ARTHUR CHRISTMAS

Every year, films line up for the holidays to draw us in and become perennials for Christmasaholics. Some of them fail miserably. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to snuggle up on an evening a few days before the holiday and share;”Fred Claus”, “Jingle All the Way” or, “Deck the Halls”. On the other hand, in the last decade or so we have added some real gems to our Christmas wish list. “Love Actually” may be our favorite recent Christmas film,but it sits on a shelf with the Jim Carrey motion capture “Christmas Carol” and “About a Boy”. We apparently have a weakness for Hugh Grant. So many movies are aimed at the family audience and just get it wrong. “The Polar Express” is a wonderful book but as a movie it is a bit of a nightmare. So the question going into this holiday season is whether this animated 3D Christmas kids story, would be added to the naughty or the nice pile.

I am happy to report that “Arthur Christmas” is a worthy addition to the Santa Claus mythology. It is everyone’s hope in doing a movie at the North Pole, that the workshops seem authentic and the mood is appropriately jolly. In “The Polar Express”, thousands of elves suggested mass labor enslavement and an almost totalitarian way of life. This movie also features mass numbers of elves, some of whom are members of the crack Christmas Gift delivery team, but instead of taking itself seriously, it is the background for satire and mayhem. This is a high tech version of Christmas, with i-phones and tablets used to communicate and massive computers to keep track of all the inventory and deliveries. If you squint your eyes a little and think about it for a minute, you may get the impression that the movie is about the incompetence of Amazon.com as a tool for Christmas shopping. The newest technology might allow someone to rationalize a microscopic glitch in the system. It is that glitch that sets our hero, Arthur, off on his journey of self discovery.

Nothing that happens will surprise you in terms of story elements. The path of this story arc is recognizable from the first minute. What will surprise you is the creative humor and wild characters that come with you on the trip. This is a story about a dysfunctional family that happens to be the Clauses. I skipped the Vince Vaughn version of this a few years ago, because with real humans, the energy required to sell the story would come off as maniacal. That is why animation is a perfect medium for telling this story. Silly ideas that might seem stupid with photo real characters and props, here seem like they are part of the natural environment. We did not see this in 3D, but I imagine that there would be some value in doing so, but the cartoon nature of the movie makes it easy to enjoy without the extra technology.

The characters interact in a way that makes sense for the story. There is no villain per se, just competing interests that sometimes cause friction for the characters. It is a multi-generational look at the process that goes into deciding how Santa should be for each new group of children. All the technology may make Christmas easier, (and it certainly makes it fun to watch), but it cannot replace what the heart of the Santa Claus myth is supposed to be about. It is fun to compare sleighs and old school reindeer with jet fueled power. We get to see how technology tracks the dreams of a child, but we know immediately that the human heart is the real file system for those Christmas wishes. All of the characters were voiced well, and I appreciated the fact that the actors are not mentioned by name in the opening credits. They may be listed on the poster, but they are not above the title and they are not instantly recognizable. The voices are primarily English, and for we Americans that usually carries a charm that seems inherent in British manners of speech.

There are so many visual gags in the movie that it is hard to pick out a favorite. None of them is dependent on a contemporary character or cultural reference like the Shrek movies are. We saw several trailers for upcoming animated children’s movies, and if there is an Anti-Christ, he is the producer of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. We got a Lady GaGa reference in the trailer, and you know that is just the tip of the iceberg. Arthur Christmas is smarter than that. It’s humor is based on character and visual gags, not on pop culture shorthand that will be disposed of in a few years. Some of the technology jokes might date, but the whimsy and heart in this movie should last for many holiday seasons to come. I hope I can share this movie with grandchildren someday, but until I have those grankids, I will be happy to share it with any of you reading this.

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Hugo

Everyone looks forward to a Martin Scorsese film, even if you don’t particularly care for Scorsese as a director. His work promises much and every so often he delivers. He may be the most revered director working today, but I have not always been impressed with the product. “Gang of New York” was interesting but I have never felt the need to revisit it. “The Aviator ” is a well made film, but left me cold about an historical person that should be a lot more interesting. “Raging Bull” is a movie that feels like medicine to me, it is good for you but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I love musicals but hated “New York, New York”. On the other hand, every one of the gangster films I have seen multiple times and I admire the panache of storytelling he brings to these movies. Others have complained but I think “The Departed” is a worthy film to have on the shelf with “Casino” and “Goodfellas”. This newest film, is nothing like any of the movies I just mentioned. It is closest in look to “The Age of Innocence”, but it is not a twisty drama. “Hugo” is a tribute to movie history and the imagination, and it works like a dream, a dream of what we want movies to be about.

