★★★ / ★★★★
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.
Case 39 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger) was a kind-hearted social worker who juggled thirty-eight cases of children who might be victims of child abuse. A co-worker (Adrian Lester) handed her case number thirty-nine, in which a child named Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) claimed that she overheard her parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) actually planning to send her to hell while they were in the basement. There was something about Lilith that Emily couldn’t help but empathize with so she took it upon herself to take custody of the child. Unbeknownst to her, Lilith might be the devil incarnate and soon Emily’s friends (Ian McShane and Bradley Cooper) started to die in what looked like suicides. Unfortunately, Lilith didn’t come with a return policy. “Case 39” had been delayed release for quite some time and for good reasons. With far superior movies like Richard Donner and John Moore’s “The Omen” and, more recently, Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” this film downright failed to offer something new or exciting. While there were some spine-tingling scenes such as when Lilith’s parents decided to kill their child by putting her inside an oven, they were balanced by frighteningly uninspired scenes plagued with visual effects, particularly the swarm of hornets. Zellweger did the best she could with her role despite a weak writing. I think one of the picture’s missteps was in revealing the true nature of the child too early on. Moreover, I found myself waiting for our protagonist to evolve in a meaningful way because the ingredients were certainly there. There was a dark undertone about her past relationship with her deceased mother, her inability to take care of others other than her pet fish, and the almost obsessive manner in which she attempted to tackle her work. When the hallucinations started to appear, there was a lack of tension because we knew all too well the source of her suffering. The material would have been on another level if it had successfully found a way to balance the supernatural and Emily’s every day struggle to take away children from physically and emotionally abusive homes. That way, our protagonist would have been challenged in two fronts as we attempted to discern between the fantastic and a mental breakdown. But that wasn’t the case. “Case 39” lacked dimension and depth with far too few rewards between the important revelations aided by increasingly tired booming soundtrack designed to tell us when we should be scared. Written by Ray Wright and directed by Christian Alvart, “Case 39” lacked a sense of immediacy so it lagged half of its running time. Without Zellweger’s sense of timing of when and how to react, it probably would have been unwatchable.
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
★★ / ★★★★
A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.
As Luck Would Have It (2002)
★ / ★★★★
“Le hasard fait bien les choses” or “As Luck Would Have It,” directed by Lorenzo Gabriele was about a closeted professor (Jean-Claude Brialy) who had the unlucky circumstance to be assigned by the law as a guardian for a troublesome teenager (Julien Bravo). Since he didn’t want the responsibility, he decided to appeal the case but in order to be deemed as an unfit guardian, a social worker had to assess his personal life. The professor had to then hide certain truths such as him being still legally married to a woman (Sabine Haudepin) and dating a much younger man (Antonio Interlandi) in order to preserve his reputation as a respected professor. My main problem with this movie was the fact that everything had to be exaggerated. The acting was painfully obvious, the story was weak and the way everything came together was very predictable. I wished that there was a character I could root for in order to make the experience more bearable but everyone only thought of themselves. I thought the wife was really annoying because she failed to recognize the seriousness of the orphan being passed around from one household to another. Instead, she was too hung up on the guy she used to date and was too busy trying to make him jealous. Out of anyone, she should have been the one that could have identified with the boy right away because she felt like no one wanted her. Her character’s lonelinesss could have been the unifyng theme of the picture but I suppose the writers and director failed to highlight that emotion. By the end of the movie, I thought she was just desperate and a classic attention-seeker. As for the professor, I understood his fears of coming out of the closet but he created his own distractions. He constantly complained about how his life became that much more complicated ever since the orphan came into his life but he neglected the fact that things in life always come up and if we don’t do anything about them, ignoring such problems won’t make them go away. For a supposedly smart character, he didn’t make the best decisions. The script lacked punch because it didn’t try to offer anything new to the table. The direction lacked sophistication. I felt like the movie was never going to end because nothing much happened on screen aside from the complaining and obvious attempts at laughter. “Le hasard fait bien les choses” desperately needed subtlety and intelligence. Even if the story was nothing new, I would have been more accepting if the characters were able to look outside of themselves and realize that their situations were not as bad as it seemed.
Ninja Assassin (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I wanted to see this movie because the trailers looked so much fun. I thought it was going to be action-packed and it would be above trying to justify itself with creating ridiculous storylines. Instead, it was bogged down with melodramatic character history and I couldn’t help but question when those scenes were finally going to be over and actually feature some martial arts. Rain played an orphan who was raised to be a ninja but decided to seek revenge against his clan (led by Shô Kosugi) after they killed his close friend who also happened to belong in their group. Meanwhile, Naomie Harris, despite knowing about the lethal nature of ninjas, decided to expose the ninjas and the murders they committed. I honestly had no idea why she did it. I guess it was hard for her to decide between how valuable her life was and fame via unveiling a group of people who were experts in hiding in the shadows for centuries. Any reasonable and logical person would know that choosing the latter would be downright stupid. But I suppose the picture needed to have a reason–any reason–for her to meet a ninja who she could run around with all over Europe and get into action sequences. Speaking of action sequences, as limited as they were, I was even more disappointed with the fact that it was almost incomprehensible. I didn’t mind much the disappearing acts that the ninjas seemed to innately had but I had a big problem with the way the action sequences were shot. Although there were some interesting ones such as the battle scene inside Harris’ home involving shadows and a flashlight, the rest were either annoying because I couldn’t discern who was who or if the good guys or the bag guys were winning or the scenes had no feeling of tension at all. Of course I flinched when I saw gratuitous amount of blood–I liked the bathroom scene–but that was about it. I wasn’t actually excited that the action was happening and I wasn’t impressed with the choreography. Overall, even though I was willing to look past through the weaknesses of this film, “Ninja Assassin, directed by James McTeigue, couldn’t help but disappoint. At times I felt like I was watching a really bad music video where I had no idea what was happening or why. At least music videos, on average, only last about three to four minutes. It was a mind-numbing experience and I wished I saw something else that wouldn’t have resulted to losing my brain cells.