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 Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ Unveils its First Trailer

Suspiria 2018 poster

Like it or not folks, a remake of “Suspiria” is officially on its way. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film remains one of the most unforgettable ever made as the Italian filmmaker turned the act of murder into a work of art, and he gave us visual set pieces which were things of incredible beauty. Surely no director, however talented, could top what Argento gave us 40 years ago, could they? Well, with the now-released teaser trailer for the remake of “Suspiria,” it turns out the filmmakers are not even attempting to try.

According to its director Luca Guadagnino, who last year scored a critical triumph with “Call Me by Your Name,” this “Suspiria” is meant to be an “homage” to Argento’s film and reflect the “powerful emotion” he felt upon first seeing it. But what is especially striking about this teaser trailer is how muted its color palette proves to be. Guadagnino has described his film’s look as being “winter-ish, evil, and really dark,” and this certainly comes across here. As before, the story is set a renowned dance academy in Europe where Suzie Bannion, now played by Dakota Johnson, enrolls at to study dancing. But considering how bleak the setting is here, it makes me wonder if the students, once they arrived there, said out loud, “This looks nothing like what I saw in the brochure!”

I don’t mean to make this sound like a criticism as the lack of primary colors shows, among other things, how Guadagnino is attempting to make this material all his own. What especially pleases me is how this trailer makes his take on “Suspiria” look like much more than the average horror film, something I always feared a remake like this would end up being. With its scattering of images featuring Johnson, the infinitely cool Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf and, if you closely enough, original “Suspiria” star Jessica Harper, this does look to be an unnerving motion picture which deals more with the horrors of real life than in the realm of fantasy.

In addition, I enjoyed the Kubrick-like stares Swinton and others exhibit throughout as, like the ones in “Full Metal Jacket,” they appear to go on for a thousand yards. It also looks like a scythe will be the weapon of choice instead of a shiny razor this time around, and we do get an image of a female student levitating in her room, something I don’t remember seeing in the 1977 original.

Whether or not this “Suspiria” equals the original or comes close to doing so, I admire how Guadagnino has given us something which looks strikingly different to where it appears more like a trailer for the next Lars Von Trier cinematic opus. Then again, the trailer for “The House That Jack Built” had far more color in it.

“Suspiria” is set to arrive in theaters on November 2, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

Kimberly Pierce’s ‘Carrie’ Not Really Necessary, But Better than Expected

Carrie 2013 poster

“Carrie” was the first Stephen King novel ever published, and it’s the one people keep coming back to. Filmmakers had the hardest time, until recently that is, getting “The Dark Tower” made into a movie, and bringing “It” to the silver screen seemed to be an impossible challenge. This serves as a reminder of how development hell is still alive and well in Hollywood. “Carrie,” however, has been adapted into the horror classic Brian De Palma directed in 1976, turned into a musical that became famous for how long it didn’t run on Broadway, generated a sequel called “The Rage: Carrie 2” which disappeared from theaters not long after its release, and was later remade into a TV movie where the only saving graces were Angela Bettis as Carrie White and Patricia Clarkson as Margaret White. Now we have yet another remake of “Carrie” which would have been totally unnecessary were it not for Kimberly Peirce, the same filmmaker who gave us the brilliant and emotionally devastating “Boys Don’t Cry” which dealt with a human being cruelly cast out of regular society. As a result, this remake suddenly felt a lot more promising than I expected it to be.

Why do people keep coming back to this particular King novel? Well, with its themes of bullying, isolation and the pain of adolescence, “Carrie” proves to be as timely now as it was when the novel came out in the 1970’s. The story remains the same, but the tools of humiliation and anger have been slightly updated. Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) still has her first period, but this time it is captured on an iPhone and posted on the internet with gleeful malice and a complete lack of sympathy. Granted, Carrie probably doesn’t have a Facebook page as her mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) has spent a lot of time homeschooling her daughter before being forced to send her to a public high school, and she remains as strictly religious as ever; locking her poor daughter into a closet to pray to a bleeding Jesus on a cross.

