Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Sir Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, et al. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by John Logan from the book by Brian Selznick.

I have just returned from some parallel universe where Martin Scorsese makes kid’s movies and Sacha Baron Cohen plays a funny, yet lovable and quirky character that is entirely suitable for viewing by children. I really liked that place. I’d love to visit there again.

The previews for Hugo looked fairly interesting but I was inclined to pass it over as just more typical, big-budget Christmastime family fare, not something that I would find much substance in. It went on my “rent it eventually” list. Then I saw that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. That Martin Scorsese?! The director who gave us The Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island*, the classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and a host of others? These are titles that spring immediately to mind as some of the most memorable from a very prolific director, but they are all quite definitely aimed at an adult audience. You want a beautiful movie that includes violence and mature themes – Scorsese is the go-to man. Sure, Scorsese is versatile, but is he versatile enough to make a movie suitable for children? It was a conundrum. I paid closer attention to the previews. The story is based on an award-winning book. Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley are both in it. Kingsley brings a sense of class and style to mind; Cohen – to put it mildly – does not. What kind of film is this that seems to be packaging up all of these wildly disparate elements? Hugo was removed from the rental list and elevated to the “must see it in a theater right away” list.

The movie Hugo is based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Set in the 1930’s, Hugo Cabret has been orphaned and lives in the walls of the Paris train station. Hugo and his father had been restoring a mechanical man before the father died, and it is Hugo’s obsession to finish. He must steal not only the food he eats, but also the spare parts and gears needed to repair the automaton. One day Hugo is caught filching more parts by a mean old man who runs a toy shop stall at the train station and also meets the man’s goddaughter Isabelle who – miraculously – seems to be the keeper of the key to the mystery of the automaton’s purpose. The mystery only deepens as Hugo and Isabelle keep trying to discover the secrets that can explain what links the old man, the automaton, and Hugo to each other.

The one word that may best capture the essence of this movie is simply “magic.” Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the sad, mean old man, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic genius who should play this kind of family-friendly role more often, and the two young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are incredible. Christopher Lee is a treat as are the familiar faces among the train station regulars. The sets are amazing, evoking a sense of not only a particular place and time but also an emotional connection to Hugo’s world. We view the inner workings of all the gears and springs perfectly meshed, ticking away as the world rushes by, people unaware of the delicate human touches necessary to maintain the façade they can see.

As Hugo and Isabelle finally begin to get answers to their questions, we are treated to the most magical of illusions; the discovery of where our very dreams come from. Scorsese is a modern-day magician who has crafted a unique classic with appeal to an audience of all ages that captures the wonder and joy of making dreams come to life. The ability to capture dreams and give them to the world on film is truly a gift that should be honored, preserved, and shared with future generations. If you consider yourself a cinephile, a lover of movies, and this one does not touch you deeply, you have no imagination and you should resign from the human race.

One last thought – Ben Kingsley’s character is Georges Melies. You might want to Google him after you see the film.

*Yes, I am a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Even when some members of my family mistakenly refer to him as Leonardo DaVinci. Envision the dramatic heaving of a heavy sigh, the exaggerated rolling of eyes, and a head shaken in despair; not all of my relatives share my passion for cinema. I love them anyway.

A full bucket of popcorn!One serving of popcornRating: Full Bucket plus an extra serving and a handful of tissues

Happy Feet 2

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, (voices of) Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Pink, Hank Azaria plus other well-known actors. Directed by George Miller.

What is it about penguins that make them so lovable? I mean, really? So the whole “waddling around like a fat butler in a tuxedo” is pretty cute, but beyond that… Penguins don’t have the regal aura that swans do, they live in some of the most inhospitable climates in the world, they can’t fly, they are actually rather silly looking. Still, we’ve been fascinated with them as sweet, adorable cartoon characters for decades. I present Chilly Willy (1953) and Tennessee Tuxedo (1963) as Exhibits A and B, respectively. (If you are too young to remember either of them, Google it like I did.)

Whatever it is that attracts us to penguins, the original Happy Feet movie ramped it up another order of magnitude with its beautiful story of Mumble, the penguin who couldn’t sing like the others and was ridiculed for his incredible dancing abilities. A misunderstood outsider, he was shunned. After a series of coming-of-age adventures, Mumble eventually embraced his uniqueness and saved the colony from starvation, winning their respect and admiration. Of course he also won the heart of the most beautiful girl penguin, and they settled down as soulmates to live happily ever after.

