Hugo PosterRating: ★★★★★

“Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime. We need to keep them alive.” –Martin Scorsese

No director loves movies more than Martin Scorsese. Knowing that he has spent the past four decades declaring his affection for the movies, you won’t be considered foolish to presume that good ‘ol Marty has finally started to calm down. But you would presume wrong. His voice has never been louder and clearer. Founded on Scorsese’s lifelong love affair with the movies, “Hugo” is a dazzling and magical gem that embraces the very essence of film itself. You can sense an irony in how it uses the latest 3-D technology to remember the earliest existence of filmmaking, but there is a more profound explanation behind this technique:

As a majestic tribute to silent films and a landmark in 3-D filmmaking, “Hugo” acknowledges the eternal significance of the past while simultaneously providing needed hope for the future.

A great portion of Hugo is set in the Montparnasse station of 1931 France. Hidden within the station’s giant clock is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned 12-year-old with a talent for fixing things. When Hugo’s not tightening the screws and adjusting the levers of the clock, he’s sneaking his way through the crowded spaces of Montparnasse, stealing food from bakeries and fruit carts. The boy has no choice. The only thing that his father (Jude Law) left him was the broken automaton that they were determined to rebuild. Holding on to the belief that the machine contains a valuable message from his departed father, Hugo intends to finish the work that he and his dad had started.

Asa Butterfield and Chloe MoretzWith zero resources, Hugo is forced to steal machine parts from an old, cranky toymaker named George Melies, played by Ben Kingsley. His delinquencies are inevitably discovered by the old man. But that’s okay, cause this leads Hugo into forming a friendship with the affable Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), George’s goddaughter. Eventually, the two youngsters work together in an attempt to uncover the secrets of the toymaker’s past, which is unknown to few and forgotten by many. About halfway through, the movie slowly delves into its deeply emotional core. And because this journey is seen through the eyes of eager children, we feel the sense of wonder that was poured in its creation.

Audience members who are not knowledgeable with the early days of cinema will be as surprised as Hugo and Isabelle when it’s revealed that the toymaker is actually one of the first pioneers of film. “Hugo” credits the Lumiere Brothers as the inventors of motion pictures, but it knows that George Melies was the first to see its potential for greatness. As the first filmmaker to apply special effects, Melies found a way to convey our dreams to the screen. Sequences that showcased his movies moved me in a way that I did not anticipate. While seeing some of the oldest films projected on the big screen, I felt like I had just been transported back in time. I was enlightened by the experience.

Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret and Ben Kingsley as George MeliesDuring these moments, it becomes clear to us why Martin Scorsese decided to take a risk in making his first family film. Here is an artist obsessed with movie history and committed to film preservation. He must not have been able to resist the opportunity of spreading the legacy of George Melies. After witnessing the joy and innovation that went into the projects of Melies, we feel a great loss in the fact that most of his movies were lost forever. His story will encourage film organizations to increase their effort in preserving great movies. They could start with the works of Keaton, Kurosawa, Herzog, Hitchcock, Bergman, etc.

As long as people dream, there will be movies. They’ve been with us for over 120 years, and yet they remain to be the most powerful of all the art forms. They enhance our thinking. They broaden our awareness of the world around us. They can make us laugh in the loneliest of nights and they can give us hope in the most desparate of times. Surely, we need to keep them alive.

Note: And oh, I should state the fact that “Hugo” contains the best and brightest use of 3-D I’ve ever seen. In 1902, George Melies was the first to utilize magic in film. And over a century later, in 2011, Martin Scorsese becomes the first man to effectively use 3-D for a live-action movie. (Most of what we see in Avatar is computer-generated.) I am opposed to this technology, but if this is the future of 3-D, then I might one day welcome it with open arms.

