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.
The Green Hornet (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’ll admit that I was itching to see The Green Hornet the second I heard the buzz (pun intended) about it. I have vague memories of catching the short lived 1966 television series with martial arts legend Bruce Lee as the ass kicking sidekick Kato and Van Williams as the Green Hornet himself Britt Reid. I remember that old theme that still every once and a great while makes its way into pop-culture, whether it is sampled in rap songs or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I remember those masked avengers riding around in their tricked out Black Beauty. In fact, I think I was drawn to it because of the similarities to Batman. They both feature a masked millionaire and his sidekick who has come from nothing. They ride around in cool cars. They fight crime in really cool outfits (Although, if GQ ever did a best-dressed superhero list, I think the Green Hornet and Kato may take it from the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.). But mostly, they were vigilantes that operated outside of the law. And it was precisely the anti-hero set up that lured me in. Hell, Val Williams and Bruce Lee even had cameos in the popular Adam West Batman television show. While I’m too young to be overly familiar with where the Green Hornet got his start, which was a radio show from the 1930s, I can still hold on to the hope that the film has had some form of respect for him and stayed true to his origins.
Enter the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also penned the hilarious coming of age story Superbad and whimsical director Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Science of Sleep fame. Intrigued yet? You should be. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Green Hornet and Kato, there is still the promise of some truly unique visuals and some stinging humor right? You bet there is, and there is also some bone crunching action, lively car chases, eccentric villains, smoking hot secretaries, really cool cars, and a painfully hilarious cameo from James Franco. Somewhere in there, there’s the plot of playboy Britt Reid (Played by Rogen), the–What else?–slacker son of a newspaper publisher who takes over The Daily Sentinel in the wake of his father’s mysterious death. On the seedier side of town, a murderous villain Chudnofsky (Played by the brilliant Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), who looks like a super villain from the seventies, is slowly trying to control all the crime in gangland Los Angeles. The day after his father’s funeral, Britt wakes up to his morning coffee and to his horror, his coffee is dreadful. Plus, it lacks the elegant and decorative leaf that usually adorns the top. Britt storms through the estate looking for the person who usually makes his morning coffee. That person, he discovers, is Kato (Played by a seriously good Jay Chou), who is also his father’s mechanic. After a night of drunken shenanigans, Britt and Kato decide they are going to become masked vigilantes and take on crime throughout the city. Then the Looney Tunes meets 300 style action kicks into high gear.
By this point, be it from reading what I have described to you or seeing the energetic trailers, you know if this is the type of film for you. If you’re a fan of Rogen’s haw-haw stoner humor or a superhero aficionado, you were probably already in line and have already seen The Green Hornet. If you’re not a fan of either, I can’t really do much to convince you to see it. I suffer from my own fanboy demons, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to see it opening weekend. Now, I’ll also admit I walked out of the theater with a big grin slapped across my face. The film is cartoonish mayhem at it’s absolute finest. And Gondry can’t resist spicing the film up with his trademark surreal flare. The action scenes are inspired, resembling something out of a video game (Kato hones in on all of the baddies weapons that they are wielding). Rogen never snaps out of his along-for-the-ride shtick and some will find that a hard hurdle to jump over. But it’s Chou’s Kato who’s the real star of the film and even through broken English; you can’t help but love him. Whether he is kicking and punching through countless hoards of Chudnofsky’s henchmen or whipping up countless Black Beauties, Chou is always entrancing. And what about Oscar winner Waltz? Well he seems to be lapping up his new career in Hollywood with demented merriment. I’ll tell you this much about his character, just wait until the climatic showdown. He’ll have you laughing and gripping the edge of your seat. And we can’t forget to mention Cameron Diaz, who seemed to be a last minute addition to make the fanboys drool. She isn’t given much to do but fill Reid and Kato in on some of the criminal activity that is taking place in LA. And how does Rogen fare as a superhero? He pulls it off just fine, even if Chou is the real action star here. Rogen mostly falls back on spewing out silly one-liners and hiding behind Kato. Don’t let that fool you, as Rogen does get his chance to play the hero in a show stopping fight scene at the climax. I’ll confess that it is welcome in a genre that has become dominated by brooding heroes who take themselves a little too seriously. But then again, it’s what we have pushed for isn’t it? Heroes that are more emotionally complex, solemn, and that operate within the world we are familiar with. But The Green Hornet’s main objective is to throw all of that out the window and invite us to just have a campy good time.
Every party has its moments where the fun lags and The Green Hornet does suffer from a few lagging moments. The plot of the film is uneven at points and the more twists that they try to throw into the mix, the more cluttered the plot actually becomes. The film works better when it stays on the straight and narrow path. The entire movie is played up like a psychedelic madcap comedy and trying to give it more depth than it deserves slightly spoils the fun. The opening of the film doesn’t provide much of a back-story to the relationship between Reid and his father. They simply don’t get along and Reid’s father doesn’t understand him. That’s about all we get we are supposed to just accept it. The film is just under the two-hour mark and it leaves us asking why they didn’t go another ten minutes and make their troubled relationship a little bit meatier. And the 3D? It reeks of an afterthought and I will say that it’s the first 3D movie that actually began to bother my eyes.
Through it all, The Green Hornet works because it seems like everyone in it is having a blast. I had as much fun watching it, as I’m sure they did making it. The fact of the matter is that the Green Hornet is a third string superhero. He always has been and will continue to be. His film does not rank among the best of the superhero genre and I don’t think anyone under the sun expected it to run with Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Iron Man, or Watchmen. It also certainly does not rank with the worst of them (I’m referring to you Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Punisher and Wolverine!). I went in with high hopes but, due to some of the seething reviews, I had my doubts. I emerged smiling and completely satisfied. Plus, in these early months of the year where Hollywood dumps all of its crap, don’t expect much in the way of solid entertainment anytime soon. The Green Hornet is the best we will get for a while and after sitting through all the serious award contenders, it was utterly refreshing. The Green Hornet is pure fanboy euphoria. Grade: B
The Green Hornet is now available on Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and DVD.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
by Steve Habrat
It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.
Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.
Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.
In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.
X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.
This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.
The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A
X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.