Hugo (2011)

I know that my daughter really liked The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik, but I hadn't read it. So I sat down to watch Hugo (the first time) knowing nothing. And waited for the story to announce itself, to tell me what it would be about. Instead, Hugo invited me to watch a world unfold, a world full of small and big mysteries, small and big tragedies, small and big dreams of a happy ending for an orphan living in a 1930s train station.

Much is made by the marketing plan of the fact that Hugo is directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, as if the advertising folks couldn't figure out how to sell it otherwise. But the book--highly regarded and widely read--had no such name dropping power and did just fine. So in my opinion the marketing folks blew it and scared off many potential viewers with the implication that it's "arty." This is first and foremost a movie for kids and open-hearted adults. It's secondary that it is also likely to knock the socks off those who love film.


Changing Lanes (2002)

This was a stumbled upon movie. Such an amazing cast--Toni Collette, Sam Jackson, Ben Affleck, William Hurt. How could I not know about it? Released in 2002, it was a movie without a niche. Pure drama, and the promise of any kind of happy ending is not something the marketing plan could reveal or it would undercut the tension of the movie. Instead, they tried to sell it as a revenge movie. But it's not.

The story is hard to watch. Two men get in a fender bender and spend a day getting back at each other in increasingly nasty ways. Neither was at fault in the accident, both made a mistake. Their mistakes explode in their own lives and then into each others' lives. But it's not about the car accident or what they do to each other, it's about the lives they have led that brought them to that day, when a single splintered act can create such a crisis.


Inception (2010)

I can't think of another movie that I have reflected upon, questioned and analyzed more than Inception. Part Mission: Impossible crime caper, part science-fiction, part morality play, it's a complicated and original story that frustrates and intrigues, offers stunning resolutions and no answers at all. I've hesitated even reviewing it because the hardest part is the plot summary because for this movie, the plot is everything.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief. His specialty is finding a way to put people into controlled sleep and then slipping into their dreamscape, shaping it, and extracting information undetected. His successful espionage team has attracted powerful clients and powerful enemies. Cobb is now a fugitive, banned from his homeland and children, and he will do anything to get back to them.


The Three Musketeers (2011)

What do you get when you take a solid B-level cast of experienced character actors and give them a script sourced from the seminal adventure-genre novel and add a dash of steampunk, a rollicking soundtrack and imaginative staging of derring-do stunts and unabashed swashbuckling? You get A+ entertainment. After a summer of real hit-and-miss adventure blockbusters, this movie made no apologies for being exactly what it is and I enjoyed every minute.

The story is so pleasing that it has been filmed many times from almost the first days of motion pictures. IMDB records the earliest as 1903, though there is reference to just a fencing scene from The Three Musketeers dated 1898. It's been told in versions for Japanese and Russian cinema, and adapted to Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and even for Barbie. The novel by Alexander Dumas was first released as a newspaper serial entertainment in 1844. The tale of a country boy come to Paris to follow in his father's footsteps as a heroic musketeer isn't a classic; it is what defined "classic" when it comes to adventure.


Apollo 13 (1995)

Real events when told for entertainment often lose their historical accuracy. Such may be the case with Apollo 13, though certainly the gist of the history is preserved. But Apollo 13 isn't a movie merely about the desperate measures taken by three men stranded in space in 1970 and the hundreds of dedicated NASA personnel who worked together to bring them safely home. It's also a story about the year 1970, risk, ingenuity and dreams.

Tom Hanks, fresh off two Oscar-winning performances, plays astronaut Jim Lovell, presenting a complicated portrait of a man brash and reckless enough to be a Navy test pilot, serious and savvy enough to be selected for astronaut rotation with its many attendant public relations duties, and scientific enough to handle the complex physics of what was then the nascent field of space flight. Hanks is joined by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as fellow astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission. A large supporting cast, including Ed Harris, are all believable as 1970s engineers. (Many are familiar character actors providing rich connectivity for anyone playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Often the fact that a movie is first inspired by a video game results in a film stuck with those limitations, and action that is purely suggested by the video game format. Fortunately, the creative team behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time thought outside, literally, the Xbox. It features solid performances, a decently crafted tale of intrigue, action and fantasy, beautiful cinemascapes and a truly wonderful score.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the title role with a mix of brash cockiness and thoughtful reflection refreshing for an action film. Plenty of brawn and video-game style tricks lighten up the action, but the storyline, about a dagger that can turn back time and a beautiful princess desperate to keep it from the hands of evildoers, breaks up what would otherwise be a series of leveling-up, next opponent stunts.


