Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains is an Unforgettable Documentary

Now I am sure many of you have long since become familiar with this story. On October 13, 1972, a young ruby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, boarded a plane which was going to take them to a match in Chile. Their plane ended up crashing on a remote Andean glacier, its fuselage torn off and wings shorn. Anticipating they would be rescued, they waited in the snowy wreckage for help, but none came. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat from the bodies of those passengers who had died. Eventually, two passengers managed to breach the treacherous Andes Mountains and brought help to their teammates left stranded in what was left of the plane. Out of the 45 passengers on that plane, only 16 survived. They were stranded on that glacier for 72 days. The fact any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

This story caused a sensation when first presented on the news, and many focused more on the sensational aspects of what happened, namely the cannibalism or reports of it. It was later documented in the 1973 bestselling book “Alive” written by Piers Paul Read. I have not read the book, but I did see the movie it was based on back in 1993 which starred Ethan Hawke. I remember watching it with my brother, and we both dug the seriously nasty plane crash which opened it. The movie was okay, but even with a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley of all people, it got weighed down by an endless variety of clichés. There did not seem to be any real tangible way to really get at how those rugby players truly felt while they were stranded on a glacier which they seemed destined to die on. How could they anyway?

Decades after this plane crash occurred, we got a documentary about it entitled “Stranded: I’ve Come from A Plane That Crashed on The Mountains.” This one has the advantage of having all the survivors from the crash participate participating in interviews in which they recount all the horrors they were forced to endure, and it was directed by a documentary filmmaker who also happened to be a childhood friend of theirs, Gonzalo Arijon. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments of the events, Arijon succeeds in creating a shockingly intimate look at what these people went through in order to survive, and it puts us right into the mindset of the survivors in a way no movie or book, however well written it was, could. It proved to be one of the most astonishing cinematic portraits I have ever seen about survival, and it has stayed with me ever since I first watched more than a decade ago.

A documentary with reenactments almost sounds like an oxymoron. Certain other documentaries like “American Teen,” which came out in the same year, have been accused of restaging events that happened to the people, and it threatened to take away what felt truly real about it. The director of the movie, Nanette Burstein, admitted to restaging one event regarding a text message, and it did make for a good emotional moment, and I really do not blame her for doing so. I bring this up because the reenactments and restaging of events in “Stranded” serve to illustrate how incredibly desolate the circumstances were for these people, and they are necessary to show the way they survived. Plus, there is not a lot of archival footage for Arijon to work with, and without the reenactments, I am not sure he would have had much of a documentary.

The archival footage consists of photographs which were taken before and after the crash, and they are haunting to see as they show who these people were and what they ended up becoming. There are also some interviews shot with the survivors after they are rescued, and the audience reacted strongly when the interviewer asked them how they managed to survive. Their response to this at a later news conference brilliantly spells out why they did what they did.

The issue of cannibalism, if you really want to call it that, is handled very sensitively here. The reactions of the survivors to eating the flesh of those who have died goes through a variety of emotions from revulsion of even thinking about it to determination to survive and see their families again. But in the end, who are we to judge them for what they did? These were people pushed to the brink of madness and did whatever they could to survive, and “Stranded” puts us right in their mindset as they made their decision to eat from the bodies of their teammates. Do not even think you would have done things differently because you have not been through what they had. If you want to get cynical about it, those teammates were already dead, so they did not have a lot of say in the matter.

But the most astonishing moments in “Stranded” come from the survivors themselves. Their recollections of what they went through are still very vivid to them to this very day. The participation they gave to this project was invaluable, and we see them with their spouses and children as they go to revisit the site of the crash and go over what happened with them. What they do here is very brave, and their willingness to talk about what went on is beyond commendable. While this documentary may seem more about death than anything else, it is really more about survival and the power of the human spirit. It is also about the power of friendship and how indestructible it can be even in life’s worst moments.

With the aid of Arijon’s work, we see specifically how the survivors remember all the details of what happened. We see them lose their friends and of how they died, and of the ways they survived which included punching each other constantly so the blood would circulate better in their bodies. The moment we see those three men, which later became two, breach the Andes Mountains, we feel their desperation as well as their dwindling feeling of wanting to survive. All of these elements provide us with the most intimate portrait of this plane crash they could ever hope, or want, to get.

2008, the year in which “Stranded” was released, proved to be a tremendous year for movies set in the coldest of environments. During the summer, we got “Frozen River” which took place in the subzero weather of upstate New York. A few months later, I watched “Let the Right One In” which observed the tender relationship between a young boy and a female vampire in a frigid suburban neighborhood of Sweden. The details of these ferociously cold climates are almost completely dwarfed by the barren coldness which this documentary focuses on. Some of us are spoiled by the elongated summers we have in certain parts of the United States, but nothing we have experienced thus far will ever seem as cold as it is here.

“Stranded” gave me one of the most powerfully absorbing cinematic experiences I back in 2008. It is at turns thrilling and harrowing and, in the end, it is utterly inspiring as some of these passengers just refused to give up and die. Gonzalo Arijon brilliantly succeeds in capturing the events of this situation in a way no other filmmaker could, and it will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.

* * * * out of * * * *

One From Sam Mendes: Revolutionary Road

“Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie.”

– Tagline for “War of The Roses.”

Revolutionary Road” feels more like a horror movie than a romantic drama. It is brutally honest in the way it depicts the terrible disintegration of a marriage, the kind none of us ever want to get trapped in. Those of you who still think gay marriage is a threat to the sanctity of marriage should take a look at this movie, for it is a much more astute examination of what can really destroy such a prized institution. When the movie starts, we know we are in for a fateful journey of two people who at first look like they belong together, but we know they will eventually tear each other apart limb from limb.

But as tough as “Revolutionary Road” is to watch, it is also an utterly brilliant film which serves as further proof of how Sam Mendes’ Oscar win for his directorial debut of “American Beauty” was no fluke. There is not a single false note to be found here, and it feels practically flawless in its making and design. It has great visuals, a great screenplay and amazing performances from the entire cast. Mendes makes “Revolutionary Road” an enthralling experience into the horrors of conformity, the very thing we all try to fight against.

