Tag Archives: 3 stars

Way late review: Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, Hugo, is like most love letters – full of passion, often beautiful, yet lacking in anything resembling a cohesive narrative.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who keeps the clocks ticking behind a train station in Paris. Why he and almost everyone around him have British accents is a mystery. I suppose every story set in days of old (yet not too old) demand British accents. Regardless, Hugo does what he needs to do in order to survive, which entails stealing food and other small items he needs to complete his project his father left him, an automaton, a mechanical man who writes with a pen and has a head just small enough to give everyone an uneasy feeling. The station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn’t make Hugo’s life easy. He is determined to catch Hugo and put him in an orphanage. Inserted for comedic value, the station inspector seems like a distraction more than an integral part of the story, which is fine except for the fact that a decent portion of the film is spent on that character and his pursuit of Hugo. It’s as if someone told Scorsese he had to add some slapstick fun in his film or no child would tolerate it.

Desperate to find all the parts to get the automaton working so he can see what message his father left him, Hugo gets caught trying to steal a mechanical mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) by Méliès. He is forced to give up his notebook which contains the detailed sketches his father left of the automaton. Méliès promises to burn the book that evening and hands Hugo the ashes the next morning.

Hugo makes friends with Méliès’ god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is desperate for adventure. It isn’t long before Hugo sneaks her into Isabelle’s first ever movie. Her godfather won’t allow her to watch films. She is mesmerized by the experience and Hugo is reminded of his father’s shared love for the cinema.

In a moment of chance Hugo discovers that Isabelle is wearing a key with a heart shaped end, which is exactly the key he needs to get his automaton working. In exchange for giving up his secret headquarters behind the walls of the train station, Isabelle allows Hugo to use the key to rev up his automaton so that he can finally see the message his father left for him. To go further is to spoil the surprise, which isn’t much of a surprise mainly because it takes numerous unnecessary twists to revel in Hugo’s true purpose, an undying love for films of old.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully shot film than Hugo. Every scene is masterfully shot with colors dazzling and the motion of the camera purposefully setting every moment. And yet for all its beauty, the story and characters pale in comparison. A two hour film that should be at least twenty minutes shorter without losing an ounce of its cinematic grander, Hugo still entertains even while reminding the audience that it could have been so much better.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Ides of March

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a political thriller that attempts to thrill with the revelation that human beings are not inherently good. Not much of a revelation and not much of a thriller. Ides of March attempts to make grandiose gestures set to menacing music and shadowy backdrops but ultimately ends up being a fairly straightforward tale of political corruption running its course.

Like many films starring George Clooney (many of which I like quite a bit), the character is George Clooney, except this time he’s a top presidential candidate, Mike Morris. Not a hard sell for a culture obsessed with celebrities and has previously elected a former actor into the White House. The allusions to a different kind of candidate are hard to miss as posters with Clooney’s face closely resemble those of Obama in the 2008 US campaign. Instead of pandering to religious beliefs, Morris stands behind his flavor of atheism and reason. His promised initiatives are ambitious. When tempted to waiver on his convictions in order to gain critical votes, this candidate won’t budge. He makes it clear that there are lines that can’t be crossed – until they can.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a relatively young but experienced press spokesperson for presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). The challenge for Meyers and the rest of the campaign staff is winning a tight race between their man and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell). Everything seems to hinge on wrapping up the endorsement of North Carolina Senator Franklin Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). The price for this endorsement is giving Thompson a prized cabinet seat. Morris won’t do it but apparently his competition will. With that news, Pullman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) goes in for the kill. He invites Meyers to lunch to talk about joining the other team. Meyers complies and from there things get further complicated, with numerous plot spoilers throughout.

Not a bad movie by any means, Ides of March is stacked with talented actors who, for the most part, give fine performances. The problem is that the movie takes a while to get going and then once it hits its stride the twists and turns that make up this political thriller aren’t quite as thrilling as Clooney the director seems to think they are. What is left is an above average film stacked with talent.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Meek’s Cutoff

If Meek’s Cutoff is close at all to portraying the life of those braving the conditions of the Oregon Trail in 1845 then it was incredibly brutal and, at the same time, a little boring to observe. Of course, no one was observing it. That’s what those of us in this century get to do – marvel at the courage of those who brave the barren land on little more than some livestock, fragile wooden wagons, and limited supplies while also wondering how director Kelly Reichardt managed to make even the tensest moments rather mundane.

This drama follows a group of people in the mid-1800’s led by a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who gets them off the Oregon Trail. The tension between the conditions, the settlers and their guide is hard to miss. Beautiful scenes of desolate lands fill the screen as these people walk alongside their belongings in relatively small wagons pulled by oxen. In the midst of this struggle are few words and little music or sound other than those generated by nature and the movement of the group. When words are spoken they are often faint or grunted out by Meek, whose beard seems to serve as a sort of force field for clear speech.

Along the way the group finds a Native American who they capture. Meek makes it clear he’s not fond of the idea of having this guy around. He’d just as well finish him off. The leader of the group disagrees and gets the final word. The Native American will help them find their way out of the mess Meek appears to have gotten them into. What seems like a setup for an interesting twist on the journey turns into not much more than some further heated debates between Meek and the others. The debates never happen in order to preach about tolerance nor do they heighten the drama much. Much like everything else in the movie, the debates are what they are. They happen and the group continues on.