George Melies (1861-1938)

George Melies (1861-1938)

50/50 (Quick Review)

50/50 PosterRating: ★★★★½

“50/50” is an optimistic movie that breathes out hope, a movie whose frail heart is comforted by its funny bone. It achieves the emotional balance that an inferior movie like “The Bucket List” failed to find. It tells the story of 27-year-old Adam Learner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a calm and quiet man who is battling a kind of cancer that’s unknown to many. He is stunned by his diagnosis, but much of the devastation comes from the fact that the deadly disease has struck him this early in his life.

I was moved by the film’s sense of hope and impressed by its treatment of the topic. “50/50” can be considered both as a Tragedy and Comedy, but it treats cancer as the killer that it is, and not as a stimulant of tears or as a punchline for jokes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads the cast with a warm and restrained performance as Adam, but the one that surprised me here was Seth Rogen.

By definition, the man cannot be classified as an “actor”; Seth Rogen always plays Seth Rogen, and none other. But his role as Adam’s best friend was a touch of destiny. After seeing the film, I learned that the screenwriter, Will Reiser, survived cancer in his 20’s alongside the support of his close friend, Seth Rogen. Not only does this piece of fact explain Rogen’s effectiveness, but it also gives us an idea where the movie got its humorous yet realistic attitude towards cancer.

There is a subtle sentiment in the silent pain that scar these characters, but what ultimately makes “50/50” the most emotionally affecting film of 2011 is its justified observation at the reality of death, which is something we will have to face sooner or later- preferably later.

Soul Surfer

Soul Surfer PosterRating: ★★★☆☆

“Soul Surfer” is a based-on-fact film about the life of Bethany Hamilton, an optimistic, blissful young girl who rode lots of waves, lost an arm, and rode lots of waves some more. Back in 2003, when she was just thirteen years old, Bethany’s left arm was bitten off by a shark. Now she is a champion surfer, renowned in her field of sport and admired by people worldwide who share similar disabilities.

What we have here is an incredible, inspirational story that’s overshadowed by lazy, uninspired moviemaking. In “Soul Surfer”, Bethany’s life has been reduced to formula, filtered through a lens of familiarization. The raw power of her story becomes covered with so much bland, Hollywood melodrama that very little of it makes is retained in the final product. Aaron Ralston should be pleased with what Danny Boyle did with his story; “127 Hours” was one of the best movies of 2010. However, if I was Bethany Hamilton, I’m not so sure if I would be pleased with what Sean McNamara did to my story.

Bethany Hamilton

There is the distraction of another surfer named Malina. She appears in the same competitions that Bethany participates in. She is that character who is selfish, and mean, and willing to play dirty if that’s what it takes to win. Malina is only here to fill the role of a villain in a movie that doesn’t need one. Is there really room for a character like her in a film dedicated to Bethany Hamilton? Another problem is the dialogue. Because the movie’s aim is to inspire, we understand it for engaging in its epiphanies and being vocal about them. The mistake is in the decision to prolong them. It extends simple insights into lecture’s length, as if we need extra space to get its point.

Behind the blatant errors of the movie lies a topic that deserves more discussion than it is generally given. Many critics were troubled, even dumbfounded, by the unmatched optimism of Bethany and her family. They found it hard to believe that a girl could lose an arm and barely develop a speck of cynicism because of her, well, faith. I failed to see the mystery in this. Maybe my advantage is that I share the same faith as Bethany. I understood her smiles, her contentment, her undying hope. Believe me; I’ve known people like us who have smiled through a lot worse things.

NIck VujicicThe Hamilton family was reported to be always present during filming. They wanted to ensure that their faith was never dismissed from the movie. Some of the producers and scriptwriters were not in favor of this, advising the family to let them tone down the religious subtext. The Hamiltons was probably told numerous times that religion doesn’t sell.  Because the studio was said to be too hesitant to mention “Jesus” in “Soul Surfer”, they just used “God” as a… compromise. It’s weird how “Jesus” can’t be used in its intended context when you see how it’s commonly uttered as a substitute for curse words in order to achieve a PG-13 Rating.