The movie starts with its two main characters, Frank and April (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), when they first meet at a party where they are instantly attracted to each other. The story then moves forward to years later when April is taking a curtain call for a play she is acting in, and she ends up bowing to a very unenthusiastic response from an indifferent audience. It is clear their relationship has gotten cold, and the utter frustration constantly simmering under the surface seem to be the only thing left for them to deal with. This leads to April to come up with what she sees as the perfect plan: They can sell their house and car and move to Paris where she can support Frank through secretarial work while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life. They both see it as their great chance to escape the confines of normalcy which has been eating away at their fragile little souls. However, reality threatens to take away from their dream one piece at a time.

This was Mendes’ fourth film as a director, and you can see a common thread through all his movies. Mendes seems endlessly fascinated with characters whose lives are at a standstill, and who hope for something incredible to happen to them. They are waiting for that moment where they can change into what they always hoped to be, and yet it never quite arrives. In “American Beauty,” it was the characters’ desire to wake up from their dead and dysfunctional lives. In “Road to Perdition,” it was the desire of Tom Hanks’ character to get his son away from the devious life he was leading as a mob enforcer, and to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. In “Jarhead,” it was the desire of the soldiers to enter a war and fight like men, and to take down their enemies by lethal force.

All of this comes around full circle in “Revolutionary Road” as this film deals with characters eager to escape their suffocatingly conformist suburb to live a life of sheer excitement. But they soon come to find they are not as special as they thought they were, and the desires of Frank and April seem to work in opposition to one another. The characters are complex in their creation, and we see what fuels their individual needs, desires, fears and anxieties which serve to define them and their actions. It’s almost like Frank and April are like George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men;” they are two people hoping to get something they can never truly have, and they constantly delude themselves into thinking all is within their grasp and that their dreams will soon become a reality. But reality comes to rear its ugly head at them, and you know that it ain’t gonna pretty.

In a sense, “Revolutionary Road” can be seen as kind of a distant cousin to “American Beauty” in how it details the suffocating environment of suburban living, but each film approaches this differently. While “American Beauty” dealt with its characters with a dark sense of humor, the environment in “Revolutionary Road” is much bleaker and more consuming. In fact, “American Beauty” seems like a delightful walk in the park compared to this one.

This movie takes place in 1950’s Connecticut, and yet it feels quite contemporary which shows how frighteningly timeless story is. This is what will make the movie hard for many people to watch as they may end up seeing themselves in these two people; the longing for a more exciting existence, for an escape from the suburban way of living which has drained them almost completely of feeling, and to get another chance to get what they truly want out of life.

Along with cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men“) and production designer Kristi Zea (“The Silence of The Lambs”), Mendes perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1950’s to where you feel like you are right in it. He also captures the routine of the life in suburbs and manages to capture some unforgettable moments like when April takes the garbage out to the front of the driveway, and she sees everyone else has placed theirs out in front as well. In this moment, he captures April’s realization of how she and Frank have bought into the resigned way of living they both thought they would somehow avoid. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, but the ugliness of its characters’ frazzled emotions come through to make this seem like anything other than a Norman Rockwell portrait.

In addition, Mendes is served very well by his frequent film composing collaborator, Thomas Newman. While his music score may sound like many of his others, Newman captures the longings of both Frank and April as they tumble through their seemingly mundane existence, and soon end up being driven crazy by it and each other. Throughout all his work, Newman seems to work with music so subtle in how it is performed, and yet so powerful in what it ends up conveying. It’s no accident that Newman also scored Mendes’ “American Beauty” and Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom.” Like Mendes, Newman has a strong feel for life in the suburbs no matter what decade a movie takes place in.

“Revolutionary Road” is really a tremendous acting showcase more than anything else, and I don’t just mean from the two main actors. You have the always wonderful Kathy Bates who plays Mrs. Helen Givings, the endlessly talkative real estate agent who sells Frank and April the home they end up living in. The smile on her bright face serves to hide the pain that we see later as we are introduced to her son who has just been released from a mental institution. You also have the terrific Dylan Baker as Frank’s co-worker, Jack Ordway, a man who endlessly waxes philosophically over the craziness of our existence. David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn are also excellent as the next-door neighbors, Shep and Milly Campbell. The excitement April and Frank have over their plan to go to Paris both enthralls and depresses Shep and Milly, and the way they react to it implies how April and Frank are not the only ones leading lives of quiet desperation.

But one of the true standout performances from the supporting cast comes from Michael Shannon as Helen Giving’s mentally unhinged son, John. In an atmosphere where the truth is felt but never verbalized, John finds himself completely incapable of telling a lie. Essentially, he is a Vulcan like Mr. Spock, but with an overabundance of raw emotion. Through his thoughtlessly cruel remarks to everyone around him, he exposes the seemingly perfect couple and their marriage for the sham it has become, and you can clearly feel his betrayal by these two people who had promised to escape the lifestyle they found themselves so hopelessly trapped in. Shannon’s performance is astonishing in its uninhibited nature as he becomes the voice of reason in a world so full of lies.

This of course brings me to the two main actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. This is the first film they have appeared in together since “Titanic,” but one is very different. It could almost be seen as a story of what happened to Jack and Rose after the big ship sank, assuming Jack survived the freezing waters. Both DiCaprio and Winslet have an incredible chemistry with onscreen, and it seems crazy it took them over 10 years to do another movie together.

DiCaprio continues to prove why he is one of the best film actors of his generation. Throughout the movie, he lets us look past the egotistical nature of Frank Wheeler which allows him to seduce a naïve young secretary (played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan), and to see the pain and fear which threatens to steer him further in a direction he never planned to go in. The relationship he had with his father always seems to be surrounding him in ways which are never fully explained, but we can see how it enforces the decisions he ends up making. Frank clearly cannot stand the job he has as a salesman, but he is also equally terrified of leaving it as he feels he may let down his family in the process. DiCaprio brilliantly captures the complexity of this character whose needs and desires constantly tangle with one other, and whose anger and frustration with life eventually boils over to the only person he can take it out on, his wife.

