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Dec 29 11

By Matt Patches

After decades of moviemaking, years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team, Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion, reeling in audiences with drama, adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest, War Horse, isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography, but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle, the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's, and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.

The titular equine is Joey, a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training, Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds, but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles, Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war, and the real adventure begins.

Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom, the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways, the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather, and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war, Joey miraculously sees it all, all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.

Spielberg avoids any over-the-top, Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse, but, amazingly, the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting, muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie, his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston, The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.

Dec 29 11

By Daniel Hubschman

Let's put the cards on the table: I have not read Steig Larsson's best-selling "Millennium Trilogy", and therefore cannot comment on whether or not Columbia Pictures' big-budget (American) adaptation of its first novel is a spot-on transfer of the shocking story, or if Rooney Mara has lived up to the punk-goth-genius of an anti-heroine he created. This review is about director David Fincher's craft and the dream cast he has assembled to make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo one of the most brutal and engrossing films of 2011.

Right from lustrous, sexy title sequence evoking torturous S&M imagery to the ultra-cool Karen O/Trent Reznor rendition of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song", the Oscar-nominated filmmaker plunges his audience into a very specific experience. This is not to say that the story itself is notably inventive; Dragon Tattoo is more or less a standard serial killer thriller, wherein a pair of investigators attempts to solve a decades-old murder that has ties to other gruesome mysteries and a wealthy Swedish family. It's the sinister atmosphere and tone he cultivates using color, music and lighting that makes this tale so unique and highly watchable in spite of the terrible events that occur throughout.

Perhaps most compelling, though, is its mixed bag of characters from different walks of life, including Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a recently disgraced financial journalist in need of an assignment, Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), a yuppie-ish corporate tycoon charged with running the family business started by his uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) and Lisbeth Salander (Mara), the alpha-outsider and titular character of this eerie epic. All are emotionally scarred, and the actors charged with portraying them go the darkest corners of their own souls to make them their own. Mara in particular must be praised for her ghoulish and extreme embodiment of Salander, who suffers physical and emotional torment unlike anything we've seen in cinema this year. This, more than her scene-stealing presence in Fincher's The Social Network, is no doubt her star-making turn; expect to see her name on a marquee soon. Though she and Craig at times struggle with the Swedish diction (the latter's native British accent slips through more times than I can count), they more than make up for it with their physical personifications, facial expressions, etc. Yet it's Skarsgard who is most impressive as the younger Vanger (he's of Swedish descent), and delivers a stunning and chilling performance that will rival Mara's in defining this film in years to come.

Still, this is a Fincher film through and through, and I cannot think of source material better suited for the maker of Se7en and Zodiac than this disturbing chronicle. Visually, he's given the opportunity to create damp, decaying interiors familiar to fans of his work, but contrasts them with beautifully filmed exteriors, including some terrifying whiteout conditions that are sure to lower your body temperature. In terms of form, he and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall effectively lay out dual character arcs (that of Salander and Blomkvist) that run parallel but connect in uncanny ways until their eventual convergence, resulting in a highly literary feel. Both Baxter and Wall won Oscars for cutting The Social Network, and I'm afraid that their penchant for quick transitions between shots has a decreasing effect on the terror; for a film that so closely treads the line between horror-thriller, I felt that letting certain shots play out a bit longer could've had more dreadful results.

Dec 20 11

By Thomas Leupp

As with its two predecessors, the animated/live-action hybrid Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked is positioned to open during the holiday season, when demand for family entertainment is high and standards are grievously low. How low, you ask? The first two episodes in the franchise, 2007's Alvin and the Chipmunks and 2009's Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel earned over $800 million worldwide combined. It hurt to write that last sentence.

You'd think such success would instill a certain pride of craftsmanship in the filmmakers, but almost everything about Chipwrecked suggests the opposite, from the hackneyed screenwriting to the lazy acting to the cheap-looking production design. The only aspect that truly impresses is the animation of the CG characters, who are crisp and detailed and vibrant - a far cry from their human counterparts.

