November 25, 2011. Movies Reviewed: Hugo, The Muppets, Ma Part du Gateau

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, 3-D, Academy Awards, Cultural Mining, Drama, Dreams, France, L.A., Movies, Musical, Mystery, Orphans, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2011

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I usually look for a common theme in the movies I review each week. With festivals it’s easy: all Asian, all Aboriginal… Likewise If they’re all kids movies, or romantic comedies, or political documentaries, or coming-of-age stories… but this week is a toughie. I had to find something to tie them all together.

Two of three are kids movies – but one is not. Two out of three are 99 percenter stories. One’s definitely not. Two are in English, but one’s not. But I finally figured it out… (See if you can guess what famous object appears in all three movies. I reveal the answer at the end of this week’s podcast.)

Hugo (in 3D)

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a painfully shy boy who almost never speaks. He lives like a mouse inside the giant hanging clocks of a Paris train station in the 1930’s. He winds them up, resets them, and fixes them if they’re running late. He likes to fix machines. He also likes silent movies – especially Harold Lloyd, who, like Hugo, hangs from the arms of a clock. But he always has to remain hidden or else the station inspector with the stiff wooden leg (Sacha Baron-Cohen) will catch him and send him off to an orphanage.

One day, a bitter, old man with a hidden past (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in the station takes away Hugo’s little notebook, saying it was stolen. Hugo is horrified. Without the book he can’t rebuild a metal automaton – a wind-up robot — that Hugo believes (once it’s working again) will give him a secret message from his watchmaker dad. So a girl named Isabelle who loves mysteries (Chloe Moretz), says she’ll help him get the book back.

Hugo is a really nice, really well crafted kids’ historical adventure. It has a bunch of different and complicated plot lines, but, like clockwork, they all seem to join together. There are a few loose gears. Parts of the movie are a little school-marmish, lecturing the viewer about fascinating historical facts; and parts of the story drift away from Hugo. There’s one strange, academy-awards-like scene that you can just feel is about Scorsese waiting all his life to win his deserved Oscar. Still, Hugo is an amazing, rich, well-made movie that will stay in your mind long after you see it.

The Muppets

Dir: James Bobin

Muppets are a combination of cloth hand puppets and marionettes. They have big mouths that open and close, and arms that move with sticks. They’ve been on Sesame Street since the 60s, and had their own TV show in the 70’s, The Muppet Show, a vaudevillian variety show with Muppets plus celebrity guests. Well, they’re back.

This is a movie about two grown-up brothers, a boy and a Muppet, who live like Ernie and Bert in small town USA. They decide to travel to L.A. where Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Jason Segel, Amy Adams) can celebrate their anniversary, and Walter can see the Muppet studio he remembers from TV re-uns. But once there, they discover a ruthless and greedy oil baron wants to tear down the old Muppet Theatre and dig for oil instead. So the muppets have to get back together, put on a show, and raise enough money to save their poor, neglected theatre. Kermit the Frog is retired. Miss Piggy is a Parisian fashion designer. Fozzie is a lounge singer in Reno.

Will the many poor and lonely people — and muppets! — triumph over that one mean, rich guy?

This is an enjoyable musical comedy, done completely in studio. It combines the style of Peewee Herman’s Big Adventure, with elaborate song-and-dance scenes, hoary old gags, and nostalgic reenactments of the old TV puppet show. It doesn’t modernize anything, but keeps true to the tattered velvet curtains and footlights of the original. There are a few changes. Some of the voices – especially Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy – don’t sound like their old selves — no Frank Oz or Jim Henson. And they’ve CGI’d away the sticks that move their arms and given them legs to walk on – the old muppets were only shown waste-up – but these are minor quibbles.

Amy Adams is wonderful as Mary, reprising her fairytale-like character in Enchanted; Jason Segel who co-wrote the script is also adorable as Gary. But they’re both sidekicks to the main stars, the Muppets. I thought there were a few too many slow songs that dragged the story down, but all in all, The Muppets gives a fun look back for grown-ups, and an entirely new concept for kids.

Ma Part du Gateau

Dir: Cedric Klapisch

France (Karin Viard) — a middle-aged divorced woman with three kids — is laid off after 20 years when the company she works for in the port of Dunkirk suddenly closes down. So she’s forced to leave her kids behind, retrain in a new profession and look for paid work in Paris. But the only work she can find is as a maid. She’s even asked to put on a fake foreign accent while in training, so she doesn’t stand out.