But as raw and complex as DiCaprio’s role is, he is almost completely blown away by Winslet’s performance. Watching her here, you might think she was in a Lars Von Trier movie. Whereas Frank may have been desperate to escape his mundane existence, April is ten times as desperate to do the same. Her desire to escape the boring life she sold herself out to is never ending, and she can never hide her pain and feelings of hopelessness from those around her. You have to wonder where she gets the energy to do this emotionally exhausting work, and she has more than earned her place in the ever-growing pantheon of great actresses.

“Revolutionary Road” is not the most enjoyable of movies to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be, and this one is not without purpose. We empathize with Frank and April in spite of the way they treat each other because we know all they go through could easily happen to us.

Sam Mendes is one of the best directors working today, and he created another masterpiece of suburban isolation which stands proudly alongside “American Beauty” and “In the Bedroom” among others. It also shows how the term “civil marriage” can seem like the ultimate oxymoron. It goes back to people saying how love is a four-letter word, or that it is a sentence. Frank and April’s story is a tragic one, and probably not a movie to be watched by those who just got engaged.

* * * * out of * * * *

Joker Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent Tony Farinella.

If you had told me “Joker” would be the best film of 2019, I would have looked at you a little funny.  Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of comic book or superhero movies.  I understand I’m in the minority here as they are extremely popular and make billions of dollars.  Personally speaking, I find them hard to get into, and I have difficulty suspending my disbelief in certain cases.

So, what is different about “Joker?”  Well, it does not play like a comic book movie.  Instead, it plays more like a character study and drama as we learn how the Joker became the Joker, and it does so in a way which is unnerving, challenging and brutally blunt.  That is how I like my movies.

Joaquin Phoenix should win an Oscar for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, and he might be well on his way after winning a Golden Globe.  He lost a lot of weight for this performance, but it’s more than just the physical transformation.  It’s also the looks he gives and the emotional power he brings to the role.  Now a lot of controversy surrounded this film when it was released as people were worried the tone and nature was going to inspire other people to behave in a similar fashion as the Joker.  One interviewer even asked Joaquin Phoenix a question about the film potentially inspiring mass shooters.

Now I understand we live in sensitive times, and I am very aware and respectful of other people’s feelings.  A lot of bad things have happened over the past two decades, and we can’t ignore any of that.  However, when it comes to blaming video games, television or pop culture for these things, I find it is a rather far-reaching theory.  Film can be used in certain instances as a way to entertain, educate and inform us.  “Joker” is merely commenting on what is happening in the world today, and this is even though it is set in 1981.  You can’t help but see the parallels between what is happening in the film and what is happening in the world right now.  After all this time, there is still a marked division between the haves and have-nots.

Arthur is down on his luck in life even though he is trying his best to put on a happy face.  He lives with his sick mother (Frances Conroy), who is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).  She used to work for him and keeps writing him letters, hoping he will respond and help them out.  When Arthur is out on the streets twirling signs as a clown, he gets beat up by a group of young punks, and it appears no one has much sympathy for what he endured.

He can’t catch a break with his therapy sessions either as he feels as though his therapist is not really listening to what he has to say. People also judge or feel uncomfortable around him because he has a condition where he has uncontrollable laughter, sometimes in inappropriate moments.   He’s on a number of medications (seven in fact), but none of them seem to be making him very happy.

Every night, he watches the Murray Franklin Show with his mother. Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, the wisecracking late-night talk-show host. Arthur hopes to one day be on the show as a famous stand-up comedian.  It is his dream. The film does a great job of showing how someone on that many medications can have severe side effects and difficulty figuring out what is reality and what is fiction.  I enjoyed the fact the film did not spoon-feed everything to the audience.  In many cases, you are not sure what is really happening or what is in Arthur’s head. The film tackles how difficult it is to get the proper funding for mental health treatment.  It is about someone who has been completely ignored and rejected by society.

Arthur is doing his best to put on a happy face, but the world around him is getting more and more out of hand each and every day.  Whenever he turns on the news, there is another gruesome or horrible story.  It makes him wonder what his purpose in life is and what is going to become of him.  How will he survive in this world?  He’s doing everything he believes to be right and fair, but the world is spitting him up and chewing him out.

This is when the real Joker is revealed after Arthur’s had enough and can’t take it anymore.  It’s up to the audience to decide what it all means and what’s the truth of the matter. Even Thomas Wayne can be looked at as a Trump-like figure if you want to go there.  I picked up on certain things I felt director Todd Phillips was sprinkling in throughout the movie, but I don’t know his true intentions.

“Joker” is the best film of 2019 much to my surprise.  It is supremely well made, intense, and it left me wanting more.  The film does leave the audience with more questions than answers, but this is a good thing.  We don’t need everything tied up together at the end of the film.  This is not that type of movie.  A lot of critics have compared it to 1970’s cinema and also “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.” It is the kind of film which is most definitely worth watching again and again because there is a lot to digest and unravel.  The musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which also won at the Golden Globes, really sets the dark tone and mood of “Joker.”

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Arthur Fleck/Joker.  Without him, this film does not work.  I have not seen a performance which stayed with me like this in a long time.  At times, he’s sympathetic, and you feel empathy for him.  At other times, you are disgusted by his actions and his behavior.  This is not a one-dimensional character.  This film took a lot of balls to make, and it also took a lot of balls on the part of Phoenix to make the choices he made in this film.  “Joker” is a masterpiece of cinema, and it is easy to see why it is the first R-rated film to make one billion dollars at the box office.

* * * * out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “Joker” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 122 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. It comes with the Blu-ray, DVD and a digital code as well.

Video Info: “Joker” is released on 1080p High-Definition on an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  The film looks absolutely perfect on Blu-ray.  It has an old-school look to it while also looking crystal clear at the same time, which is exactly what the film needed to look like.

Audio Info: The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is superb.  Once again, the score by Guðnadóttir is hauntingly eerie, and spot-on for the film.

Special Features:

Joker: Vision & Fury

Becoming Joker

Please Welcome… Joker!

Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos

Should You Buy It?

In the end, what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix pulled off in “Joker” is simply stunning and mesmerizing.  This is not hyperbole here.  This film and everyone who participated in it deserves all of the praise they have received.  It is also great to see appearances by Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry and Bryan Callen sprinkled into the film along with a very stellar supporting performance by Robert De Niro.  It would have been nice to see more of Zazie Beetz in the film, but she does a lot with her limited screen time. She’s a pivotal part of the movie, especially the more you think about it.