Learning about Bethany Hamilton for the first time reminded me of Nick Vujicic, a motivational speaker whom I’ve listened to several times. Nick, whose faith is also no different than mine, was born without arms and legs. His physical abilities are limited beyond our imagination, yet there are very few people I can think of right now who are happier than Nick. His hobbies include traveling, fishing, golfing and swimming. I would watch a movie about the life of Nick Vujicic. Maybe such a film could cause Bethany’s “doubters” to do some rethinking. It truly mystifies me how people could choose to see an absence of cynicism rather than the presence of joy.

Well, what do you know…

Nick Vujicic and Bethany Hamilton

Contagion (Quick Review)

Contagion PosterRating: ★★★½☆

It’s a nervous feeling, you know, to wonder what kinds of dirty little monsters crawl all over my keyboard when I’m in peaceful sleep. The scariest killers are always those whom we cannot see. “Contagion” is a frightful film because it preys on the universal fear of germs and the diseases they carry with them. It treats its topic with a level of maturity that we can apply in our own surroundings. During the screening I attended, I became more and more cautious of the coughing guy seated in the row behind me.

The epidemic crisis in “Contagion” finds a realistic tone by lining itself with other historical events. If we look back at the time where a major outbreak like The Black Plague took its toll, we’ll learn that we don’t always get the cure or vaccine as soon as we need them. Some diseases are still without a cure until today. (What would things be like if the common cold was fatal?) The movie gives a convincing depiction of how the present world would handle a similar crisis.

An element that elevates “Contagion” from other “outbreak movies” is that it fully realizes the weight of its threat. As a result, we are spared with the false need of a tangible villain in the form of organizations with nothing but money in mind. Though there is a character by Jude Law who theorizes such things, his accusations only exist to be proven wrong. Every health official in the movie does their job, and they do it well. To watch this movie is to grow a renewed sense of cleanliness. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wipe my keyboard.

Big Fish

Rating: ★★★★½

What a magical movie this is. “Big Fish” challenges our faith and imagination with tales that sound too marvelous to be true, too extraordinary to be believable.  But the strongest emotions are found between the broken relationship of a dying father and his doubtful son. After years of no communication, they are reunited when human age reaches its fragile state. The son sits on a chair as he observes his weak father, who lies in what could be his deathbed.

Old Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is a devoted storyteller who believes that true stories could use a little fiction for entertainment purposes. On the day his only son, Will, was born, he was out of town selling home appliances. Not a very exciting story for such a very momentous event. When Will is set to be married, his father shares with everyone the false account of how he caught a really big fish with his wedding ring the same day Will was born. This draws smiles from his listeners, but not from Will, who has heard the same lie repeatedly throughout his life. He walks away. And he doesn’t return until old Edward becomes confined to his bedroom.

Other than the tale about the big fish, Edward has shared more of his past experiences with Will, which he starts to recall in great detail. A series of flashbacks begin, and we are introduced to the mysterious memories of Edward, which gives an opportunity for director Tim Burton to indulge in his obsession for all things weird. Edward narrates as nostalgia kicks in, but it’s Tim Burton who supplies the imagination.

Each flashback explores a specific section of Edward’s life; they function like episodes, and every one of them has something different to say. Views of love, life and death are seen through a world full of optimism and energy. When young Edward, played by a vigorous Ewan McGregor, convinces himself that he has discovered how he dies in the future, he develops a kind of foolish valor that deserves applause only from the most committed of masochists.

He becomes a local hero in his town of Ashton. One of his many valiant services includes a moment where he charges into a burning fire without a protective suit. Edward makes the firemen look overpaid as they stand outside and watch him rescue a poor puppy. Later on, he enters a dark and dangerous forest even though a safer route is available. Because Edward has advance insight regarding his demise, he approaches life at lightning speed and with a positive soul. When he goes all in to pursue Sandra Templeton, the girl of his dreams, we can only wish that we possess the same kind of determination.