The subjects of the movie are cinema history, magic, and the importance of relationships to our dreams. Anyone who has read my previous posts, know that I am a sentimentalist, and movies that stir my emotions are my favorite type of film. Being the son of a professional magician, and a movie nut, you would think Scorsese would have me before I even walk into the theater, but remember “New York, New York”, he is perfectly capable of ticking me off. This time however, not only is the movie a marvel to watch, and a lesson in film at the same time, it plays on our hearts in a number of ways and makes us stare in wonder at the things we as humans are capable of dreaming. I am not a fan of 3D as it is often used. Most movies are fine without it. Exploitation fare is where I think most 3D works effectively. Scorsese has managed to make a 3D movie that tantalizes with some gimmicks, but mostly helps us see the depth of the sets and scenery. We can feel the intricacy of the world that our young hero Hugo lives in. There is some wonderful footage from the original films of Georges Méliès, but there is an imagined background to those films that is visually brought to life using modern film techniques combined with the crude but genius trickery used in those early movies.

Characters in this story all have a dream that they hope or fear. Most of the focus is on Hugo, a boy orphaned, but far from being overwhelmed. He is clever, skilled and also quite sad as he lives his daily existence in the train station in Paris between the wars. His lonely life is sustained by his desire to unlock the secrets left behind by his deceased father. The Automaton he is trying to repair holds secrets that will effect many of the characters in the story. At times, as he spies on the world of the train station, it felt like this was going to be an antique version of Ameile’. We see bits of other peoples lives, some of them seem hopeful some hateful. Hugo is not interested in all of that, he is focused on the mechanical puzzle that he thinks holds the hope that his loneliness will come to an end. The isolation that he feels must be overcome before, not after he solves the puzzle. This is where the performances of the young leads, and the old-timers come together to give this story life. It looks like it is a kids movie, but it is only a kids movie in so far as all of us are children when faced with the wonder of magic. The characters are not warm from the outset, they are often bitter and suspicious. The one exception being Isabelle, played my my favorite Hit Girl, Chloë Grace Moretz. It is only after Hugo begins to trust and care about Isabelle, that any of the rest of his hopes can come true.

So much goes on in the movie that is hard to describe without giving away plot details, but I can say it is all visually realized in a wonderful way. The mechanical gadgets, and moving parts of projectors and clocks are ubiquitous, they are in the foreground, background and center of the story. Rather than being distracting, they make the world of Hugo more realistic. I marvel at technology of any type, not just the digital world we live in but simple concepts like mirrors and watches, which have been around for hundreds of years but required someone to come up with a way to make them work. Georges Méliès was one of those people that figured out how to make something work. This story tells us in retrospect how movies came to be a place for storytelling and how special effects were achieved, without giving us a lecture on the subject. All of this material is told in a compelling story concerning odd characters that populate a world filled with wonders most people never think about. I like the fact that many of the background characters are intimidating in one way or another. Their true natures are revealed in a more natural way as a result. We don’t feel as manipulated as we might have been if Spielberg had been the director.

This is a warm movie from a director that can be cold in regard to our emotions, even when his characters are hot. He does not go overboard in trying to make us love everyone in the story,our affections are earned and they are reasonable within the parameters of the story. The 3D is not obnoxious, in fact it adds to the character of the movie in much the same lush way as the effects in “Avatar” did for that movie. I could feel a couple of story cheats on occasions, there was some pretty obvious foreshadowing of the train climax, but it was not supposed to be a surprise, it is designed to satisfy an appetite that the film makers created in us. This is well worth your time and money, I can’t guarantee you will like it, but if the subject and film makers intrigue you, then it will be very satisfying.