Galaxy Quest (1999)

Parody is easy, especially when the target is something that is already somewhat cheesy--like the original Star Trek series. Speaking as someone who was, at one point in her life, able to name an episode from the first 10 seconds of the opening, the original Stark Trek was more cheese than filet. The acting was wooden, the plots sometimes laughable (with occasional flashes of brilliance) and Gunsmoke had better special effects.

With so many easy targets for parody, what makes Galaxy Quest stand out as a movie is that it took the idea of a parody and used it only as a jumping off point. From the introduction of former cast mates who only see each other at science fiction conventions, none of whom have any other claim to fame, we are whisked away into a full-blown sci-fi plot that simultaneously pokes fun at the tropes of science-fiction movies and delivers a soundly conceived tale of its own, written by David Howard and Robert Gordon.


The Blues Brothers (1980)

"I know how we'll save the orphanage! Let's put on a show!" That plot line is a staple of many Andy Rooney/Judy Garland flicks, and plenty of other movies and TV shows that are produced to show off the talent of the cast. Around the musical numbers there's a very loose plot and in the end the orphans are saved and the cast sings themselves into credits.

The Blues Brothers is that plot. With a few twists. Such as the heroes being chased by members of the American Socialist White People's Party whose battle vehicles include a station wagon. And about 5,000 cop cars, none of which can brake without flipping over. And 1,000 SWAT guys who can't do anything without chanting "hup hup hup." A bunch of army guys who have to shoot a door not a hundred times but a gazillion times to get it open. And an angry ex who uses everything from bombs to flamethrowers to a hunting rifle but somehow never manages to wound the object of her ire. So just a few twists.


The Green Hornet (2011)

Dumb as a bag of hammers. Yeah, that's how I like my superheroes. I especially like them willing to blow up anything, including innocent people. I admire a superhero who strews mayhem and mess across the screen, leaving other people to clean up after him. /sarcasm

Seth Rogen has only himself to blame. As the writer, producer and star of this movie, it's all on him. Newsflash for Rogen: The people around you who told you this script worked lied. You need new sycophants, dude. Rogen does a great job presenting Britt Reid as a dissolute playboy with a big "daddy doesn't love me" chip on his shoulder. Soon, we hope to see him get his wake-up call. But that turns out to be wanting better coffee, not a better world.


She-Devil (1989)

The poster for this movie is a great representation of the final product. A cartoonish Roseanne Barr makes a bizarre face (that isn't even in the movie) while one of the greatest actresses of our time does what she does: presents her character flawlessly. These two images do not go together. In the movie, the two performances don't go together either.

She-Devil is based on Faye Weldon's biting novel about a woman who is dumped by her husband for a thin, beautiful, wealthy novelist. She completely remakes herself, including having her legs lengthened and severe liposuction, so that she can wreck havoc on his life, revenge herself on his mistress and re-woo her husband so she can break his heart. The movie waters down the premise so that it's not about sexist attitudes regarding what makes women attractive, how men use practical wives to further their careers economically when times are tough, then dump them for attractive partners when times are flush.


Excalibur (1981)

John Boorman's vision for the look of a movie can have breathtaking results. If he could successfully pair his visions with a narrative that made sense he might be one of the most lauded directors in film today. Unlike Zardoz, which suffers from wasted plot in favor of bizarre visuals, Excalibur shows Boorman's best when plot and vision marry. However, his tendency to lose the plot in the layers of vision is still unfortunately present, making this film hit and miss.