Meanwhile, Steve (Gilles Lellouche), a French financier and hedge-fund operator living in London, is sent back to Paris to open a new branch. He’s incredibly rich, flying super-models to Venice for a weekend in his private jet. But he’s also a prick, who neglects his son, and treats women like dirt.

France ends up working for him first as a cleaner, then maid, then as a housekeeper, then as a nanny, basically taking on all the work functions of the wife he doesn’t have. They begin to get more comfortable with each other, and things seem to be heading in a “rom-com” direction. Clearly a 99%-er meeting a one percenter.

What will happen? And who will get their slice of the pie? Well, I don’t want to give anything away, except to say, this movie takes the old stereotypes and turns them on their head, with some very surprising and unexpected plot turns. This is a great movie – a realistic family drama charged with contemporary political ramifications of an economically troubled Europe.

Hugo and The Muppets are both playing now, and Ma Part Du Gateau is the closing film at the EU Film Festival next Wednesday. Check out this one, and many others – all free! — like the excellent Spanish movie darkbluealmostblack at eutorontofilmfest.ca .

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

How Women see the World. Films reviewed: Beeswax, Littlerock, Hanna, Born to be Wild PLUS Rivers and my Father, Images Festival, Sprockets Festival

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still true. The Hollywood star system has made a huge shift over the past few decades across the gender line. The biggest stars are now male, not female; most movies are about men, not women, and most stories are told from a man’s point of view. Even in movies with a female star, all the other main characters are often male. Most, but not all… there’s actually a bumper crop of movies opening today that buck this trend.

So, this week, I’m looking at four very different new movies, two realistic dramas, an action thriller, and a kids documentary, all told from the point of view of women, and, interestingly, all touching on family relationships. (All of these films were directed by men.)

Two of them, Beeswax and Littlerock, are part of a new trend in indie filmmaking (sometimes called New Realism or Mumblecore), using non-actors — often using their own names — ordinary situations, improvisational scenes, locations not studios, no special effects, and without the usual obvious plotlines and clichés. (Last year, I enjoyed Modra, and No Heart Feelings, two Toronto movies that fit into this category.) It’s always fun watching new types of movies, but some work better than others.

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

Jeannie and Lauren (Tillie and Maggie Hatcher) are adult twin sisters who live together. Jeannie owns a vintage store in an American college town. She gets around in a car or using her wheelchair. She’s having problems with her business partner who’s always flying off overseas, while Jeannie’s always working at the store. She’s faced with the question of what to do with her business and whether her partner is suing her. Meanwhile, her sister Lauren is also deciding whether or not to take a big step in her life. And Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student writing his bar exams, is Jeannie’s on again off again bed-partner, and her potential lawyer, if he passes the bar.

The movie starts and ends very suddenly, as if we’re allowed to spend a few days with these characters — as if it were a documentary — and then they’re gone again. The story itself is about normal everyday events: people living their lives, having sex, going to work, talking with friends and family members. The parts are played by non-actors, who are appealing, and pretty funny, but still just regular people.

I like the fact that it has one main character with a physical disability, without making it the main story, and dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way — not ignoring the very real accommodations she has to be aware of to live her life, but without making it the central point, morphing into some weeper where she stands up out of her wheelchair in triumph saying “I can walk again!” It’s sort of like casting a black Hamlet or a male Ophelia. This movie also deals with same-sex-couples in the same unremarkable way.

It’s not a big and exciting movie, but has a comfortable, familial feel about it, along with the underlying competitiveness and rivalry among family members. Beeswax (as in mind your own?) is a realistic look at a few days of the secrets and tensions in two sisters’ lives.

Littlerock

Dir: Mike Ott

Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are visiting from Japan. They’re driving from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area (to visit a place related to their past) when their rented car breaks down in Littlerock, a small town in LA county. They’re forced to stay in a motel until they send them a new one. But when they go to the room next door, to complain about a loud drunken party, they end up meeting some locals and hanging out.

Atsuko likes Cory (Cory Zacharia) – who wants to be an actor/model, but owes too much money to his father and his drug dealer – but they don’t speak the same language. They pretend to understand what each other are saying, but once Rintaro takes off, they are left without a translator. Atsuko meets some other people, and jealousy and duplicity ensues.

The problem with the movie is that most of the characters seem bland or uninteresting. It’s realistic, but maybe too realistic. Atsuko and Cory never figure how to communicate – but most of the things they want the other to hear are just standard chatter anyway – aside from a very touching scene toward the end of the movie. It really needed more interesting dialogue to go with the nice scenes of a pensive young Japanese woman coming of age in smalltown USA.