THE MUPPETS

There may be greater joys than seeing a new Muppet movie on Thanksgiving Day, but I would be hard pressed to enumerate them at this time. I was not a little kid when the Muppets were on television weekly, I was a college student, and yet I felt like a kid each time the Muppet Show came on and I got to watch a classic variety show being hosted by the most insane group of characters imaginable. When they made the transition to movies, I was in heaven http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2010/07/muppet-movie-1979-movie-day-day-38.html . The last Muppet Movie was back in 1999, Muppet in Space, it was a weak entry and the characters have been dormant for a dozen years since. This movie represents an attempt to relaunch them into the contemporary entertainment world and keep them the Muppets still. I saw a little bit of grumbling from Frank Oz on the script, and most of the old crew is not connected to this production. We had nothing to fear, I don’t know what Mr. Oz was worried about, this is classic Muppet silliness with a heart as big as all outdoors.

The tone of the movie is much gentler than current audiences are likely to be used to. There is a slow build up to the main plot, and there are a lot of background spots that have to be filled in. They are covered by some very effective jokes and gags that remind us who the characters really are and why it is that we have missed them all this time. With stars like Amy Adams and Jason Segal, you might think that the focus is going to be on the humans rather than the Muppet characters, but that is not the case. There is a slight secondary story that connects the characters and it has to be resolved, but it is not the main focus and there is clearly a love of the felt characters by the human leads. Many of the jokes that fill the movie are of the bad pun, silly sight gag, vaudeville style throw away variety that made the Muppets stars more than thirty years ago.

Introducing a new character, that belongs in the Muppet world more than the human one, is the way the story pulls us through the contemporary ignorance of the world to Muppet perfection. “Walter”, is not an unusual character like Gonzo, an animal like most of the other performers, or a giant misfit. He is most closely comparable to Scooter, a kid that exists in the human world but clearly is different. You know how much like previous Muppet films this will be when you discover that Walter is the brother of Jason Segel’s character. There are no tasteless jokes about Grover being the family’s milkman, it is just taken for granted that this is how the world is. The movie plays it straight according to the rules established by all the past Muppet history. It is what it is and we just go from there. It is clear however, that although both Walter and his brother loved to original Muppet Show, it is Walter that relates to them, and he has always been different as a result. The introduction of his character, the drive that his story arc puts on the plot, and the resolution that comes at the end, largely succeeds in giving the audience someone to root for in addition to our old friends. I guess younger kids may need a bridge to the original characters since many of them have not had Kermit and company in their lives on a daily basis.

I know so many people that just can’t stand musicals or do not understand them at all. Some of these same people would have no trouble enjoying Neo dodging bullets, or super heroes flying, but the idea that some one might sing and dance as a way to tell a story befuddles them. I have loved musicals all my life. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, The Sharks and the Jets are perfectly logical in the cinematic world I live in. I was giddy when the first song in this movie broke out. I was pleased that there were new songs mixed with old ones, and I was frustrated when the ten year old behind me said, “Oh no, he’s not going to sing again is he?” when Segal’s character has to decide which world he needs to live in. “Of course”, I wanted to scream, “what movie did you think you were coming to see?” That is not how to win over friends for my beloved franchise. Ultimately, everyone in the theater seemed happy, and while some may not care for the sweet nature of a Muppet film, with it’s singing and dancing, it was catnip to me.

There were some very nice cameo appearances by a variety of stars, just like we got in the old days. There were some references to the old show to, and I miss Bob Hope and Dom Deluise, and a host of others. The new crop of Muppet costars are fine, but there were only a couple that brought a smile to my face just by seeing them. Most don’t have much to do, but that is not their function. They are there to remind us that this is a show business story. That big stars and new stars come and go but that the Muppets should always be the same. I can safely say that they are, still crazy after all these years.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1

It has been nearly two weeks since I went to a movie and my addiction is craving something strong. Unfortunately, this weekend will be dominated by the Twilight Movie and unless there is time tomorrow, I will have to make due with that until the Thanksgiving weekend, when I will be stuffing myself. Stuffing myself with three family movies that I can hardly wait for and “The Descendants” if I can find it in the neighborhood. I will admit that I have seen all the Twilight Movies multiple times. Not because my daughters wanted to see them, both of my girls, now in their early twenties, despise “Twilight”. Their mother on the other hand is an addict and since I love her, I willingly go to see things she wants since she has done the same for me for years. This series of books and movies is extraordinarily divisive. People who love them are passionate and can’t get enough, and those other side is hateful in their disdain for the writer and characters she has created. Although it is rare, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think the movies mean the end of Western Civilization as we know it, and I am certainly not the demographic for these stories.