After sitting out much of the Squeakquel, Jason Lee, his schedule freed up following the cancellation of My Name Is Earl, returns as the Chipmunks' beleaguered manager, Dave Seville. Also back for another quick payday as the primary nemesis, Ian, is David Cross, no doubt ruing the three-picture contract he signed.

Dave, Ian, the Chipmunks, and their female counterparts, the Chipettes, are aboard a luxury cruise liner when a mishap triggered by the ever-disobedient Alvin (Justin Long) casts them overboard and onto a remote tropical island, where they embark on a series of sub-comic misadventures, finding time in between for the odd ear-splitting rendition of a contemporary pop tune. Songs covered include Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," Pink's "Trouble," Destiny's Child's "Survivor," Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair," and LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem."

Dec 20 11

By Thomas Leupp

2009's Sherlock Holmes found unexpected synergy in the pairing of Robert Downey Jr.'s impish charm and Guy Ritchie's macho, kinetic visual style, reinventing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective for a modern blockbuster audience. The follow-up, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, employs the same winning formula while adhering judiciously to the Law of Sequels and its more-more-more dictates: more action, bigger set pieces, higher stakes, and a darker, more convoluted plot. But more, as so many past sequels have taught us, is rarely better.

Game of Shadows marks the emergence of Doyle's most famous villain, James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Glimpsed only in darkness in the first film, Moriarty takes center stage in the sequel as Holmes's foremost criminal foil, a genius-level university professor whose extracurricular interests range from horticulture to homicide. Holmes has deduced him to be at the center of a wave of terrorist bombings as well as the seemingly unrelated deaths of various titans of industry, but can't quite discern just what the professor's endgame might be. Composed and calculating to a menacing degree, Harris makes for a promising counterweight to Downey's manic verbosity. But, as in the first film, Game of Shadows' best moments are found in the comic interplay between Holmes and his reluctant sidekick, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who is plucked from his honeymoon to accompany the detective on a trans-continental trip in search of clues to Moriarty's machinations.

And it's very much a boys-only trip. The female leads from the first film, Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly, are tossed aside - literally, in the case of the latter - in Game of Shadows, while the cast's highest-profile new addition, Swedish star Noomi Rapace (best known as the original, non-emaciated Lisbeth Salander) is a curious non-factor in the role of a Gypsy (or Roma, if you prefer) fortune-teller. The film maintains only the slimmest pretense of a romantic subplot between her and Downey. Rapace, looking perhaps a bit lost in her first English-speaking role, can't hope to eclipse the Holmes-Watson traveling road show.

Ritchie's technique, with its signature blend of rapid cutting and slow-mo and super-high frame-rates - perfect for admiring the odd apple tossed in the air, or a piece of bark shot off a tree - is once again evident in the film's awe-inspiring (and occasionally coherence-defying) set pieces, the most memorable of which is set in a munitions factory, with Watson wielding a gatling gun like an early T-600 prototype. But some of the novelty of the stylistic juxtaposition has faded since the first film. Ritchie tries to compensate by ramping up the firepower, to limited effect. Absent amid the hail of mortar blasts and automatic weapons fire is any real sense of intrigue or suspense, which proves to be Game of Shadows' most vexing mystery.

Dec 13 11

By Thomas Leupp

The calibration is a bit off in The Sitter, David Gordon Green's comedy about a young slacker (Jonah Hill) tasked with minding three unruly children over the course of one insane evening. Green aims to evoke Uncle Buck and Adventures in Babysitting - feel-good '80s family comedies from which the film freely borrows - while indulging in the same hard-R irreverence of his previous two films, 2008's Pineapple Express and April's Your Highness. But the dual impulses prove impossible to reconcile, resulting in a comedy that, while often quite funny, is also wildly uneven. Rarely have I laughed out loud and rolled my eyes so much in the same film.

Hill plays Noah, an aimless college dropout who reluctantly agrees to babysit a neighbor's brood so that his harried single mother might enjoy a rare night on the town. Anticipating an easy evening on the couch, he quickly has his hands full with the dysfunctional trio: 13-year-old Slater (Max Records) is a heavily-medicated basket-case; 10-year-old Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), an adopted El Salvadoran immigrant, likes to blow things up; and 9-year-old Blithe (Landry Bender), is in the midst of a "celebutante phase," emulating her sleazy reality-show idols. Things begin to go awry for Noah when, in the first of several questionable decisions, he opts to take the kids along on a trip to score drugs for his sort-of-girlfriend (Ari Graynor).