A lot of people can probably relate to how Arthur feels and everything he is going through in life.  Of course, you don’t agree with his actions in the film, but you can understand it in the context of the film and this character’s state of mind.  That is the important thing to remember here—this is a film.  No one should ever go out and do any of this. I have to make that crystal clear.

You should buy this film as soon as you can! This is the kind of film you want to add to your collection because it is only going to get better with age.  It is an adult drama/character piece which is perfectly done.   The special features are a little light in terms of length, but maybe that was done on purpose.  The filmmakers don’t want to show all of their cards.  This film comes highly recommended from yours truly. It blew me away in the cinema, and I had the same reaction watching it at home.

Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

'Away We Go' – Sam Mendes At His Most Laid Back

In 2008, director Sam Mendes gave us the marriage from hell with one of the year’s best movies, “Revolutionary Road.” We saw those two “Titanic” stars go at it like they were reincarnations of the characters from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and the movie proved to be a horror show more than anything else as we saw this doomed couple descend into the hell which is marriage in dull suburbia. Then in 2009, Mendes gave us a movie which is more or less its polar opposite, “Away We Go.” It’s a sweet if flawed comedy-drama that focuses on a couple who manage to stick it out together as they travel from one city to another in an effort to find a place they can call home. You could almost say this is Mendes’ apology for the horrifying experience which was “Revolutionary Road,” but that movie was so damn good, why should he have to apologize for it? At least with this one, he observes a loving couple who are not out to scream at one another.

“Away We Go” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a couple who suddenly find themselves expecting their first child (the moment Burt finds out is classic). They share their great news with Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander (the always fantastic Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), whom they see as their chief support system through the pregnancy. However, Jerry and Gloria end up laying a bombshell on the expecting couple by announcing they will be moving to Belgium for two years, and they will be leaving before their grandchild comes into the world. The only reason they have stayed in their present location was to be close to Burt’s parents (Verona’s are both dead), and so they both decide to go on a vacation to find a new home with people they know who they can form a strong family unit with.

With “Away We Go,” Mendes gives us a road movie with two characters traveling from Arizona to Montreal to find a home they can call their own. Signs keep popping up like “AWAY TO TUSCON” or “AWAY TO MIAMI” as Burt and Verona continue their travels, hoping to find the support system they need. Things get off to a shaky start when they first go to Phoenix and meet up with Verona’s old boss, Lily (Allison Janney), and her alienated family. This moment plays more like a sitcom and features situations I have seen many times before, and it made me feel like the rest of the movie would be even worse. Janney is a hoot, but she plays the scene too broadly and it never feels real enough. Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, who plays Lily’s emotionally repressed husband Lowell, fares better as he doesn’t overplay his hand. There is one moment where he goes over all the bad things which could be happening to him, and he keeps talking long after everyone wants him to shut up. It is a darkly hilarious moment.

Things, however do improve from there. The setup is familiar, but Mendes and his actors give this endeavor a lot of heart which really won me over. Rudolph has a wonderful moment where she meets up with her sister Grace, (Carmen Ejogo) and they are hanging out in a bath tub and talking about the past neither of them feels ready to revisit because it’s too painful. Their dialogue is really good, but it is their faces which do most of the acting as their eyes serve as windows to their mournful souls.

Maggie Gyllenhaal also makes an appearance here as LN, a cousin of sorts to Burt. Along with her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), they live an insanely subdued life of peace and tranquility which is really more of a hilariously terrifying example of repression. Krasinski steals a scene as he rebels against LN’s way of living by giving her son the one pleasure no child should ever be denied – a ride in a stroller. Gyllenhaal is a kick to watch here as she gives this movie one of its most memorable moments.

The people Verona and Burt meet from there vary in degrees of happiness and sadness, and it wreaks havoc on them as it would any expectant parent. Like many, they are presented with scary examples of what could end up happening to them. Some of the couples seem very happy at first, but it serves to mask a deep hurt they are trying to keep under wraps. I think this will be a good movie for expectant parents and/or young couples to check out as they will probably relate very easily to what these two end up enduring in their travels.

The screenplay by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida does not travel into original territory. There are several clichés to be found as we travel with this loving and petrified couple from place to place. Their dialogue, however, does manage to lift the movie above the routine, and it delves deeply to give us characters with many different dimensions, and this includes the ones with the shortest screen time. They even manage to surprise us with revelations I did not see coming even if I sensed trouble was just around the corner. Some of the speeches do have an original feel to them, and they are delivered by a well-chosen cast who are fearless in digging to the root of the movie’s most emotional moments.

Krasinski is perfectly cast here, and he is almost completely unrecognizable with all that darn facial hair. As Burt, he gives us a character so lovably goofy, and he also shows a vulnerable side as many of the things scaring him about becoming a parent comes right up to the surface. Burt could have easily been turned into a stereotypical in another film, but Krasinski turns him into a well-rounded individual from start to finish.

But the real revelation of “Away We Go” is Maya Rudolph. She is one of my all-time favorite “Saturday Night Live” performers, and she showed quite a range from playing characters like Megan (the future Mrs. Randy Goldman as she called herself) to her hilarious impersonations of Donatella Versace and Beyoncé Knowles. With this movie, she reminds us of how she is also a very accomplished actress in case we foolishly did not realize this previously. Even when she is not talking, a movement of her face communicates how she feels, and it speaks volumes of what Verona has been through, and of the family she lost and still misses.

Mendes’ career as a filmmaker from “American Beauty” to “1917” shows a brilliant artist who is super focused on every element involved in creating a movie. It is not just about the acting or the screenplay, but he pays just as much attention to the set design, the cinematography, and the film score to create motion pictures which stand above so many others. With “Away We Go,” he seems to have changed his pattern of directing here, and it looks like it has freed him up to make a fly-by-the-pants movie where he does not have to focus on each element as he had before. As a result, this is probably his weakest film to date as there were certain elements which could have been improved on. Regardless, he has not lost an inch of his talent, and even with the least of his movies he gives us memorable characters and settings which stay with you long after the picture fades to black.