The first three movies were so focused on high school angst and emotion that it was sometimes laughable. On the other hand, I am a big sentimentalist and I understand the need for people to be passionate about the things they love. “Breaking Dawn” however, is another kettle of fish. Most of the big love triangle issues are gone, and the action of our vampires and werewolves is substantially muted. The movie breaks the story of the book into two parts, the first one is the soap opera, wedding and birth story that should be the hardest part to tell. For three films there has been delayed gratification for Bella and Edwards sex life to begin. The critics of these stories frequently claim that this is a Mormon fantasy of sexuality that puts off the dangers of sex until after marriage. It mostly seems to me about making the story a romance rather than a bodice ripper. The dreamy guys that want you, also want you in the best possible way. That should be everyone’s wish fulfillment dream. Sex for the purpose of love and not just orgasm is romantic, rather than gross. “Breaking Dawn” has the most beautiful wedding, the most incredible honeymoon spot and the most tasteful wedding night sex that a super strong vampire and a regular mortal could enjoy. The director Bill Condon, who is highly accomplished and respected, has done what the story demands, translated this fantasy into an opening segment that will meet the needs of teen and pre-teen girls, and the mothers that brought them to this movie. Look, it’s not my cup of tea but I understand that it will work for all kinds of people.

Having read the books, I also know that this story has two of the strangest twists, ideas, concepts, or what ever you would call them, in the series. It was odd to begin with vampires that are essentially vegetarians, a horror story with nearly no horror in it. Then we pile on a love triangle with a werewolf and it gets stickier. Throw in suicidal vampires and a vendetta driven vampire army and you push the boundaries. This story does not settle for pushing boundaries, it breaks through them in what could easily be the most ridiculous thing ever seen on a movie screen. Vampire birth and dog imprinting are the climax of the story and it is odd stuff. I thought that they managed to make it all much less laughable than it could have been. There were always going to be these two moments that determined if this movie works or fails. The birth scene is actually done in a very effective and traumatic manner. While there was almost no suspense and excitement in the movie up until this point, the way the birth story is shot and scripted, gives us some real investment in the movie finally.

The story of a wolf’s imprinting needs a little bit more background. There are hints of it in a couple of scenes and there is a beach shot which suggests what the true nature of imprinting is, but it still sounds like a romantic type of relationship. However, the camera set up, and the flashbacks and flash forwards used in showing what happens to Jacob, make it a lot more tolerable and interesting than it would otherwise be. If this comes off OK, then the movie and Part 2 next year are home free. What remains is much more conventional, supernatural, plotting. The last shots of Bella and the stinger during the credits, make what will be coming, something to enjoy rather than dread. I doubt that this movie will convert anyone who feels hatred toward these characters and the actors who portray them, but it will not disappoint the fans and it will fulfill the wishes of the young viewers quite well.

My daughter went with us and she is a hater, but she said this was the best Twilight movie, that’s mostly because there is a shot of the USC football team on a TV at one point and the Trojans make everything better. I did not care for the way the wolves communicate with each other in a point of the story near the center of the film, but I must admit, I don’t know for sure how else they could get that exposition in. There are also some funny bits with the family of Bella’s character during the story. Charlie, Bella’s Dad, remains my favorite character. He has the best, most realistic lines in the movie. I did want to chuckle at a couple of things that were not supposed to be funny, but there were also some humorous parts that worked as they were intended.

I’m not a fan of the series, but I am also not ashamed of having seen all of the movies quite often. Their appeal is easy to make out and they work for the most part. I was less annoyed by the three main leads in this movie less than I had been in the others, so that seems to be an accomplishment. There are other more offensive movies out there that I am happy to take on, but complaining about Twilight feels a little bit like calling some kids favorite doll ugly. Even if it is true it is unwarranted, and there is something nice about a kid liking something that is less than perfect.

Tower Heist

For the first time since I have started blogging, I have lost a post in cyber space. I posted on this movie yesterday and I am sure I saved it. However when I went back to edit it there was nothing there. So I’m starting over , my comments are not going to be any different but the tone will probably change as a consequence. When I saw the trailer back in the summer, I was really hoping we were getting a new Eddie Murphy movie, in which he would be funny again. Brett Ratner is one of those directors I mentioned before that fanboys love to hate. He put this together and subsequently he was chosen to direct the next Academy Awards. He chose Eddie to be the host next time out so there is a lot of speculation that everyone is happy that the movie turned out well. This has increased my expectations and the movie now has more pressure on it to deliver.