As you might have gathered, we've already ventured far, far away from John Hughes-land. And yet Green doesn't seem to recognize as much. As Hill and co. embark on a series of ever-escalating comic misadventures, there's a strange dissonance that pervades The Sitter, which tries to intermingle moments of outrageous vulgarity with scenes of high-grad Hallmark sap. The latter eventually take on a certain comic absurdity of their own: My favorite was a third-act dialogue exchange, barely two minutes in length, in which Noah, newly enlightened by the night's encounters with a drug dealer (an unhinged, scene-stealing Sam Rockwell), car thieves, kickboxers, steroid-pumped goons, and the like, manages to wean one of his charges off his psychiatric meds and cure him of his sexual-orientation anxiety in one fell swoop. Is Green, a former indie darling, bowing to studio dictates with such a patently artificial crock, or slyly subverting them? Either way, it's a futile endeavor.

Dec 13 11

By Matt Patches

Director Jason Reitman made a very smart decision when approaching his new film Young Adult. His past two successes, Juno and Up in the Air, were stylized dramedies, one with colorful dialogue and production design flourishes, the other with precision camera work, his director's hand evident at every turn. In his latest, he pulls way back, letting his lead character—a vile, destructive, former high school prom queen named Mavis (Charlize Theron)—do the talking. And talk she does—every word a stinging insult, disillusioned wish, holier-than-thou gripe or embarrassing truth. Reitman unleashes an unfiltered Theron and the results are gut-wrenching, hilarious and powerful.

ALTWhile working on her latest Sweet Valley High-esque book, Mavis receives a mass e-mail from her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), announcing that he and his wife are expecting their first child. This sets a fire under Mavis' ass, and after chugging a 2-Liter of Diet Coke and throwing on a Hello Kitty tee, she hits the road to take back the man that's rightfully hers. Mavis shacks up in a drab hotel located in the heart of her small, Minnesota hometown and immediately proceeds to the bar to indulge in her favorite pastime: pounding back whiskey. There she runs in to one of her forgettable high school classmates, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who she only recalls after being reminded of a horrendous gay bashing that left both his legs crippled ("And I'm not even gay."). The two form an unlikely friendship—Matt being enamored by Mavis' pathetic quest, Mavis needing an ear to talk off.

Young Adult's simple premise allows writer Diablo Cody (Juno, The United States of Tara) to move Mavis from depressing suburban local to depressing suburban local with ease, creating a playground of homogenized perfection for Theron's foul behavior. Whether she open-mouth chewing on fried chicken at the local KFC/Taco Bell, covering up last night's hangover with a fresh facial or seducing Buddy at the Applebee's-esque restaurant, Mavis never falters, always looking down at her surroundings, finding excuses for why she's not the source of her own problems.

Theron's performance is fearless, one of the few crass female performances shaded with human complexity and empathy. Young Adult is a very funny film that works because of its star's ability to teeter the edge of comical and truly unlikable. Oswalt and Wilson amplify the main performance, embodying their own grounded characters to properly riff with the vulgar Mavis. Matt is a very Patton-y character to begin with, but between is jokey back-and-forths with Mavis is an inherent sadness, one Oswalt surfaces with a contrasting subtly. Unlike Mavis, Matt has the ability to rise above is own plight and change. His new friend is, tragically, a lost cause. At times, the film's story feels too narrow, never allowing us to really explore Mavis' other relationships, but it's hard to naysay for wanting more.

Dec 13 11

By Thomas Leupp

Last year, director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham's experimental Cannonball Run method, it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow, day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy, to be sure, but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine's Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend, surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success, Marshall and his screenwriter, Katherine Fugate, hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance, and New Year's Eve was born.

Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year, New Year's Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated, barely coherent mass of cliches. As before, Marshall's recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding, including Oscar winners Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, and Robert De Niro, the latter luxuriating in a role that didn't require him to get out of bed. High School Musical's Zac Efron is paired up with '80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer - giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over - while Glee's Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There's Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role, Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom, and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents - his fake and hers real - and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi, straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.

The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall, and New Year's Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath, with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that's not the point - it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister, without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film's last melodramatic sequence has ended, prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.

Dec 06 11

By Matt Patches

ALTIn the dialogue-free opening sequence of Shame, director Steve McQueen introduces us to Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome New Yorker who goes through a morning routine, tackles the responsibilities of his high profile day job, socializes with co-workers and, all the while, struggles with an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure. As the strings of composer Harry Escott's score swell, we see Brandon in two scenarios: holding back from advancing on a beautiful, young subway-rider and succumbing to carnal instinct with the help of a prostitute. It's a powerful setup for Fassbender's breathtaking performance, which ranks among the best of the year.

Shame forcefully declares that sex addiction is just as tangible, devastating and perplexing as any drug or alcohol problem, but does so without didactic lessons or over-the-top indulgences. Fassbender's Brandon is on the other end of the spectrum from Nicolas Cage's crazed alcoholic character in Leaving Las Vegas, with McQueen breaking long stretches of repression with harrowing moments of emotionless lust. The film works as a character portrait, following Brandon as he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole and witnessing the effects of his descent on the people around him. Picking up women isn't a problem for the dashing gent—he does so with ease on many an occasion—but when he tries dating the one woman he has feelings for, he's void of sexual stamina. Unfortunately, even in the sprawling city of New York, there's no outlet for Brandon to confide in—his work buddies are all looking for an easy lay and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who shows up at his door one inopportune day, has a heap of her own problems.

McQueen shoots Shame with precision that never feels staged, each scene, camera angle and directorial choice amplifying Brandon's dizzying situation, Whether Brandon's entranced by Sissy's passionate rendition of "New York, New York," working off his own sexual frustration with a quick jog or seducing a barfly's girlfriend at a hole-in-the-wall joint, Fassbender and McQueen work in perfect tandem to bring the audience into the struggle. You will feel the raw power of Brandon unleashing his sex drive and you will feel the sadness behind Fassbender's face as he drifts alone through the city streets. Both moods are powerful, moving and true.

Shame doesn't have an easy-to-swallow narrative, a real beginning or an end. When you expect things to align into a traditional structure, McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan subvert expectations—as life often does. What keeps us engrossed is Fassbender, who can pull off the balancing act of suave and broken without tipping us off that he's acting at all. Shame received an NC-17 rating because of its racy imagery, but the real maturity on display in the film is the bare bones depiction of human behavior.

Dec 06 11

By Matt Patches

Even while defying modern filmmaking techniques with a monochromatic palette and soundscape of silence, The Artist is as conventional as they come. That's not entirely a gripe—director Michel Hazanavicius' takes a simplistic approach to storytelling, paving the easiest path for his cinematic playground. The movie wears its intentions on its sleeve—The Artist is a technical exercise first, movie second—but the result is undeniably pleasant. Few will be safe from the movie's bombardment of silent but deadly charm.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a film actor working in 1920's Hollywood. He's a regular Douglas Fairbanks—a swashbuckling hunk who can smirk, swagger and dance his way through any motion picture. His boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) can't get enough of him, his current co-star Constance (Missi Pyle) can't steal his spotlight, his fans fill the red carpet clamoring for just one lucky snapshot, and he's got a dog friend that might just be the most adorable thing on the planet. At that moment in time, Valentin can't be topped.

But like all good things in a straightforward dramedy, Valentin's cloud nine career slowly begins to fall apart. He meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a budding actresses to whom Valentin quickly takes a liking. Their relationship grows professionally and romantically (albeit with distance—Valentin does have an unhappy wife, after all), but as the era of silent pictures wanes in favor of talkies, so does Valentin's popularity. Peppy becomes the next big thing, and her success leaves Valentin broke and in the dust.

