroom game “Battleshits” from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle? Or how about their trek through the ghetto, getting a flat tire, and then fleeing in terror from a group of African Americans who just aim to help in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? For my money, I prefer the darker second installment to the first, but I still like them both. Now Harold and Kumar are taking on something much bigger than the munchies for greasy burgers and the FBI. They tackle 3D! Oh, and Christmas too. It turns out that their Christmas hijinks are not nearly as funny as you would expect. Sure, they lob every body fluid and giant clay penises out at the audience like it will be going out of style. Sure, it’s raunchier than the last two films combined. So where does A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas go wrong? Well, it just seems like it’s trying too hard to shock us without ever really accomplishing it. I’m sorry but Santa Claus receiving a shotgun blast to the head, tumbling out of the air and then snapping back to reality while exclaiming “WHAT THE FUCK?!” isn’t that funny. It’s also the furthest thing from sophisticated.

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has a straight forward set up. It’s been a few years since Harold and Kumar have spoken or seen each other. Harold (Played once again by John Cho) has a cushy office job, has married Maria, the Latino love of his life (Played by Paula Garcés), and lives in modest but upper scale home in a New York City suburb. Kumar (Played once again by Kal Penn) crashes in a dump of an apartment, surrounded in the haze of marijuana smoke. He has just recently broken up with his girlfriend Vanessa (Played by Danneel Ackles), a girl he still is head over heels for. Harold is hosting Maria’s parents for Christmas, a scruffy crew lead by the Christmas fanatic Mr. Perez (Played by the always welcome Danny Trejo). Mr. Perez brings with him a prized Christmas tree that he has been growing for years. After a mysterious package brings Harold and Kumar back together again, they accidentally burn down Mr. Perez’s prized tree, sending them on mad dash through New York City to find a new tree. Their journey leads them to a party thrown by a Russian gangsters virgin daughter, getting a baby stoned on weed, cocaine, and ecstasy, shooting Santa Clause with a shotgun, plotting to rob a church of their Christmas tree, drinking laced eggnog, eating at White Castle again, and crossing paths with the deranged party boy Neil Patrick Harris.

Truth be told, none of the situations that Harold and Kumar find themselves in are all that humorous in this installment. In jokes are made to the other installments and tweaks are made to the story to fit with present day issues. An Occupy Wall Street nod is thrown in, a gag that involves an egging, urinating on the windshield of a car, and human shit used as a projectile. Jabs are made about Asian’s taking pictures by Mr. Perez and so on and so forth. The problem is that the writing doesn’t hit you the way it has in the previous installments, coming across as weak and musty. Nodding to the previous two films is okay, but sometimes it feels like it is stretching it a bit. Worst yet, it’s predictable, a flaw that the first two films seemed to avoid with ease. Here, what is unpredictable lacks a satisfying pay off. This is especially true with the Russian gangster gag, a character that only exists to be an obstacle for the boys to overcome. He is never a genuine nuisance like Rob Corddry’s short fused FBI agent in Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

What also trips up this installment up is the lack of any satire. The previous installments hounded us with satire, bringing to light our hasty judgments of different races and economical standings of some individuals (Who can forget Freakshow?). It quietly slapped us on the wrists while luring out giant belly laughs in the process. It made us stand back and admit to ourselves that we are really shallow and closed off as human beings. Guantanamo Bay was much heavier with these ideas and it dared to get political, I will give it that, but this one lacks it all together. It opts for tributes to popular Christmas films and playing up the 3D add on. There are some nice touches with the rediscovery of friendship and sticking together, typical buddy movie messages that I could find in any given Happy Madison production. The film also tries to encapsulate the spirit of the season, going out of your way to bring happiness, joy, and love, especially to the nagging extended family.

The real treat in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is the fact that the entire cast returns to reprise their beloved roles. You can really tell that Cho and Penn enjoy playing the ethnic heroes. Hell, Penn left his White House job to once again play the gutteral Indian stoner. The film seems like the cast had a ball together and the addition of tattooed tough guy Danny Trejo was a pleasant touch. He does ramble off a few zingers throughout the 90-minute run time. Praise should also go to Neil Patrick Harris who narrowly saves the film from stinkville, once again embracing the inappropriate drug and alcohol junkie. The scene where he goes to Heaven is a jewel, especially his interaction with Jesus, who he calls “some hippie”.

I wish moments of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas would have snowballed into something bigger and much more outrageous. It would have been appropriate for this movie with its winter setting. Instead it is comfortable with just grabbing a few chuckles and dashing off. It’s severely anticlimactic, lacking any big showdown or conflict, which was majorly disappointing. The filmmakers seemed to run out of situations that they could place our protagonists in. It doesn’t miss the opportunity in setting up another installment though and I’ll admit that it does have my interest. I’d gladly see another one of these films and I do hope they punch things up for another round. Wait a couple years and see what the social climate looks like. That seems to be the technique they are running with anyway. Sadly, the high has worn off of this franchise and this installment is crashing hard. Someone get the bong and let it toke up!