The main fault with this version of “Carrie” is it follows De Palma’s film a little too closely. For those who have seen the 1976 movie, not much has changed, so this may not seem as scary as before. At the same time, I found myself admiring what Peirce was able to convey with the characters, particularly the females. While certain characters end up coming off as a bit too generic, we get to see the different dimensions which make them more human than the average character we constantly get exposed to in horror movies.

Moretz successfully makes the character of Carrie White her own, and you never feel the shadow of Sissy Spacek’s performance hovering over her. She is able to bring more of Carrie’s rage we saw in King’s book, and we see her as a powder keg just waiting to explode. We all know her as Hit Girl from the “Kick Ass” movies, and it’s only a matter of time before she starts kicking some serious ass at the prom. Even though Moretz doesn’t quite match the description King made of Carrie in the book (she’s one of those actresses you can’t make look ugly), it’s clear from her performance how deeply she understands this horribly shy and alienated teenager inside and out. While this Carrie isn’t ugly by a long shot, she is made to feel ugly by everyone around her, and you can see this weighing heavily on her psyche.

Julianne Moore continues to put in one great performance after another, and her work here as Margaret White is very effective. Whereas Piper Laurie played Margaret as a deranged religious zealot whose devotion to Jesus was unwavering, Moore instead makes the character surprisingly empathetic. Margaret is still deranged, but Moore shows her to be a loving mother who does care ever so deeply about her daughter even if her love comes with a lot of mental anguish. Moore even shows Margaret engaging in self-mutilation which is painful to watch and adds another layer to this character which wasn’t in the book.

Actually, for me one of the most fascinating characters in “Carrie” is Chris Hargensen who is played here by Portia Doubleday. Chris hates Carrie with a passion and looks forward to humiliating her with a vengeance on prom night, but I found myself really getting caught up in how the character goes from being just another spoiled girl to someone who slowly gravitates towards the dark side. Chis initially shows some hesitation when her never do well boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell) kills the pig whose blood they will use to dump on Carrie, but once she starts cutting the dead pig’s throat, I found the look on her face to be one of the movie’s most horrifying moments. As she gets deeper into criminal activity, we see Chris starting to get both aroused and scared by it, and she doesn’t realize until it’s too late that there’s no turning back.

I was also glad to see Judy Greer playing PE teacher Miss Desjardin, and the role allows her to balance out her sweet side with a rougher exterior as she gets constantly exasperated by her students who show little signs of being the least bit sympathetic towards Carrie. I also have to give Ansel Elgort some credit as he makes Tommy Ross’ transition from not wanting to take Carrie to the prom to making sure the two of them have the best time possible very convincing. Then there’s the lovely Gabriella Wilde who plays Sue Snell, the popular girl who encourages Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. She’s very good in the role and shows us the inner turmoil going on as she sees her goodwill get dumped on, literally.

Look, there’s no way that Peirce could have topped De Palma’s “Carrie.” Having read the book, it would have been interesting to see it done as kind of a documentary as the book is told from various points of view where the townspeople share their memories of what happened on the night of the prom. Still, it’s Peirce’s approach to the characters which made her version of “Carrie” worth watching for me.

Was a remake of “Carrie” really necessary? Not really, but it happened anyway and not for the first time. Having Peirce behind the camera for this one gives this remake a reason for being, and she is blessed with a cast who did not let their memories of De Palma’s horror classic get in their way. If anyone else had directed this version, I’m not sure I would have bothered watching it. Peirce remains a filmmaker who understands how cruelly we can alienate someone for being different, but she never gets caught up in making this into a message movie. She is determined to have us rooting for Carrie even as she lays waste to a town and its inhabitants who have been relentlessly cruel to her. That’s why we go to the movies anyway, to engage in our fantasies.

Now let’s think about adapting some Stephen King novels which haven’t already been made into movies or miniseries. There are so many to choose from.

* * * out of * * * *

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer and Kimberly Pierce on “Carrie” for the website We Got This Covered.