“Away We Go” plays better on the small screen due to its rather intimate nature, but if you are looking for a nice romantic movie, this is certainly one to check out. It starts off imperfectly, but it gets better and better as it goes on.

* * * out of * * * *

'Silver Bullet' Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

The work of Stephen King has usually produced highly entertaining and enjoyable films.  Not everything has been great or even good, but for the most part, there is usually something to take away from them which is unique and falls right in line within the realm of King’s wonderful and twisted brain.  That is definitely the case with “Silver Bullet,” which is based on his novella “Cycle of the Werewolf.” King also wrote the screenplay as well, so he was very hands-on with his approach to this film and in making sure his vision was seen clearly on screen.  The fine folks over at Scream Factory have brought it back into the public eye with this special collector’s edition on Blu-ray.

The film was released in 1985, the year I was born, and it stars Corey Haim as Marty, a 13-year-old boy who is stuck in a wheelchair.  Because of this, he tends to get special treatment from his family.  This does not endear him to his sister Jane, played by Megan Follows.   She feels as though her parents are always taking his side and that he can get away with anything and everything.   He is also very popular with his Uncle Red, played by Gary Busey.  Red is coming off his third divorce, and he is not shy about hitting the sauce as often as possible.

Deep down, however, Uncle Red has a lot of love and affection for Marty, and this leads him to build Marty a special wheelchair he names Silver Bullet which allows him to get around and have a little more fun.  But suddenly, this quiet and quant town where they live gets turned upside down when they start to notice people are being killed off left and right.  First, there was the local town drunk. And then a young child, an angry father and a pregnant woman also end up dead in a matter of days. The people of this small-town start to get restless and they want answers right away, but the local sheriff Joe Haller (Terry O’Quinn) is not able to provide them.  Because of this, they decide to go out looking for some private justice of their own.  Even the local Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) doesn’t know what to say to the people anymore about the deaths which are occurring, and it is about to get worse before it can possibly get better.

Corey Haim, Gary Busey and Megan Follows.

“Silver Bullet” is only 94 minutes, but a lot happens in those 94 minutes.  There is never really a dull moment or a scene which doesn’t make sense to the overall film.  At times, the category it falls under can be a little confusing.  Is it a straight up werewolf movie?  Is it a horror movie about a werewolf for young children to watch? At times, the film goes full throttle with the gore which set up some gruesome and enjoyable death scenes.  During other scenes, it cuts away from the gorier aspects of the killings.  It seems to want to have its cake and eat it too.

What I mean by that is it wants to be accessible for young children as a horror movie they can watch, but it doesn’t want to go too far.  Tonally, it seems to be trying to please young children and horror fans, and this is not an easy task to pull off.  There is a brother/sister relationship which is something a lot of kids can relate to, and the kids are trying to get the adults to see there is a werewolf out there.  On the other hand, they deal with topics such as divorce, suicide, and alcoholism. While the film worked for me, I could see it having a tough time finding an audience back when it was released.

According to IMDB, the budget was seven million dollars, and it grossed 12 million worldwide.  It was not a total bust, but it didn’t set the world on fire either.  That is why Scream Factory is perfect for films like “Silver Bullet.”  I had never seen it in the past, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The film has a good sense of humor, great performances from Haim, Follows and Busey, and it contains some pretty cool kills.  I think it will find a whole new audience on with this collector’s edition Blu-ray.

* * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Silver Bullet” is released on Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray from Shout Factory/Scream Factory. It has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated R.

Video Info: “Silver Bullet” is presented in 1080p High-Definition Widescreen (2.35:1), and it looks out of this world on Blu-ray for being thirty-four years old.  At this point, we should expect no less from Scream Factory.  They do not disappoint with their transfers, and there is not a single shot in the film which is grainy or dirty.  It is clear, bright and filled with life.

Audio Info:  The English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono is also top-notch.  It must be mentioned that the music was composed by Jay Chattaway who will forever hold a place in my heart for his work on the “Maniac Cop” Rap.  He does a great job with the music in knowing when to keep it calm and mellow and when to take it up a notch.

Special Features:

NEW Audio Commentary with Producer Martha De Laurentiis

NEW Cutting to The Bone – An Interview with Editor Daniel Loewenthal

NEW A Little Private Justice – An Interview with Actor Kent Broadhurst

The Wolf Within – An Interview with Actor Everett McGill

Full Moon Fever – The Effects of Silver Bullet – An Interview with Special Effects Artists Matthew Mungle And Michael McCracken

Audio Commentary with Director Daniel Attias

Isolated Score Selections and Audio Interview with Composer Jay Chattaway

Theatrical Trailer

TV Spot

Radio Spot

Still Gallery

Should You Buy It?

I love what Scream Factory is doing for the horror genre and how they are bringing new life to films which have long been forgotten unless you are a super hardcore horror fan.  I like to consider myself very knowledgeable when it comes to the genre, but they always find a movie here and there which I haven’t heard of before, or have heard of but never seen in the past.  With “Silver Bullet,” they add plenty of special features that are worth watching and which add a lot to the film.  Scream Factory has become like the Criterion Collection for horror fans.  As far as the film itself, it is a nice 94-minute ride that is paced perfectly.  It is one of those films where you sit back, relax, laugh, scream and just enjoy yourself from start to finish.  I recommend you pick this one up if you get any Amazon gift cards over the holiday season.  You will be pleasantly surprised by it, despite some of the flaws I mentioned in my review.  Still, those flaws do add to the charm of the film.

'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' – Imperfect But Still Satisfying

My journey with “Star Wars” began back in 1980 when my parents took me to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” I had no idea what to expect, and what I saw scared the crap out of me. When that wampa monster attacked Luke Skywalker, I recoiled in shock as that thing came out of nowhere. For the rest of the film, I kept my hands close to my ears as things like those Tie Fighters became unbearably loud. But despite my initial reaction, it was safe to say this particular motion picture did have a profound effect on me. And after watching “A New Hope” a year or two later, I found myself completely hooked on this universe George Lucas created and have never lost my excitement for it.

Now comes “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the last film in this latest trilogy which has J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair. This is said to be the end of the Skywalker saga, and this may indeed be the last “Star Wars” trilogy ever as Lucasfilm looks to create more stand-alone movies in the future. As a result, Abrams must have had a motherload of stress making this one as has so many people to satisfy and over 40 years of characters and situations to wrap up in a nice bow.

Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” is far from perfect. The screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio (“Argo”) has too much going on, and the story is hard to follow at times. Even with a running time of 142 minutes, things feel a bit rushed as the filmmakers looked to be working furiously to get from one storyline to the next as there are many characters to deal with in one way or another. And while it has many visual splendors, this episode feels like it is lacking somewhat in the imagination department.

And yet, as “The Rise of Skywalker” went on, I found myself completely caught up in the many adventures these characters come to have. As with any epic space opera, there are challenges to be faced, sacrifices to be made, and perhaps even a chance at redemption. By the end of this ninth episode, I honestly found myself choked up as I reveled in the victories and the sorrows everyone faces here. Even with all its weaknesses, this is indeed a “Star Wars” movie. For those who say it is not a true “Star Wars” movie, please shut up. You all gave Rian Johnson way too much flack for thwarting your expectations with “The Last Jedi,” and that episode deserves more respect than we initially gave it.

Obviously, giving you a spoiler-ridden review is not in the cards here as, like everyone else, I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE SPOIL MOVIES. What I can tell you is the opening crawl practically shouts the following phrase at us: “The dead speak!” It should be no surprise by now that Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) shows up alive though physically impaired to the astonishment of many including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who still looks to continue the legacy of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is taking Jedi lessons from General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), eager to become one like Luke Skywalker before her. As for Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca, they fly off into the galaxy to seek out… Well, you’ll figure it out.

As a whole, the “Star Wars” movies have rarely, if ever, been perfect. The only one which can be said to be so is “The Empire Strikes Back” which remains the best of the bunch to this day. But even the least of these movies, their strengths more than make up for their weaknesses. One of the biggest strengths of “The Rise of Skywalker” is the investment it has in the characters. We have followed them through their intergalactic highs and lows, and seeing them take part in one last battle proves to be highly involving even when the story threatens to be a bit too convoluted.

I adore Daisy Ridley’s work as Rey, a scavenger who struggles to find an identity in the midst of intergalactic chaos. Her intensity remains strong and never wanes here, and it is almost exhausting watching her here. She is again equally matched by Adam Driver who is a pretty intense actor himself, and their scenes together prove to be among the highlights here as their characters come to admire and despise one another in equal measure.

I also love seeing Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe and Finn as they both prove to be pair of dudes with plenty of natural charisma to spare. Even if they spend a bit too much time bickering with one another, they still prove to be quite a pair.

Seeing Carrie Fisher here proves to be bittersweet as her character of Princess/General Leia was supposed to be a big part of this installment. Alas, she died before “The Last Jedi” was released, but Abrams ends up making ingenious use of cut footage from the previous films to make her a significant part of the story here. She certainly deserved a better exit than what she got previously, and it is great to see her this one last time.

And yes, it is a blast to have Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian. Even after all these years, he remains as cool as ever, with or without a Colt 45 in his hand.

As “The Rise of Skywalker” reaches its thunderous conclusion, I found myself of two minds. Yes, this story does feature a number of familiar beats which makes things seem a bit predictable. At the same time, however, I was still very wrapped in the fates of these characters to where I found myself deeply caught up in their predicaments. By the end, I found myself on the verge of tears as I found myself joyously reveling in their triumphs and reunions, and few movie cane make me feel these emotions nowadays.

The other thing which occurred to me is how the “Star Wars” movies always seem to come out when we need them the most. The odds are always against our heroes as evil never dies and always seems to exist in larger numbers, and maintaining a sense of hope can be quite a struggle. In the world we live in right now, hope feels in very short supply as the corrupt seem to have far too much control over everything, and the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else. History repeats itself, and this has certainly been the case in these three recent “Star Wars” movies as the First Order is simply another version of the Empire. And yet these characters continue to persevere despite everything in their way, and seeing this filled my soul up in a way not easily filled. We need to keep the fight going in our lives because giving up is not an option, and we are reminded of this here.

It will be interesting to see how people will view these movies in ten years from now. Perhaps they will receive a much-needed critical evaluation. Regardless of how you feel about “The Force Awakens, “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” they are indeed “Star Wars” movies which demand your attention, and it has been a lot of fun revisiting this galaxy once again. I will miss these characters very much. This last chapter may be imperfect, but I still found it to be very satisfying.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘It Chapter Two’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

It-chapter-Two-2-600x765

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

It Chapter 2” was a film that I really thought was going to add to what the previous film had done back in 2017. I was very impressed with the chemistry of the children and especially with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.  He brought a whole new element of creepiness to the mix.  When you have a clown scaring children, it is the perfect combination for an entertaining yet disturbing horror flick.  Sadly, when they are adults, it does not have quite the same impact. The film is also held back by its nearly three-hour running time.  With some films, the running time is not always noticeable because of how it is edited. In this case, however, they could have cut close to a half-hour from the film, and it would have made a major difference.

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed in Derry, Maine for the past twenty-seven years in what appears to be a dungeon of sorts.  He has been waiting for Pennywise to return. Now, Pennywise has returned, and Mike decides to get the Losers Club back together because of the pact they made when they were children to end him once and for all, if he ever came back.  Sadly, there is little in the way of backstory when it comes to the adults in this flick.

Richie Tozier is played by Bill Hader, which on paper sounds like a perfect casting decision.  I don’t know if this was Hader doing improv during shooting or if this was in the script, but you can tell when he is about to make a joke, and the jokes are not funny and feel forced. Jessica Chastain is the star of the show as Beverly Marsh, and she brings the right amount of humanity, vulnerability, and strength to this role. James McAvoy also delivers a strong performance as Bill Denbrough. As for Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), he is no longer the overweight kid from the previous film.  He has lost a lot of weight and is still pining over Beverly all these years later, even having her signature from his yearbook in his wallet.

From a visual perspective, James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak is a great casting choice, as he looks almost exactly like the child actor he is portraying as an adult. Andy Bean rounds out the Losers Club as Stanley Uris.  The magic word in an ensemble movie is chemistry and, I am sad to say, they do not have much of it together, and this really puts a damper on the proceedings.  I remember watching the original film and its special features, and the kids really clicked on and off set. It is what made the film so powerful and enjoyable.  Here, it feels like a bunch of actors are thrown together just for the sake of ending the story.