Grade: C+

Fright Night 3D (2011)

by Steve Habrat

To all the horror fans out there, you can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. The remake of Fright Night restores honor to the vampire genre and shifts it from the teenybopper chick flicks back to a jugular ripping good time. Granted, some of the weightiness that is associated with the genre is stripped away but the film packs enough blood, guts, and thrills to make up for all three of the Twilight abominations (and that Priest movie). I’ll forgive you if you had some doubts about this film. The original 1985 Fright Night is not the most well known fright flick in the genre but it does have a minor level of notoriety. Made during the surge of special effects, the film is now showing its 80’s crow feet and the remake is well aware of it. The original Fright Night is steeped in 80s pop culture and it’s only fitting that the amped up remake is a product of these times. Yes, the protagonists listen to Kid Cudi and Foster the People, wear throwback high-tops and skinny jeans, Peter Vincent Vampire Hunter is a Vegas magician act that is eerily similar to Criss Angel, and Jerry, the famous vamp, looks like he stepped out of the latest Diesel Jeans ad. Perhaps the filmmakers want this film to act as a relic in twenty-five years just as the original does today.

This spunky, vamp-com ranks among the recent remake movement as one of the best that I have seen so far. It sits nicely with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes, and last year’s The Crazies and Let Me In. It pays a nice tribute to the original film while also setting itself a part for these ADD-plagued audiences. Charlie Brewster (Played by baby faced Charlie Bartlett himself, Anton Yelchin) has it all: popular friends, a smoking hot girlfriend Amy (Played by the smoking hot Imogen Poots), and a warm, loving mother (Played by the underused Toni Collette). His popularity is increasing at his local high school and he is leaving his nerdy past, along with his nerdy best friend Ed (Played by McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) eating his cocky dust. After one of Charlie and Ed’s best friends disappears, the two take it upon themselves to play detective and investigate. They make a shocking discovery that Charlie’s charming new neighbor Jerry (Played by a never better Colin Farrell) is really a vampire who is chomping through their town’s citizens.

If you haven’t been floored by the recent parade of sappy vampire books, tacky television shows, and subpar movies (except that chilling Swedish film Let the Right One In and the American companion Let Me In), Fright Night may be a bit of a tough sell. Yet the film breathes new life into the genre that Stephanie Myer drove a stake through with her creation of Edward Cullen. Sure, there is a romance here that will quench the thirst of the squealing teenage girls that will certainly flock to see this (the whole film is loaded with current pop culture nods), but this is actually an adult vampire vehicle with an effectively calm Farrell behind the wheel. I personally don’t think he’s had more fun playing a role in his entire career. He struts into scene and utters a breathy “Hey guy” which reduces Charlie to jelly. You chuckle every time he pops in but your chuckles are quickly silenced by the unpredictability that radiates out of him. Romanticized vampire he ain’t, especially when he rips a gas line out of Charlie’s back yard and sends a flame through it to blow up his house. He doesn’t even break a sweat when he walks to up to the burning house and coolly tells Charlie “I don’t need to be invited in if there is no house.” Let me tell you folks, it doesn’t get any better than that in a vampire romp. I wanted to let out a cheer.

Fright Night is a relentless fun house that is marred by a weak introduction. I found the awkward, cliché heavy chitchat at the beginning rather indolent. What smoothes these few waves over is the presence of such dedicated actors, all who appear to be confidently invested in their characters. I rooted for Charlie and I found myself hypnotized by the nerdy Ed. Amy is a character that could have been reduced to gratuitous sex appeal but Poots plays her with some assured, playful depth. I certainly can’t write this review without mention of David Tennant’s flamboyant Peter Vincent. He vamps it up quite nicely himself and almost gives Farrell a run for his money. The film certainly packs the gore, which will please the fans hungry for some wildly imaginative vampire slayings. Plus, it’s all in eyeball aching 3D. This was another downfall of the movie—the 3D does strain your peepers and I had to lift up my glasses to let my eyes readjust before putting them back on.

Fright Night is not an exceptionally scary movie going experience. You will not be left cowering in terror or enduring many sleepless nights. You will, however, have a blast watching this candy colored rollercoaster ride. If you are a diehard fan of the original, you should be left satisfied. Farrell deserves some recognition for his dedication to Jerry. I honestly would happily see it again just for his performance alone. Fright Night is not a great film but just a really good, really fun monster movie. You’ll overlook its flaws, especially if you are over the age of twenty and Edward Cullen is not your idea of a compelling bloodsucker. This film deserves three cheers for its savage gut punch to those pretty boys. Grade: B+