I don’t expect a movie that is true to its realistic tone to ever raise the stakes through melodrama. Meek’s Cutoff portrays events as matter of fact and in that way it holds interest, capturing a period of history that feels authentic. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging and that is where the film falls short of fully capturing the story it aims to tell.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Best Worse Movie

Is it any less bold to claim that you’ve made the worst movie ever or that you’ve made the best? Both are relative claims and hold little validity either way. Troll 2, the focus of the documentary Best Worse Movie, is said to be the worst movie ever. The zero (or near zero) scores on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB add credibility.

Michael Stephenson was one of the child stars in the film and he leads the direction of the documentary. His quest is to dig deeper into the how and why Troll 2 got made and the growing cult status of the film. In order to do all this he seeks out his fellow cast members and director. Stephenson latches onto George Hardy who played the father in the 1990 film. Hardy is a likeable guy from the first moment we meet him. His charisma jumps off the screen. Hardy is a dentist. He had dreams of once becoming a movie star which is the reason he ended up starring in Troll 2. We learn that Hardy has long since given up the acting dream and has replaced it with life as a dentist. He seems to enjoy the work and the people. He even goes out of his way to perform dental work free of charge for children in low income families. While Troll 2 is the theme of the doc, Hardy is its heart and soul.

Best Worse Movie spends quite a bit of time early on reveling in Troll 2’s notoriety. There is no shortage of interviews with rabid fans. Time spent around screenings. It’s as if the first act of the doc is to convince us that Troll 2 is so bad it’s good. The only time these screenings are interesting is when we get to see Troll 2’s director Claudio Fragasso react to the audience. He’s happy people like his film after all these years, but sours when he discovers that they like it because they think it’s terribly funny. Fragasso begs to differ. He knows the film has flaws but doesn’t take kindly to the label of it being the worst ever. One of the more awkward moments comes when Fragasso interrupts a cast Q&A to set the record straight. Walking through the audience, he says the actors don’t remember the facts. He then becomes more aggressive and calls at least one former cast member a bad actor. It plays for laughs from the audience but Fragasso isn’t laughing.

When the doc is at its best it’s focusing on the characters who starred in the film. Their current day lives and relation to the film after 15+ years is engaging and sometimes even simply bizarre. The moments with Fragasso acting out in great denial. Margo Prey, who played the mother opposite of George Hardy, is living in another world. Whether the scenes with Prey are meant for laughs or sadness it’s hard to tell. And then there is Hardy’s pursuit of basking in the fame of being in the worst movie ever. Instead of being embarrassed about it as some other cast members are, Hardy embraces it. He decides there are enough fans of the film out there that he should aggressively pursue opportunities to make appearances. We spend time with him at a number of festivals and events, all of which turn out to be duds. In these moments we get the sense that Hardy has been bitten by the bug of minor celebrity status. A once likeable guy turns into an oddly self-promotional tool, and all under the banner of being in the worst movie of all time.

There are moments in Best Worse Movie that are fantastic. The documentary as a whole never achieves the same success. There is a lack of focus that distracts and often strays into less interesting topics. Too much time is spent patting Troll 2 on the back for how bad it is and the cult like status that achievement has earned the film.

Not even close to the worst documentary ever, Best Worse Movie gives some interesting insights into the people who made Troll 2. Had it stuck more closely to those people, it could have been very good, maybe even great.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Quigley Down Under

Some actors are easy for me to believe in a historical setting while others are not. Tom Selleck falls in the hard to believe category. It’s no fault of his own. He’s not a bad actor but put him in a period piece where he’s a sharp shooting American cowboy, Matt Quigley, and I find it hard to believe him in that role. There is something about him that feels too modern for that time. Thus Quigley Down Under is a bit handicapped for me with Selleck in the lead role.

Matt Quigley answers Elliot Marston’s ad for a sharpshooter. Professor Snape…errr…Marston (Alan Rickman) is a rich Australian who says he needs someone who can pick off dingoes from great distances. Quigley eventually shows Martson in person just how good of a shooter he is. He hits a bucket three-fourths of a mile away several times until the bucket disappears in a dust cloud.

From the start we see that Quigley is a man of great honor. He teaches a gruff man a lesson when that man tries to shove aside an older couple to beat them onto the boat for Australia. Just minutes after getting off the boat, Quigley sees some men mistreating a woman and intercedes on her behalf. The tone of these first couple scenes has a light hearted, almost slapstick feel to it, which isn’t problematic until further into the story where the tone changes rapidly between light comedy and melodrama. Making matters worse is the character Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) who is the woman Quigley valiantly steps in to protect. As one might deduce from the name, Crazy Cora is not quite right in the head. In the beginning she is played for laughs. The second half of the film she’s played for drama. It’s as if her whole purpose is to make crystal clear the tonal changes.

Quigley makes his way to Martson’s and learns that Marston has hired Quigley to kill aborigines, not dingoes, off his property. Quigley responds to this little twist by punching Marston through the wall, outside Marston’s home, not once but twice. Quigley is eventually overtaken and he and Cora are left to die in the dessert several days away from civilization. Except Quigley doesn’t go down without a fight and gets just enough energy to kill the two Marston henchmen. This leads to a very watchable tale of an odd couple (Quigley and Cora) fighting the odds and eventually seeking justice not just for themselves but the aborigines.

There may be some eye rolling moments and certainly some miscast characters, but it’s hard not to at least like Quigley Down Under.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.