One of the best things about the first Happy Feet movie was the fantastic music and – if possible – it’s even better in the second one. This time around Mumble and Gloria have joined the ranks of parent penguins and are raising their little chick Eric who has fewer problems fitting in than Mumble did, but still needs to find confidence in his own uniqueness. Other favorite characters from the first movie are back as well. It just wouldn’t be nearly as good without Ramon, voiced by Robin Williams. There are also a couple of new characters, Will and Bill the krill, voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt who deliver some hilarious action and commentary on the plight of those near the bottom of the food chain. There is even a one-of-a-kind penguin who may not be all that he claims to be. When disaster befalls the penguin colony, it is up to Mumble and some of the chicks to seek help with a large-scale rescue. Once again, they learn that survival depends on everyone working together.

Both of the Happy Feet movies are beautifully animated with spectacular music and great environmental lessons for everyone. The delicate ecosystem that is our planet can’t help but react to major shifts and changes. When those shifts and changes are driven by humankind’s interference with the natural order of things, there are unforeseen consequences impacting various habitats with a ripple effect that may come back to bite us. The only way to correct the problem is to put aside differences and work cooperatively. I can’t think of a better way to teach children about love, sacrifice, determination, respect for uniqueness, and care for the environment than through such a fun and entertaining film.

Cartoon characters have come a long, long way from the likes of Chilly Willy and Tennessee Tuxedo. They were cute and funny, fine for children, but they just didn’t have the depth and dimension of personality that we want in our characters on the big screen. The Happy Feet movies are right up there in scope and accomplishment with Toy Story, How to Train Your Dragon, Ratatouille, The Lion King, and any number of movies with compelling characters and great stories that just happen to be animated. Hopefully we won’t have such a long wait for Happy Feet Three.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving plus an ice cream sandwich

Real Steel

by CosmicTwin3


2011, Hugh Jackman, Evageline Lilly, Dakota Goyo. Directed by Shawn Levy.

When you see this movie I dare you not to think about the iconic plastic robot boxers that baby-boomers go into fits of nostalgia about. You know the ones – Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. “You knocked his block off!” The plastic “athletes” were operated by plastic controllers consisting of joysticks equipped with thumb-operated plastic plunger buttons at the base of the plastic platform. Each of their boxing matches lasted an average of about 5 seconds. Every time I ever played with one of these things as a child it seemed that one of the plastic boxers was at a serious disadvantage due to a faulty spring in his neck which caused his head to pop up a nanosecond after the other robot came within a whisker of hitting him. In a primitive way it was a foreshadowing of the dawn of video games where the player controlled all the action on a TV screen with a joystick and/or buttons and winning was more about thumb speed and dexterity than anything else.

Fast forward a few decades into the not-so-distant future and imagine that the concept of surrogate boxers has evolved into a system where sophisticated robotic opponents controlled by master video game players pound each other to pieces – literally. No human fighters are at risk of injury but the desire to see anthropomorphic machines bob, weave, throw punches, and take a beating is every bit as entertaining and possibly even more lucrative than when humans squared off against each other in the boxing ring. The World Robot Boxing league features championship fights in dazzling state-of-the-art arenas and there is also a thriving underground of down-and-out has-beens who fight local favorites for rent money while bookies make a killing.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a down-and-out has-been former boxer who takes his well-worn yet serviceable boxing robot to local small-town venues making barely enough money to survive one day at a time. Always wagering against impossible odds, he has gotten himself into so much debt that numerous threats have been made against his life. After a spectacular defeat that leaves him with no robot and no options, he learns that he is to be the sole caretaker of the son he hasn’t seen or been in contact with in 10 years. Charlie, prepared to quickly sign over custody of the boy to a loving aunt, sees an opportunity to make some fast cash and then abandon him yet again. But Max, his son, has a different idea.