The subject of the film is one of the oldest and most re-told myths of all time, focusing on the sword Excalibur that conveyed power to the legendary King Arthur.


Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

This may be the kind of movie that only appeals to one type of audience. In this case, that type would be homeowners. Cary Grant and Myrna Loy turn in comic performances and the script sings with wit and is full of swipes at modern life that are just as apropos 60+ years later. Cary Grant really can make his eyes bug out at will, when he's not being suave and debonair. But all of that might not be enough for those people who just don't like black and white films. If you're a homeowner, though, this is a movie that will make you shake your head, laugh, and say (many times), "Oh, that is so true."

Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) is an ad man Manhattanite with an apartment that his family of four, plus maid, has outgrown. Their carefully choreographed mornings work through sharing one bathroom, and moving the birdcage so that the coat closet can be opened. Muriel Blandings (Myrna Loy) has decided it's time to move the country. Carried away with the idea of a gentrified life, they embark on finding the right house and then having it made habitable. In this pursuit they call on old family friend Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas), a lawyer.


Rango (2011)

One thing is for sure. My life was incomplete until I heard The Ride of the Valkyries played on the banjo. And that's not the only musical joke that is threaded throughout Rango. Homages to scores from any number of John Ford movies, Blazing Saddles, Elmer Bernstein scores and even a flourish from the "House of the Rising Sun" make just listening to this movie great fun. I say all that and thought it all before I checked the credits: Score by Hans Zimmer, one of my favorite film composers.

Visual nods abound as well, to many of the same movies. Striking direction that creates the vast vistas that John Ford used as a signature--notably Monument Valley and Betatakin ruins--makes this animated feature a genuine homage to the genre of the western. Add a quirky, well-told story that is aimed more at adults than kids, and an even quirkier hero (voiced by Johnny Depp) with the gift of gab and this is a comedy to take seriously.


Good Will Hunting (1997)

Why would anyone want to watch a movie about a borderline hoodlum with a gift for mathematics? Maybe because it's excellent? Maybe because the story is about the double-edged gifts from the gods? About the hardships that make it impossible to believe in love, to ante up for the game of life, and understand what loyalty means? Maybe because it's the performance of a lifetime from Robin Williams? Maybe even because it showcases the powerhouse-to-be Matt Damon in both the lead role and the co-writing of the script with Ben Affleck? Whatever the reason, spend two hours with this movie.


Get Shorty (1995)

Part comedy, part mob movie, part homage to Hollywood, Get Shorty is complicated, funny and full of smart wit that highlights an Elmore Leonard novel brought to the screen by Scott Frank. As the movie's tagline explains, "The mob is tough. But it's nothing like show business." The stars are notably able to deliver exactly what's required, but the real star for me is the script that pulls together an ensemble of a shylock bitten by the movie bug, a B-movie actress, an A-list a$$hole and a cheesy director who possesses Hollyword gold: a good script.


Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

There is absolutely nothing I can say about this movie that hasn't been said. Like many, I can quote entire scenes verbatim, and approximate the various voices and timbres of the cast. Ive seen it so many times that I hardly crack a smile, but the joy is still deep and real.

This is a profoundly silly movie, and timeless. Much of its humor is that it is set in a realistic presentation of the Middle Ages in Britain. Some of the scenes are such good representations that I hold serious movies about the same time period to the standards of this comedy.

The only purpose a review can serve is to join in the fun of picking favorite moments from a script that is almost entirely qualified as "memorable quotes" so that other lovers of this movie can nod and think, "Oh yeah, that's a good one."


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

A drunken sot. That's what Jack Sparrow is. He's out for himself, will lie, cheat, steal to get it, all the while staggering in and out of scenes as if he's dropped his bottle of rum somewhere and without it there is no hope of walking fully upright. All in all, he's a caricature of drunken incoherence.  And one so ably portrayed by Johnny Depp that his coherent sentences in this fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are almost always howlers. With the lift of an eyebrow his sly intelligence flashes to the surface with a roguish, beguiling charm. Fortunately, unlike some of its predecessors, the rest of the movie lives up to the wonderfulness of Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack Sparrow, that is. Ah...you have heard of him, haven't you?