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Another major issue with the film is how infrequently they use Pennywise.  In the first film, he is shown here and there, but the power of his presence is undeniable.  In this second chapter, he almost seems like an afterthought.  He is shown only a handful of times in the first two hours before showing up for the finale.  While some might say this was done to build things up and leave the audience wanting more, it instead focuses too much on the individual characters and their lackluster backstories.   They have not changed much in twenty-seven years, and this is not a good thing.

What is most maddening about “It Chapter 2” is how individual scenes are so powerful and impactful. This is frustrating because it makes you wish more of the film had that type of feeling to it.  Instead, the film is bogged down in going from the past to the present, and it does not have a flow to it.  There is no rhythm or consistency, and it is overstuffed.  There are things to like in “It Chapter 2,” but you have to suffer through a lot of tedious and unnecessary scenes to get to them and enjoy them.  This is one of the most frustrating films I have seen in 2019 because of how good it could have been if they had a clear vision on what they wanted to do from start to finish.

* * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “It Chapter 2” is released on a three-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 169 minutes. It is rated R for disturbing violent and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material.  One disc is the DVD, one is the Blu-Ray, and the final disc is the bonus disc with all of the special features.

Audio Info:  The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is tremendous, and it is really effective during the more anxious scenes in the movie. Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.

Video Info: The 1080p high definition transfer of the film looks outstanding.  It is dark in the right moments when the tension calls for it. When scenes are in broad daylight it is really bright and vibrant.

Special Features:

The Summer of It: Chapter One, You’ll Float Too and The Summer of It: Chapter Two, It Ends

Pennywise Lives Again

The Meeting of the Losers Club Has Officially Begun

Finding the Deadlights

Commentary by Director Andy Muschietti

 

Should You Buy It?

I am not mad at “It Chapter 2.”  I am just disappointed.  It is clear everyone involved here wanted to make a great film, but maybe they should have waited a little bit longer in terms of its release date.  I know we live in a world where people want things right now, but if they were going to finish this up properly, they should have really taken their time to get it done properly.  There is too much movie here.

There are a ton of great special features, however.  There are so many special features that they had to add an extra disc to the set which is a nice touch. I appreciate the effort they put into this Blu-ray from that aspect as well as the audio and visuals.  There are hints of greatness here, but the final product of the film left me feeling underwhelmed. There is a really good movie somewhere in here, but it gets lost in a sea of mediocrity. If you want to own both films, I would buy this one when it goes on sale.

 

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ is a Splendid Love Letter to the Power of Movies

Hugo movie poster

Maybe it was Martin Scorsese’s desire to utilize the 3D format which kept me from seeing “Hugo” on the first day of its release. 2011 saw 3D movies get a serious public beating as audiences became convinced it existed solely for Hollywood studios to jack up ticket prices. But to watch “Hugo” is to be reminded of how amazing 3D can be when using the right tools and not just throwing cheap gimmicks at the audience. But moreover, it is backed up by a great story and remarkable performances as Scorsese shares with us his love of all things cinema.

Seriously, the first five minutes of “Hugo” will blow you away as you will feel like you are traveling over the Paris of the 1930’s. It truly looks as though the snow it is literally blowing in your eyes, and it reminded me of when kids were grasping at the snowflakes coming off of the silver screen during “The Polar Express.” Scorsese was lucky enough to use the same Fusion Camera System which James Cameron used to superb effect in “Avatar.” The images stretch out from the screen, and the extra dimension gives these visuals a depth which at times feels remarkably real.

Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy living alone in a Paris railway station while maintaining the clocks and stealing whatever supplies he needs in order to survive. One major obstacle he has to deal with is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station with his vicious looking dog. Gustav shows no hesitation in picking up orphans and sending them straight to the orphanage which, in the kids’ eyes, seems like an unforgiving house of horrors.

Two people come to play an important role in Hugo’s life: the toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his spirited goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). They enter Hugo’s life as he continues to work on fixing an automaton he and his father, Mr. Cabret (Jude Law), were putting it back together in working order when Mr. Cabret was tragically killed in a museum fire. It is this same automaton which will draw these three together in ways none of them could ever have imagined.

By taking us back to a time when motion pictures were in their infancy, effects we now see as cheesy and simple to create come to feel as magical as they once did. Scorsese is brilliant in putting us into these characters’ shoes as we watch audiences react strongly to a film with a train which looks like it is coming straight at them, or at Buster Keaton hanging on for dear life from a clock outside a tall building. Looking at the awe which is so vivid in the faces of these children reminds us of how movies can magically draw us into another world, and this is a feeling many movies do not give us these days. In this day and age, we take the power of motion pictures for granted.

Butterfield’s performance is remarkable. Showing the pain and resourcefulness of a young boy who has lost his parents and is forced to fend for himself is no easy task, and he ended up giving one of 2011’s most underrated performances. Butterfield inhabits the character of Hugo so deeply to where, after a while, it does not feel like we are watching a performance at all.

Kudos also goes to Moretz, the star of “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” for adding yet another superb role to her already splendid resume. As the adventurous Isabelle, she pulls off a flawless English accent which is worth noting as we have gotten so used to actors screwing them up. The warmth of her smile onscreen is utterly genuine, and she lights up “Hugo” whenever it feels like it is getting a bit too dark.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hugo” as well. Ben Kingsley is fantastic as usual as Georges Méliès, and the late Christopher Lee has some wonderful moments as bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse. One of the big standouts in the supporting cast though is Sacha Baron Cohen who takes a break here from his “Borat” and “Bruno” mockumentaries as Inspector Gustav. He’s a hoot throughout, and his interactions with the infinitely lovely Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) who plays Lisette are hilariously sweet.