Hazanavicius creates a Frankenstein's monster out of his film history knowledge, employing every trick in the silent film book to make The Artist shine. The writer/director digs just deep enough into Valentin's plight—a bumpy road intrinsically connected to its the medium—then lets whimsy of nostalgia do the heavy, emotional lifting. Ludovic Bource's bouncy orchestral score and Guillaume Schiffman's cinematography add to the general niceness of The Artist, complementing Dujardin's irresistible smile with their own intangible artistry.

Nov 29 11

By Kelsea Stahler

My Week With MarilynNormally, when a film about a historical figure finds its way into "awards watch" season, you expect a certain level of intrigue from its content.So, My Week With Marilyn should, by all accounts, deliver a little bite. Marilyn Monroe is a staple of American culture. We all know her face, her voice, her classic lines, her wardrobe "malfunctions," her tumultuous relationship history, her power over men and of course, that ugly little truth we like to brush under the carpet: the pill addiction that eventually cost her her life. This film purports to give us a look at the "real" Marilyn - the one the millions of representations of her haven't already shown us. The problem is that by the time the film attempts to explore the darker corners of Monroe's (Michelle Williams) existence, we, like our protagonist Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), are already under her spell. Just as we start to condemn her, or look at her problems without the biased nostalgic eye most of us are afflicted with, the film waves its magic Marilyn wand and quickly abolishes those less glamous notions. The result is a splendid, yet decidely indecisive journey with a very complicated and often misunderstood woman

We meet plucky young Colin as he embarks on his first foray into feature films. It's his dream and thanks to a connection to Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), he's got a shot at working on a film. But it's not just any movie; it's The Prince and Showgirl, a marriage of American and English sensibilities starring Olivier and Monroe. When Colin arrives, he's just a third assistant director to Olivier - essentially a go-fer - and can do little but admire Marilyn without hope. He takes up with a wardrobe girl named Lucy (Emma Watson), and goes about his duties. Of course things don't stay this simple. His newness lends itself to a bit more flexibility, so when Olivier's rigid practices clash with Marilyn's laissez-faire style and the production begins to slow to a glacial pace, Colin is a natural fit to become Marilyn's willing ally. Their friendship grows as Olivier's temper comes to a boiling point, and the result makes Marilyn a film tinged with a choice number of harsh realities - but as soon as they rear their ugly heads, Monroe's ever-present spell casts itself over them.

Of course, this isn't so much a criticism of the film as it is criticism of the weight given to the content. My Week With Marilyn is beautifully shot, allowing the nostalgic air of London and Monroe in the 50s to take the lead with a few contemporary flairs to help keep us along for the ride. Every detail is impeccable, from the music to the settings, to the dialog. There isn't a single weak link in the cast. Redmayne displays all the youth and earnest vigor demanded by his young character. Though her character teeters between a layered enigma and the girl the entire world knows, Williams handles each angle as easily as Marilyn handles the men around her. Supporting cast members Julia Ormond (as Vivien Leigh), Judi Dench (as Dame Sybil Thorndike) and Branagh put their wealth of experience to tremendous use. Lesser known actors like Dougray Scott and Dominic Cooper take on American accents with minimal issues and handle their supporting characters with ease - and Watson delivers her usual (but welcome) lovely, precocious act.

There's really nothing wrong with My Week With Marilyn. It's lovely. It's smart. It's extremely well-crafted. It's a good film. But it does little to excite a reaction beyond that. And when you're dealing with someone we know as well as most of the world knows Marilyn, I doubt I'm the only one who expect a little more…va va voom.

Nov 29 11

By Thomas Leupp

Now here is a reboot to cheer for. The Muppets heralds the return of Jim Henson's beloved furry creations, resurrected from pop-culture irrelevance and lovingly restored to their former greatness in a vibrant comedy-musical.

Jason Segel, in addition to co-writing and starring in the film, served as executive producer and the project's resident evangelist. His choice of collaborators is inspired. Directing is James Bobin, best known as the co-creator, along with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, of HBO's Flight of the Conchords, a show whose good-natured and yet slyly irreverent tone often recalled that of old Muppet Show episodes. (I've never quite recovered from its premature departure.) McKenzie served as music supervisor, contributing several original songs to the soundtrack. Segel's co-star, Amy Adams, is the rare breed of actress who can transition from playing a pugilistic, potty-mouthed waitress (in The Fighter) to the role of an angelic schoolteacher with ease. And few actors portray cartoonish villainy with more verve than Oscar winner Chris Cooper.