In many ways the film succeeds. I loved the music choice. The score sounds like a brutal action picture and not some lame family based comedy. The notes reminded me of the heavy diesel sounds of the movie “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (the 1974 version). So from the first notes of the movie, they seem to be taking the story seriously. Murphy is in the first hour of the film in a very limited way. His character does not really become a part of the plot for the first half. This is a movie based around the theft of money which effects a group of decent hardworking people. I’ll let others debate the Berine Madoff and Occupy Wall Street aspects of the story. I found the characters that had been taken advantage of to be likable, well meaning and conscientious employees. If this was a building that I lived in, I would feel well taken care of. It may be a fantasy of a wealthy apartment complex, but it was actually an appealing one for the most part. One reason that it is so appealing is because the head of operations played by Ben Stiller seems to be a genuinely nice guy, who is bright enough to know that hard work will help overcome other limitations in life. He makes the extra effort to be sure that the residents and the employees have a good life. When he discovers the betrayal of trust from one of his clients and that he has contributed to everyone getting ripped off, even though he was trying to take care of them, then he takes a personal interest in justice.

There is a scene where he is confronted by the FBI agent in charge of the financial swindle case, after he has continued to be solicitous to his resident, that we start to learn where this might go. Stiller’s character appears to be taking crap from the swindler, simply because it is his job to do so. We see that he is doing it all in hopes that he will be able to salvage the fortunes of his employees. Later, when it is clear how indifferent the bigshot is to all the people that have helped make his life comfortable in the apartment building, Stiller goes off in one of the more satisfying bits during the film and the whole plot is set in motion. This movie is a slow build to the heist caper. The second act mostly involves getting the others to participate in a robbery to restore all of the employees financial losses. This is where Eddie appears and starts doing his schtick. He is an childhood acquaintance of Stiller’s and has a long criminal past. He turns out to be nearly as coniving as the Wall Street bigwig they are going after. Most of the best gags are in the trailer, which is usually a disappointment, but they all work a little bit better in context and they were pretty good gags.

Stiller has been on the brink of becoming as irrelevant as Murphy, with sequels to Meet the Fockers and Night at the Museum. The originals had their merits but the sequels just scream “Product”. Murphy has skipped the part where the original movie had some worth and has gone straight to the “Product” line to cash in. I know that not all movies are worth seeing again or were even worth seeing once, but at least you can tell when people are trying, even if they fail. Most of Murphy’s films of late, don’t even look like they try. Here they appear to at least be trying and that they succeed much of the time gives us hope that there is more to come. Hollywood is a better place when Eddie Murphy in in danger of actually being dangerously funny.

Everyone else in the movie is solid. I have had a thing for Tia Leoni since the first time I saw her in Bad Boys. There is something about her smile and weary sounding voice that hits the right chord for me, so I thought she worked as the conflicted FBI/romantic interest in the movie. Alan Alda plays the opening section so avuncular and supportive that when he turns out to be the real scum that screws everyone over, I was surprised that the two characters could exist in the same person, very obviously they can and he nailed this guy. One of the first things I ever saw Alda in was a TV movie about a guy involved in a car accident that ends up going to prison. He is an average guy in a place that scares the hell out of most of us average guys. That image helps make the possibility that this character will get his comeuppance even more appealing. There were some nice foreshadowing pieces involving chess strategy that make the heist elements and the legal element at the end more satisfying.

The heist element of the movie was a little less successful. We started with a serious story about average Joes getting screwed over and seeking justice, and finish it off with a little too much slapstick and pratfall. It is a comedy action piece, but the comedy parts take it a bit more over the top than necessary. The turnaround in the movie Trading Places was a lot more believable, on the other hand, if you are willing to go along with it, the antics here are certainly funny. The question is whether you can go along with it. I could for the most part, because the character that Stiller plays made me sympathetic, and Eddie Murphy had a lot of his swagger back. Maybe I would prefer something a little more real, but the movie does end with a touch of honesty as there do have to be sacrifices in order to win.