The 5th Wave

the-5th-wave-poster

The 5th Wave” comes to us not long after the conclusion of “The Hungers Games,” and it is the latest in a seemingly endless line of young adult book to film adaptations. As a result, I came into this movie feeling worn out even before it started. While the novel it is based on, written by Rick Yancey, might be an interesting read, what unfolds onscreen feels like the same old thing. Only the names and places have been changed to protect the filmmakers from potential lawsuits.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie Sullivan, a young teenager (is there any other kind?) who lives a normal life with her family, attends high school where she’s a cheerleader and constantly deals with unrequited love like any other child held prisoner by adolescence. But suddenly an alien ship, which looks like something out of “District 9,” appears in the sky, and the Earth goes through four waves which leave it decimated and on the verge of extinction. All Cassie has left is her brother whom she ends up getting separated from, and from there she is determined to save him from a fate many others have suffered.

This movie does not get off to a good start as the visual effects used to convey the various waves are shoddy CGI, and some scenes end up looking like outtakes from “Independence Day” or any other Roland Emmerich production. When the plot finally gains momentum, Cassie finds herself on the run and forced to defend herself in ways she never planned. She’s also looking for her brother whom she is very close to. Doesn’t this sound like something we just saw?

It’s a shame because the movie does have Moretz who makes this mess more bearable than it should be. Her breakthrough performance in “Kick-Ass” was no fluke and she continues to do strong work in each film she appears in, regardless of whether they are good or bad. She makes Cassie a strong heroine and one whom kids around the same age will easily relate to as she fends for herself in the dangerous world everyone has been thrust into, and Moretz makes you root for her throughout. But even she can’t save this routine young adult movie which has come out way too late.

Actually, what’s especially interesting about “The 5th Wave” is how the female characters are far more interesting than the male ones. It also helps they have such terrific actresses inhabiting those characters, and each of them clearly relishes the opportunity to bring them to life. Maria Bello, sporting a very funky hairdo, makes Sergeant Reznik a slyly manipulative soldier as she forces the children to see the alien threat her way to where getting them to fight for the human race is easy as cake. Maika Monroe, so good in “The Guest” and “It Follows,” makes her character of Ringer a wonderfully tough warrior, and she also skillfully unveils the other layers of Ringer to show us a person who is deeply broken. Along with Moretz, they keep “The 5th Wave” from becoming a complete bore.

The male actors, however, don’t have much to work with and their performances suffer as a result. Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, the high school football hero who, when he is forced to enlist in the military, is nicknamed Zombie. Zombie proves to be an appropriate name as Robinson has little choice but to give a one-note performance as much of the emotion Ben has experienced in life has long since been drained from his psyche. Then there’s Alex Roe who plays Evan Walker, a man who may not be all that he appears to be. It seems like the screenwriters had some trouble in trying to figure out what to do with this character, and that leaves Roe with little choice but to make Evan far more enigmatic than the character has any right to be.

And let’s not leave out the great Liev Schreiber, wonderfully understated in “Spotlight,” as the movie’s main antagonist Colonel Vosch. It’s no surprise Schreiber can give us such a menacing villain, but there really isn’t much of a character for him to play here. Vosch is merely here as an obstacle for Cassie to overcome, and as a result the actor is wasted in a role which is too unworthy of his talents.

Then there is the love triangle between Moretz, Robinson, and Roe, and after having been subjected to a very similar one between Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in “The Hunger Games,” I could have cared less about it. I imagine it will give audiences much to swoon over, but it’s a romance that is bland as the male characters in this movie.

“The 5th Wave” was directed by J Blakeson who previously gave us “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” a neo-noir thriller about the kidnapping of a woman by two ex-convicts. His direction on that film was much lauded by the press, and it makes me wonder just how much control he had over this project. Clearly, the studio is setting this up to be another franchise of movies for young adults to become obsessed over as a sequel to “The 5th Wave” has already been published and a third book is on the way. But it all depends of course on how this one does at the box office and considering how we are all still getting over the end of “The Hunger Games” movies, I’m not sure everybody is in a rush for yet another franchise like it.

Perhaps the target audience for “The 5th Wave” will enjoy it the most, but even they have to be outgrowing these kinds of movies at this point. Sooner or later we have to realize kids grow up and become adults, and even adults can save the world and their little brothers too.

* ½ out of * * * *