Edward’s stories are full of encouragements as much as they are full of dubious aspects. (Did he really buy a field of flowers just to impress the girl?) Yes, they are amusing, but surely, they are only fairy tales, right? We then go back to reality, and Will continues to shake his head, wondering if he’ll ever get the chance to know the truth about his father’s life. Old Edward continues to insist that his words are facts.

As the movie draws to its final minutes, we shift from Edward’s stories to Will’s thoughts. Everything that happened before was a joyful ride, but when we start to see things from Will’s perspective, “Big Fish” adapts a heavier tone that can almost be described as tragedy. Because Will has gotten used to his father’s constant retelling of the untruthful story regarding his birthday, we can’t blame him if he starts to doubt every story his tells him from that point on. I believe that the greatest lesson that one can acquire from “Big Fish” are not from the events that cause the laughs, but the tears.

In the end, fact and fiction are never fully separated. Maybe what the movie wants is to leave us within Will’s state of mind, and not inside Edward’s. Just when we are about to say goodbye, a little truth shows itself, which could be enough to slap our skepticism to shame. And then, the things that we dismiss ridiculous at first may be the same things that become the source of our comfort. Looks like that old storyteller knew what he was doing after all.

The Way Back (Quick Review)

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Siberia. Mongolia. India. What these places have in common in “The Way Back” is the footsteps of a small group of people who have a matchless desire to go home. The latest film by Peter Weir, director of “The Truman Show”, follows the extensive and exhausting journey of convicts who are imprisoned not just by guards and fences, but by lands that have been conquered by communism.

Escaping the Siberian gulag was the easy part; a 4,000-mile walk awaits them. During this journey, our eyes are treated with some magnificent imagery. The snowy mountains and scorching deserts are exhibited through great cinematography by Russell Boyd. It’s weird how these paintings of nature are also what could drive our “Walkers” to death. “The Way Back” causes mixed emotions in its irony that the things that could bring so much pleasure to our eyes are the same things that torment the film’s heroes.

At one point, with bodies thinner and teeth more rotten than the week before, the convicts run into a beautiful Polish girl. She is played by the beautiful Saoirse Ronan, a rising Irish actress who has yet to answer any of my occasional tweets. Like the brave men from the gulag, I persevere.

Everything Is Illuminated

Rating: ★★★★☆

“Everything is Illuminated” is a movie about memories and the things that certain people do with them. Some treasure each memory with zeal and optimism; others spend a lifetime filtering every dark moment with a hope of never having to suffer in remembrance of it. So many things can happen to us, both good and bad, and it’s not unusual to occasionally wish that we can control our ability to remember, and forget.

Elijah Wood stars as Jonathan, a Jewish-American who is about to travel to Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Second World War. His eyes are magnified by his thick glasses and his hair is cautiously combed, which rightfully matches his black suite. Our first impression of Jonathan is a man who is curious and disciplined. We are even hinted that he has an obsessive-compulsive nature the first time we see a wall in his home almost completely covered with plastic bags containing items that is there to simply remind him.

While Jonathan is yet to arrive, we are introduced to a Ukrainian family whose business is to help Jews find the place where their ancestors have perished. This is where the movie suddenly adapts a comedic tone. The eldest son is Alex, who is the film’s narrator. His skills in English are lacking in an appealing way. He claims to be a “premium” dancer, and is not very excited to learn that he must accompany his grandfather in “the commencement of a very rigid search.” Because Grandfather, the designated driver of the search, claims to be blind, they bring along Sammy Davis Junior Jr. He is the official “seeing eye bitch”. I kinda love these guys.

When Grandfather and Alex finally get together with young Jonathan, a humorous and moving adventure begins. Soon enough we learn of Alex’s interest in the American life as he cannot stop asking questions from Jonathan. Alex wonders about the mystery behind tips, veganism, and the salary of all kinds of… accountants. During all this, Grandfather is rather detached from all activities.