Scorsese has put together a truly beautiful motion picture which deserves a bigger audience than it received while it was in theaters. The fact that more people went to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” than this is deeply depressing. A lot of moviegoers really hated 3D movies back in 2011, so this did not do “Hugo” any favors. But after watching it, you will find yourself believing this extra dimension is worth your money when it is put together by the best masters of filmmaking.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Skeleton Twins’ Has ‘SNL’ Stars Doing Drama as Well as They Do Comedy

The Skeleton Twins movie poster

Okay, I think we are way past the point where we should not be the least bit surprised when comedic actors succeed in giving strong dramatic performances. Many are stunned when funny people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler give strong and deeply felt performances in “The Truman Show” and “Punch Drunk Love,” and it feels like these same people are saying they were fully prepared for them to really suck because they were working outside of the genre they have gained the most recognition for. After all these years, the majority of audiences still believe drama is far more challenging to pull off than comedy, but it has always been the other way around. Making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is much harder. Frankly I am far more stunned when serious dramatic actors give terrific comedic performances because lord knows they take themselves way too seriously.

I bring this up because I just saw “The Skeleton Twins” which stars two of “Saturday Night Live’s” best alumni, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why. They play twins who were as close as a brother and sister could be until events like the unexpected death of their father tore them apart. The two bring their comedic talents to this sad tale, but they also dig deep into their roles to show us sides of themselves we have not seen, or never took the time to see previously.

When the movie starts, these characters have reached an emotional bottom they cannot seem to dig themselves out of. Milo (Hader) lives in Los Angeles where he is just another out of work actor, and he is inconsolable after his latest relationship falls apart. As a result, he sinks into his bathtub and tries to commit suicide. Meanwhile in New York, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take her own life when she is interrupted by a phone call informing her Milo has beat her to it, except of course for the fact he was saved from death just in the nick of time.

Maggie visits Milo in the hospital, and it marks the first time they have talked to one another face to face in a decade. It is an awkward reunion as neither is sure what to say to the other, and one of them has to spoil the ending of “Marley & Me” in the process. The wounds from childhood are still fresh in their minds, and their mother (played by Joanna Gleason) is no help as she has since become a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize or even consider the pain her children have been enduring. But soon Milo and Maggie realize in order to fix their lives and let go of the past, they need to repair their relationship with one another first.

Now regardless of the above description, “The Skeleton Twins” is indeed a comedy, or perhaps a dramedy is a better way to describe it. In a lot of ways, it has to be a comedy because Milo and Maggie need to laugh about something or else everything will become far too painful to bear. But even though they look to be on the road to recovery, Milo and Maggie still have some severe road bumps to travel over which will test them and their broken faith in one another.

We learn Milo’s first love was his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), and it should go without saying it was a forbidden love which should never have taken place. Nevertheless, Milo still has deep feelings for Rich and has never gotten past what they shared. He tries to reconnect with Rich by pretending to be a successful actor, but Rich initially resents Milo’s reappearance in his life as he now lives with his girlfriend and son. But this does not deter Milo as he continues to pursue Rich for a relationship which is not the least bit realistic for either of them.

As for Maggie, she at first appears to be happily married to a Lance (Luke Wilson), and they tell everyone they are more than ready to start a family. Maggie, however, is secretly taking birth control pills behind Lance’s back and has developed a crush on her flirtatious scuba diving instructor, Billy (Boyd Holbrook), who is quite the Australian hunk (is there any other kind?). As well intentioned as she and Milo are, both are indulging in self-destructive behavior and do not fully realize the consequences of what they are doing until the damage has already been done.

Like other movies I really admire, the characters in “The Skeleton Twins” are refreshingly down to earth and relatable to where they are not much different from those we know in our own lives. Regardless of whether or not we ever had an affair with our high school English teacher or our scuba diving instructor, we have all been at that point where we feel infinitely lost to where we are unsure of how to make our lives better. Furthermore, none of these characters are painted in broad strokes. They all have various layers to their personalities, and there are no clear cut good or bad guys to be found here.

Wiig has long since proven to be a wonderful actress in “Bridesmaids” and “All Good Things,” and her work in “The Skeleton Twins” is the latest example. As Maggie, she uses her brilliant comedic skills to great effect, but she also inhabits her character more than she plays her to where we get caught up in the infinite sadness Maggie is trying to outrun on a daily basis. This is especially the case when Maggie is forced to face up to what she has done wrong, and this not easy for anyone.

But the most revelatory performance in “The Skeleton Twins” comes from Hader as Milo. Honestly, I am not surprised he is as good as he is here, but it feels like this is the first time we have seen him in this kind of role. Milo is gay, and this may lead some to believe Hader is simply resurrecting his Stefon character from “SNL” to where we will watch him go to Trash, the meatpacking hot spot where you can meet the Muslim Elvis impersonator Pierre, but he is a lot smarter than that. Hader gives a very nuanced performance throughout, and his story about peaking in high school really choked me up. No one wants to believe high school is the best time in their lives, but it may be the place where you end up doing your most memorable work.

And just as they proved over the years on “SNL,” Wiig and Hader are quite the team when you put them together. They play off each other brilliantly during the scene in the dentist’s office where they discover the benefits of nitrous oxide which allows their characters to open up in a way they haven’t in years. But that almost doesn’t compare to the movie’s penultimate scene where they lip sync “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship (or Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane or whatever the hell you want to call that band) which proves to be hilariously moving. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but this movie has me seeing it in a whole new light.

While I am at it, I do have to give credit to the supporting actors who take roles which could have been stock characters and render them as truly memorable. Luke Wilson is a delight throughout as Lance, the endlessly cheerful husband. Lance could have been completely indifferent to what his wife is going through or just a flat-out jerk, but Wilson humanizes this character to where we see he is truly a good-hearted man who wants to be there for his wife even when he does not know how to help her. Special mention also goes out to Ty Burrell who plays a character who, in real life, we would despise with an intense passion, and he makes Rich an empathetic character who is in his own way just as lost and self-destructive as Milo and Maggie are.

“The Skeleton Twins” does end on a rather abrupt note and leaves a couple of plot threads dangling in an unsatisfying manner. Regardless, it is one of those movies which had quite the emotional impact on me. It always feels like a gift when you watch a movie with characters you can relate to, and director Craig Johnson has given us just that.

Seriously, there can be no more talk of how amazing it is when comedy actors can do drama. Of course they can, and this should go without saying. Do not tell Hader and Wiig to stick with comedy because this movie shows they can do anything and everything at this point. No pun intended, but nothing is going to stop them now.

* * * ½ out of * * * *