Jackie Brown (1997)

There is nothing negative to say about Jackie Brown, only superlatives that might seem to oversell it so that no viewing could possibly ever live up. The fact is that you won't believe me when I say it has stellar performances, stunning dialogue and a sharp-edged story that assumes we're smart enough to keep up. There's a plucky heroine trying to outwit a gritty bad guy, a bail bondsman who falls hard for the girl, an incompetent henchman and a scheming femme fatale. These unforgettable characters are played by the likes of Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson and Pam Grier with a script written by Quentino Tarentino based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. Really, you should be salivating.


Big Lebowski, The (1998)

There is definitely one word that would never be applied to it or any other Coen Brothers effort: forgettable. Scenes from The Big Lebowski, words, passages of dialogue, images, ideas--they stick with me, for better or worse.

It's clear from their body of work that the Coen Brothers love color and imagery, evocative landscapes and unusual faces. They also love telling quirky imaginative stories. Sometimes I see a Coen Brothers movie and am left not quite sure what I just witnessed and if it worked. The Big Lebowski is one such film.


The Man from Snowy River (1982)

A first viewing of The Man from Snowy River is sure to impress most viewers with eye-popping visuals of rugged Australian high country. Fresh to my eyes as a video rental in 1982, the visuals remain as fresh as ever almost 30 years later. Against that setting a timeless story unfolds of a young man wanting to make good, falling for the boss's daughter and struggling against prejudice and the elements.

Any fan of westerns has already seen this movie, but since I'm not usually fond of them, my review is for those people like me, who find the machismo tedious and the stories not always that fresh. While the elements of the plot in Snowy River are all familiar, the treatment is not, which breathes a more interesting life into the characters. Most westerns I've seen pit heroes against villains with panoramas of the western American plains as a backdrop. In Snowy River, the backdrop--treacherous Australian mountains, with extreme and rapidly varying weather--is the greatest barrier to our young hero's success. All the try in the world won't warm a person if caught without shelter in a freak, icing storm. The vast, crannied landscape makes finding a fallen rider almost impossible. One's life savings can disappear in the flick of an eye.


Finding Nemo (2003)

Parents are often forced to sit through stories so sticky and sweet that it feels as if insulin ought to come with the price of the ticket. There's no story beyond "if we all work together we can be great!" A lot of kids' entertainment is afraid to work with any other themes, but thank all that's powerful and good for Pixar. Films like Finding Nemo are not only entertaining for adults, but the messages provide a way to talk about other topics, like loneliness, separation, faith, tenacity and acceptance of difference. There are a number of movies for adults that don't achieve as much and of those that do many aren't nearly so entertaining.


Captain America (2011)

I wanted to like this movie more than I did. The period piece setting is well done and it feels right for a movie about fighting Nazi cultists in 1940-something. This is an Ugly Duckling story, the grist of much superhero canon, and I tend to like those. But therein lies my problem with the movie. The Ugly Duckling turns into a Swan and then acts just like all the other Swans. Which means that the interesting Steve Rogers gets deadly boring dull dumb when he turns into the Captain America who finally gets to go into battle.


Zardoz (1974)

There are a lot of sci-fi cult classics and I suppose Zardoz is one of them. But not for me. It's not so much that it's really deeply weird, because that weirdness has some plot basis that generates some thought. After the apocalypse some people take on immortality and get really really bored with peace and tranquility and lose their will to, well, do much of anything except hum in unison and vote about things following Zardoz's Rules of Order. Part of the mind-f*ck is that the characters are getting mind-f*cked.

Yet I've seen Star Trek episodes tackle the themes of haves versus have nots, technology/cerebral pursuits robbing people of their passion, etc.,  and in less time with more clarity. I think most well-versed students of sci-fi won't find much to quote here. Hat's off to the art direction people, because it was 1974 and they went for the entire Austin Powers meets Cabaret look with some 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in, and they did with originality that others have tried since to copy. Though I don't get why the bread is green.


Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

There are two sets of writers for this movie, the good ones and the bad ones. One set wrote a compelling sci-fi narrative about kids' toys, transformed a wise-cracking kid into a man who has saved the world twice and can't get a job, and threw in a couple quirky parents so we won't forget why our hero is the way he is. That would be the good set of writers.

The other set of writers inserted a story about a super hot chick (SHC) who is more helpless than the last SHC in a Transformers movie and tacked on a 20-minute denouement that was so tedious that when it appears that, yes, the hero is intending to limp over there and kiss that SHC, that I was praying she got turned into Allspark Toast before he succeeded. Alas, it didn't happen. The ending was so slow and predictable at that point that I expected one of the onlookers to start the slow clap-----clap----clap---clap--clap-clap and then everyone would applaud madly and cheer, just like the end of Star Trek VI when I wanted to gouge my ears out.


Larger than Life (1996)

I have a sincere love of Bill Murray's work, from the goofy to the crass to the childish to the subtle. Regardless of the movie or role he plays, he approaches characters with intelligence, even if they're as dumb as a bag of golf clubs, a la the Caddyshack grounds keeper. Knowing that he often works unscripted and can turn in the right nuance, as in the roommate in Tootsie, tells me he's a skilled listener. He survived the SNL curse and that tells me he's not about fame and celebrity, though if those are part of doing what he loves, he'll take them.

Larger than Life is the kind of movie you missed when it had its theatrical release. I missed it, but picked it up a few years later on cable. I was ready for some Bill Murray and the write-ups said there was nothing in it that would mess up my 2-year old son.


Green Lantern (2011)

For context, I think that the first Iron Man and Spiderman movies and Batman's The Dark Knight rank at the top of the comic book superhero stack for me, and that The Incredibles ranks up there with them as a movie about superheroes. At the bottom is The Incredible Hulk. This movie drifts somewhere in the middle and doesn't try to be more than that either, which makes the flashes of depth that occasionally emerge welcome. Equally welcome is that they don't last long.

The Green Lantern, like its hero, doesn't want to take itself too seriously. The humor and slight sense of camp works well when our hero is being taught how to use his new gifts. The "tutelage" portion of all superhero movies can sometimes get unimaginative, but there was both humor and wit here. When our hero struts his new costume to protect his true identity, the movie spawns the single best line of any comic book superhero movie. From memory, it is, "I've known you for ten years. You think just because you've covered your cheekbones I won't recognize you?"

Which has been my point for many years about most superhero costumes.


Showgirls (1995)

There are movies that are bad because of poor production values, a poor script, bad acting, flawed storytelling or all of the above. Then there are movies that are bad because they deliver only cheap and base value as if that's all a viewer deserves. Showgirls is both kinds of bad movie.

I'll skip right over the laughable plot line of a nobody showing up in Vegas and "conquering" the town in less than two weeks. And I'll only briefly mention the "oh that's so sexy and daring" dance numbers that weren't. There's the issue of the vague All About Eve rip off idea that failed to offer any character we gave a damn about, which is why All About Eve was brilliant. The bottom line in Showgirls is that there's no reason to give a rat's hinder for anyone in the movie. In fact, I think we're supposed to loathe them all, especially the women. Apparently, none of the film's many backers knew the basic equation: Hate the Characters = Hate the Movie.


Rush Hour (1998)

James Carter (Chris Tucker) is exactly the kind of hero in an action movie that I loathe: brash, rude, crude, disrespectful, arrogant and thinks women are just there for him to screw or taunt. Ironically, that Carter is a royal ass is one of the reasons that I love this movie. Carter is the necessary yin to Detective Inspector Lee's yang. Another reason I love this movie is that Carter is often funny, especially when he turns all of his considerable annoying habits against the bad guys. Chris Tucker is a master at running his mouth, and he uses the skill to deliver many genuinely funny lines, capably supplied by writers who understand that the action part of the movie is just window dressing for Culture Clash meets A Fish out of Water themes.