As the movie draws closer to its conclusion, we notice that it shifts from silly comedy to serious drama. This method isn’t commonly used in the movies, because it is difficult to pull of, but first-time director Liev Schreiber has somehow succeeded. Deeper emotions are revealed. Alex reveals a concern for Grandfather that has been keeping him “distressed.” It’s also surprising how Jonathan’s journey slowly becomes more of the grandfather’s. His own memories are made known unto us. There are some mistakes, but it’s the regrets that are more discomforting.

The more I watched “Everything is Illuminated”, the more I thought about the possibility that the real heroes here are Alex and his grandfather. Perhaps the primary purpose of Jonathan’s existence here is to highlight the characters of the two Ukrainians, which could actually be what the movie got right the most.

The Town

Rating: ★★★★½

A single square mile in Boston called Charlestown contains more bank robbers than any other municipality in America. And it is here where the setting of one of the best films of 2010 takes place. “The Town” is a powerful force that explores thoughts deeper than that of most films about organized thieves.

We are introduced to four criminals who are about to empty out an innocent bank. Two of them, Doug and James, are given much attention throughout the movie. The other two are, uh, well I believe there hasn’t been a successful heist before in movie history that featured less than four guys. So there you go.

Because this is just the opening scene, the cops arrive right after the crooks get away, and in movie rules, they’re just in time. But the movie is not about the cops, but the criminals. And the characters of Doug and James, superbly acted by Ben Afleck and Jeremy Renner, provide us with great material to study.

You see, in the city of Charlestown, the lifestyle of crime is passed down to the children by the families that dwell in it. In these families, if you refuse to rob a bank, then you’re a rebel. Doug is a member of such a family. He steals because his parents stole. This is the culture he grew up in, and because he is isolated in a town that shares that culture, never was he exposed to other forms of life. And then he meets Claire, a woman that could point Doug and his friends to the cops.

Her kindness and openness is something Doug has never encountered before, and he desires to stay with her. Doug wants to leave Charlestown, thus leaving the life he grew up with. But James is the opposite, who believes that Charlestown is the only place to live for people like “them.”

Excellent acting, writing, and directing accompany “The Town.” Much connection is developed between criminals and audience. In later robberies, we learn more about these crooks, and this time, we care for them. Even scenes of shoot outs and car chases are used for a higher purpose, and that is to test our empathy with the people involved. This is a superb crime thriller. Actor, writer, and director Ben Afleck knows what he’s doing, and Hollywood should let him do more.

The Kite Runner

Rating: ★★★★½

Young boys Amir and Hassan are best friends who live in the same home. Amir enjoys writing stories that Hassan eagerly listens to. Hassan can’t read the stories to himself because he is illiterate. The year is 1978, a time where Kabul is yet to be touched by foreign invaders. Peace abounds the streets while kites fill the sky. Children all around the neighborhood gather in pairs for popular kite-flying competitions where the goal is to engage in aerial assaults until only your own kite is left.

Amir and Hassan participate in such contests, and when they are successful in cutting down the kite of a competitor, Hassan is the one who runs for it, accurately predicting where the kite will land. Not only does Hassan run after the falling kites for Amir, but he also protects him from the bullies. Hassan demonstrates his unconditional devotion for his best friend in a tragic scene where he is attacked in ways I cannot mention in this review. Amir witnesses the event from a distance, but does nothing to help. He walks away.

Hassan survives, but not without wounds. In the following weeks, the two boys remain silent to one another. One tries to manage his pain while the other hides in his guilt. There is a heartbreaking moment where Amir does something to force Hassan and his father to move away. Every time Amir sees the face of Hassan, he is reminded of his own cowardice, and he doesn’t want to be reminded anymore.

Now Amir and is alone with his father, Baba. And when the Soviets invade their country, the two are forced to flee to the United States, where Amir grows up, falls in love with an Afghan general’s daughter, and gets married. This romance is deliberately hurried because “The Kite Runner” has a greater purpose, a greater story to tell.