The film opens with a montage introducing the character of Walter, a Muppet raised in Smalltown, USA, who figures himself the first and only of his kind until he happens upon an old Muppet Show rerun, after which he is inexorably transfixed. Together with his "brother," Gary (Segel), and Gary's fiancé, Mary (Adams), he travels out to Los Angeles to meet his idols, only to find their studio vacated and on the verge of being demolished by Tex Richman (Cooper), a sinister tycoon who covets the oil reserves beneath it.

The only way to save the studio, naturally, is a kick-ass variety show reuniting the Muppets, long estranged after the demise of their television series. Kermit the Frog is now holed up in a sprawling Bel Air mansion, which he once dreamed of sharing with his former flame, Miss Piggy, who has gone on to become Vogue's "plus-size" editor in Paris. Consummate entertainer Fozzy Bear is slumming it in Reno with a tribute band dubbed the Moopets; Gonzo is consumed by his work as CEO of the plumbing company Gonzo's Royal Flush; and Animal is seeking treatment at the Fresh Pathways anger management clinic.

Nov 29 11

By Matt Patches

On the surface, Hugo looks like your run-of-the-mill Harry Potter knock-off, full of whimsy, spectacle, life lessons and faux-imagination. But the young adult fiction adaptation is anything but factory-processed. Filled with more passion, emotion and drama than most "Oscar contenders" of 2011, Hugo transcends its fantastical predecessors. Some call Hugo director Martin Scorsese's foray into kids movies, but the film speaks to "kids" young and old. Every scene, every moment, every frame gushes with creativity and artistry, and it's one of the best movies of the year.

Hugo doesn't sugarcoat the plights faced by the film's titular hero. When we pick up with Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), the savvy lad is living in the walls of a 1930's Parisian train station, taking over the clock winding duties of his missing uncle (a drunk who took him in after his clockmaker father's unfortunate demise). Aside from his day to day duties, Hugo faces greater challenges: evading capture from the station's resident orphan wrangler (Sacha Baron Cohen) and swiping parts from a toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) to rebuild his father's automaton, a early 20th century robot designed for entertainment. Hugo's thievery is eventually discovered by the weary toyman, who takes the child under his wing to make use of his tinkering skills. The professional relationship introduces Hugo to the toyman's goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who helps Hugo unravel the greater mystery behind his father's robot and "Papa Georges," as well as better understand himself.

As Hugo and Isabelle dig deeper into Papa Georges' history, they unearth a history that's simultaneously magical and true—they aren't going to a far away land through an otherworldly portal, but instead examining an aspect of history, cinematic history in fact, that feels foreign to them (and the audience). With a their innocent perspective, the young duo marvel at stories of the early days of film and glimpses of long lost silents. This is Scorsese's playground. His love for the early days of film is infused into the design and story of Hugo, giving the movie a timeless feel that sweeps the viewer up.

But Hugo isn't just a souped-up Film 101 course. The historical revelations are only part of Hugo's emotional journey, which is equally enhanced by stunning 3D, detailed production design and a supporting cast woven into the film's fabric to further expand the world. Cohen's Station Inspector is like a Buster Keaton character, complete with pratfalls and heart. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire appears as Scorsese's proxy, relishing the world of film while caring for Hugo and Isabelle. Even Christopher Lee's (Lord of the Rings) brief turn as a book store owner succeeds in evoking a smile. All the parts come together under the intricate train station set, a beautifully realized period piece brought to life by Scorsese's dimensional 3D. Never before has a stereoscopic film worked so hard to bring you into the picture, or enhance the storytelling (on sequence shows a cowering crowd experiencing film for the first time, a train hurtling towards camera—an effect paralleled in today's 3D effects!). If the story doesn't suck you in, the artistry on display in Hugo surely will.

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