While the two search through a scrap heap for enough spare parts to bolt together a fighter, Max stumbles upon a discarded, outdated robot that he drags home. Charlie insists that the bot is too small and underpowered to fight effectively, but Max, every bit as stubborn as his father, is determined to prove otherwise. The pair embark on a journey that starts with the robot exhibiting some surprising talent that, with a little luck and a lot of heart, just may take them to the pinnacle of success. Along the way the two get to know each other, the pretty lady in Charlie’s life gets to impart her special words of wisdom, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

This film can be described as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots meets Transformers meets Rocky Balboa, but that would be selling it short. Thanks mainly to Hugh Jackman as the cynical underdog who never quite reached his full potential as a boxer, the story unfolds in a refreshing, stylish, exciting, and engaging way. The special effects are spectacular, as we have come to expect, and the human element is not missing here as it was from Transfomers; in this one the robots mirror the personalities of their owner/operators, so we come to see them as a team. Real Steel is tried-and-true action-packed family entertainment that is highly imaginative, exceptionally well-acted, and well worth seeing on the big screen.

Two boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Double Serving with a full box of Milk Duds

The Mighty Macs

by CosmicTwin3


2011, Written and directed by Tim Chambers, stars Ellen Burstyn, Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton

Let’s hear it for girl power! This sweet G-rated sports-themed movie may be derivative but it offers real inspiration for young females who have no idea how difficult life used to be for women in general and women athletes in particular.

It is 1971, a transitional time for young women who are discovering that the traditional roles of stay-at-home wife and mother are not their only options. One of these young women is attractive, well-educated, fashionable, married Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino). An accomplished athlete, Cathy aspires to be a college basketball coach, a career field that offers few choices for a novice.

Cathy finally finds a small college in need of a basketball coach, or at least an “activities director” who is willing to work cheap. The college happens to be Immaculata, a small, quiet Catholic all-girls institution of higher learning that doubles as the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns’ retirement home. The stern Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn), more concerned about dampening the students’ hormones than developing athletic talent, is fighting an uphill battle to keep the school and the retirement home open. Without a proper gym, proper uniforms, or even a proper basketball, Cathy is determined to prove to everyone – especially herself – that she can mold a disparate group of girls into a real team. The only encouragement comes from Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), soon recruited to be the assistant coach.

Cathy’s efforts to employ modern coaching methods are met with intense disapproval from Mother Superior and the long hours she is willing to put in create tension with her NBA referee husband (David Boreanaz). The girls seem to be more interested in getting married and becoming traditional homemakers than polishing their basketball skills in their hideously outdated uniforms. Playing larger schools with established, well-funded athletic programs and plenty of family and school support, the Mighty Macs make a dismal showing in their first few games but Cathy doggedly persists and gradually things start to improve. Sister Sunday rallies the other sisters to provide much needed support and a cheering section for the team. Their “We Will Be #1!” buttons seem ridiculously optimistic, particularly considering that the school is on the verge of being closed permanently. With all of these obstacles to overcome, Cathy is more determined than ever to make the impossible happen. What they need is a miracle.

The miracle comes in the form of a spectacular winning season and an invitation to the first ever national women’s basketball championship tournament. But with no money to send the team to the competition, can the little college claim the Cinderella title that they have worked so hard to achieve?

The Mighty Macs tells its classic underdog sports tale with a lot of tried-and-true clichés tossed in for good measure. The presence of so many nuns, while integral to the story, provides plenty of flashbacks to Sister Act. There aren’t many surprises as the film unfolds and some of the characters come across at times as entirely too one-dimensional. There are lines of dialog that are extremely corny. Still, despite all the familiarity (which can be forgiven considering the G rating), this movie has a lot going for it. With its heartwarming story and charming performances, the film is emotionally engaging and enthusiastically empowering. Knowing that the story is based on true events helps to elevate it from a forgettable yawner to an inspiring example of what women can achieve when they believe in themselves. This is a wonderful family movie for both tween girls and anyone interested in modern sports history. Cathy Rush not only coached the Mighty Macs to a winning season in 1972, she coached them to three consecutive national women’s basketball championships; she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; several of her players went on to become nationally recognized college basketball coaches as well. And the quiet little all-girls school became a co-ed university that continues to thrive.

While this one may not find its footing in theaters, it should become a permanent fixture in home DVD/Blu-ray libraries where there are young children.

Cosmic Twins rating: Cotton candy for everyone!