One day, Amir receives a phone call from his home land. This is where the movie rightfully began. Amir is told that he can right the wrongs of his past, so he returns to Kabul and is surprised to what he has to see. Because the film mostly follows the life of Amir, we see present-day Kabul through his eyes, and it’s devastating. Kabul is now a place empty of kites; where limbs are sold for survival, where children are given away for money. We feel the grief that Amir feels for his land because we know what it was before, and now it’s gone. This is an emotional, captivating journey about a lost friendship with an opportunity for redemption.

I write this at a time where blockbuster movies are being released and advertised. Plots will be recycled, characters will be repeated, and stories will be retold. If we can look pass the advertisements, we might be surprised to find movies like “The Kite Runner.” These are movies that are made by Storytellers and not by Businessmen.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Rating: ★★★☆☆

A.I. starts by introducing us to a time where the world has gotten smaller for mankind. Water has risen and has engulfed much land. But as resources depleted, technology increased, and humans have found a way to cope with the circumstances. “Mechas” have been invented. They are robots that resemble our appearance and were created to perform many of our tasks.

“Mechas” would be useful for our economy and industry because they consume no food and need no sleep. Their purpose is to serve, and it is in our convenience that we don’t need to repay them nor serve them back. Maybe a few oil changes and an occasional trip to the carwash, but that’s about it.

A.I. offers intriguing ideas, and Professor Hobby of Cybertronics aims to expand that idea by proposing a new robot, a new product: A child. He explains to his colleagues that this Mecha child would be designed to look, act, and love as a child, and that he would love unconditionally. Twenty months has passed, and the first of its kind is created. His name, or should I say “its” name, is David.

David is taken to a married couple who is grieving over the disease of their son, who is, at the moment, frozen until a cure is discovered. At first, they are unsure of the notion of having a machine for a child, but because of their current emotional distress, and because David and his cute little robot eyes is played by the adorable Haley Joel Osment, Henry and Monica decide to welcome him in the family.

Things are going well for dear David, and Monica is unconditionally loved. But things change when a cure is discovered for Martin (Monica’s biological son), and is brought home. After an unfortunate accident within the family, Monica is forced to give up David, and is left alone in the woods. David is sad, and as he reminisces about the story of Pinocchio which he heard in bedtime, he goes on a quest to become a real boy, and win Monica back. A.I. is largely about David and his goal, which is what prevents the movie from achieving its greater potential.

A.I. asks its audience to lay the majority of their attention, emotions, and opinions on David. There are scenes and moments where our response to them requires us to forget that David is still the machine that he is. Remember that Mechas were created for people, and that their existence is to make our lives more comfortable. During Martin’s absence, wasn’t Monica’s pain relieved during David’s stay? We know that David was created to love, but was he designed with the desire and the need to be loved back? It is rather hard to involve ourselves with a hero who is driven by a love that is programmed. People are driven by emotions and the decisions that result from them, and there lies a better movie.

In movies like this one, people are generally more interesting than the machines. Even if the movie follows the “life” of a machine, it should ultimately tell something about people. One of the most captivating moments in A.I. involves a sequence where young David ends up in a show where failing Mechas are destroyed. For entertainment purposes, a Mecha is shot out of a canon, burned through a ring of fire, and shattered through spinning blades. So much for recycling.

It’s been said that humans act negatively towards things that they are threatened with. In this case, they violently deactivate machines that are capable of lasting much longer than humans if provided with the right parts and replacements. The movie could have stayed on that path and gone deeper, but it always finds its way back into David’s territory, as it prepares us for an ending that is too contrived and sentimental. The movie falls apart in its final minutes.

Despite its problems, I can’t seem to give A.I. a negative rating. It has enough ideas to appeal an audience. It projects many visuals that will cause fascination and wonder. It contains actors that are competent. It was created by filmmakers (Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick) who are ambitious and intelligent. There’s a greater movie in here, and it can be found somewhere outside of David and his cute little robot eyes.