Hanna

Dir: Joe Wright

Hanna (Saoirise Ronan) is brought up by her dad, Erik (Eric Bana) — a spy and assassin who’s gone rogue — in an all-natural setting somewhere in the far north. She learns everything from a stack of old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and grimm’s fairytales. He teaches her how to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow from far away, skin it and cook it. “Always be alert” he tells her. She has to be ready to fend off any attacker — even when she’s asleep. But when she can beat her father at a fight, she realizes it’s time to “come in from the cold” to use the old spy term. She’s ready to face her father’s old foe and handler: the icy, prada-clad CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett).

From there, the movie races on, with the three competing killers – Erik, Hanna, and Marrissa — trying to out-do, capture or kill one another. It’s purposely kept unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey, who is running and who is chasing as power dynamics shift. Marissa and her henchmen – an effeminate German man in white tracksuit and his two skinhead fighters – pursue the 14 year old through various unexpected exotic settings. Hanna just wants to make a friend, find her father again, revisit the brothers Grimm, and listen to music for the very first time. She falls in with a family of British hippies who are driving their van around on a camping trip, and begins to understand the complex rules of social interaction.

The plot is extremely simple, a more-or-less non-stop series of chases and fights – but it’s visually sumptuous movie, with a terrific driving soundtrack, constantly surprising cultural references, stunning scenery, great comic relief, and amazing camera work. There are scenes where the camera spins around and around in a full 360, and others where it flips or rolls or turns upside down. Cate Blanchett is great as the super-villainess, Erik Bana good as a troubled spy, and Saoirise Ronan really great as Hanna, a new type of super hero.

Born to Be Wild

Dir: David Lickley

Wild animals? Aww… Cute, baby wild animals? Cute little baby wild animal… orphans? Awwwww….

How about cute little orphaned baby elephants in Kenya, and baby orangutans living in the rain forests of Borneo… in IMAX 3D???

Yeah, this is one really cute G-rated movie, the kind that makes you

say to hell with my carbon footprint — I wanna hop on a jet-fuel guzzling airplane and fly off to the jungles of Borneo to commune with the Orangutans who look a lot like Homer Simpson…

Actually, the movies about how the rainforests that make up the wild habitat of many the great apes are rapidly disappearing. And in Africa, there are still poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks. And when the young are left without their mothers they have no one to feed them. These are the orphans – meaning motherless orangutans and elephants — that the movie is about. Narrator Morgan Freeman shows two women — Birute in Indonesia and Daphne in Kenya — who adopt and raise these animal orphans until they’re old enough to gradually be set free again. The extremely short movie (it’s 40 min long) also has some of the best live 3-D footage I’ve seen since Avatar. An enjoyable film (though maybe a bit cloying for adults) it’s perfect for kids who want to see wild animals up close.

Canadian director and artist Luo Li’s newest film premiered at the Images Festival, North America’s largest experimental art and moving images festival, that combines gallery exhibitions with screenings at movie theatres.

Rivers and My Father

Dir: Luo Li

In this movie, he takes his father’s collected memoirs of old China, and sews them together in a black and white patchwork quilt of repeated disjointed scenes, narrations, titles and subtitles, centering around people in and around water. His own relatives play some of the parts (but not all).

So you see a man in a bathing cap bobbing up and down in a river; kids playing in the woods; a formally dressed woman leading a child up an outdoor staircase; a boy on a boat; and some older people talking to each other about their childhood memories, and about shooting this movie.

I was a bit put off by his use of obvious anachronisms that don’t match the year given in a scene’s title; and the frequent repetition of certain odd scenes, but I love his images of a wet road scene looking down in a moving bicycle in the rain; of the slow, grey waters of the Yangtse river; of a distant shore across water.

It’s funny — I’m dismissing various “errors” in the movie as artistic license, but grumbling to myself just the same… when the last third of the movie begins: his own father’s critique (represented by moving, plain and bold chinese fonts on the screen, over english subtitles) of the film I’m watching, as I watch it, and the filmmaker’s response! That was the most surprising and interesting section of this movie.

Beeswax and Littlerock are at the Royal, Born to be Wild at AMC in IMAX 3-D, and Hanna in wide release, all opening today, April 8, 2011. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is playing right now, both on-screen in theatres and off-screen in art galleries. Look online at imagesfestival.com . And Sprockets, the festival of movies for kids and young adults opens this weekend: www.tiff.ca/sprockets

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

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