Dear Santa Letters Wanted!

The other website I run, the Unwritten Letters Project is now starting it’s third-annual Dear Santa campaign and would love to see your letters to Santa. If you have a special request for yourself or someone you love, write it down and send it to the site.

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Review of “Hugo”

By guest reviewer: Andrew Walsh

Machines have no extra parts. Every individual piece has a purpose, no matter how big or small. If the world itself is a grand machine of existence, what is your purpose? An interesting question posed within Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo, which becomes its major theme. Beginning with a beautiful match-cut between the inside of a clockwork machine and the streets of Paris, Hugo pontificates that everyone has a purpose, and if not, they are broken and must simply be fixed.

Hugo tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan who lives in a large train station in the middle Paris. He meticulously maintains the many clocks throughout the station (a duty abandoned upon Hugo by his alcoholic uncle) and frequently steals pieces of machinery from a small toy store in an effort to rebuild the Automoton, a broken machine man found by his deceased father. Hugo is caught by the toymaker (Ben Kingsley) and forced to work for him to repay his debt. In doing so he meets Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the toymakers goddaughter, and the two grow close as Isabelle helps with the Automoton and Hugo introduces Isabelle to his great passion: the movies.

That’s right, underneath all the simple charm and lighthearted wit; Hugo is all about the cinema itself. Yet it is not simply about film history, or the inner working of filmmaking, or even the importance of filmmaking to our culture. It is about filmmaking as work itself, and the effect of seeing a lifetime of work destroyed. A terrifying statistic states that 90% of all American silent films and 50% of American sound films made before 1950 have been lost… destroyed, gone, never to be seen again. Hugo shows the terrifying affect this had on early filmmaker George Melies, who made over 500 films in his career, nearly all of them lost now.

Hugo is a special film for director Martin Scorsese. Not simply because of the subject matter clearly close to his heart (Scorsese is the founder of the Film Foundation, a group dedicated to the preservation of film) but because it is both his first family-oriented film and his first 3D film. Much in the way Shutter Island had Scorsese showcasing the many tricks-of-the-trade he could utilize, Hugo has forced Scorsese to develop a completely new style to deal with the subject matter and 3D imagery. I’ve never been a fan of 3D, as it often confuses my eyes and makes many shots look confusing and jarring (particularly when the camera is focused on objects in the background, blurring everything in the foreground). This is the first time the 3D (as a whole) has not bothered me, particularly because Scorsese seems more interested in using the 3D to add depth to interesting images instead of dramatic effect. He also seems to be the first person to realize 3D is only effective with a wide depth of field, and Scorsese showcases this knowledge with numerous sweeping shots through the train station. There are definitely scenes where the 3D is unnecessary and becomes slightly obnoxious, but it’s worth it for the moments the 3D is meant for.

As is usual with a Scorsese film, all the performances are top notch. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz give some of the best performances I’ve seen of any child actors. Butterfield handles the heavy emotion with great depth and sincerity, and Moretz is instantly lovable. Ben Kingsley gives a tragic performance as the toymaker, adding significant gravitas in the later scenes. Whereas Sacha Baron Cohen proves once again how versatile a performer he is as the troubled, handicapped station Inspector.

Hugo is one of those rare films that is incredibly enjoyable, addictively watchable, and undeniably personal. In a time where far too many people have been broken and can’t seem to be repaired, Hugo is a great reminder that sometimes all we need is a little bit of help.

Production Value: 9

Entertainment Value: 10

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Review of “Super”

By Andrew Walsh

Let’s start this off by addressing the elephant in the room: yes, James Gunn’s Super shares story elements with Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (just for the record, I’ve only seen the film, so any reference made to Kick-Ass is made to the film version only). However, the overall themes and ideas are completely different. That, in my humble opinion, is far more important
Super tells the story of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a timid diner chef who can only recall two happy memories in his entire life (marrying his wife, and directing a cop towards a fleeing criminal). Unfortunately, Frank’s wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) is a recovering addict and one day falls back into old habits due to the influence of strip club owner/drug trafficker Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and she abandons Frank. In his depression, Frank receives a vision from God saying he was meant for a special purpose, and Frank interprets this as a call fo him to become a superhero: the pipe-wrench wielding “Crimson Bolt.” He soon meets comic book geek Libby (Ellen Page), who convinces Frank to take her on as his “kid” sidekick “Boltie.” Together, they begin to plan a rescue attempt to save Franks wife.
Yeah, there are certainly a couple parallels between Super and Kick-Ass: the superpower-less heroes, the foul-mouthed female sidekick, extreme violence, and the showdown at the villain’s mansion/penthouse. But the devil is in the detail, and for my money, Super has a different message entirely. Whereas Kick-Ass seemed to almost advocate the violent (and irresponsible) actions of its protagonists, Super tries to dig deeper into the psychology of such individuals who would even contemplate such actions.
Frank has always had the violent urges to strike back at the people who have wronged him, and the identity of Crimson Bolt allows a disconnect for him to perform these horrible atrocities upon anyone from drug dealers to child molesters and even the everyday jerk who cuts in line. While his actions are certainly extreme, Frank does draw have a limit. This is discovered when he gains a sidekick in Boltie, who nearly beats a man to death because she was “pretty sure” he keyed her friend’s car. The key difference between the characters is that Frank has personal issues that drive him to fight crime and always tries to maintain the “moral” high ground. On the other hand, Libby sees her superhero identity as a chance to let loose and wreak havoc, anything to keep from being bored.
However, stemming from this interesting dynamic is a perplexing question: how are we supposed to view the character of Libby? While she may not be evil, she is almost certainly psychotic. She delights in eviscerating criminals: taunting a gunman after she has crushed his legs with a car, or laughing with joy as she disembowels a henchman with Wolverine-like claws. Libby also becomes strangely enamored with Frank once she discovers his secret: first asking if he wants to make out, but eventually raping him while wearing their masks. Yet in the end we are clearly meant to sympathize with her. It’s like her character arc never reaches a conclusion, the only things we know about Libby in the end is that she is a comic book geek and an absolute psychopath. The only other comic book reader we see is a fat loser who rudely comments on Frank’s selection of “research material” and uses inappropriate language in front of young children. Does this mean all comic geeks are either
assholes or unhinged psychotics? I certainly hope not, but I can’t draw any other conclusion.
Ellen Page has gotten a lot of praise for her performance in this film. And while she is certainly entertaining to watch in this, it seems to me like people are completely forgetting about Rainn Wilson. The only exposure I’ve had to him are My Super Ex-Girlfriend and The Rocker, so I wasn’t expecting much from him. Yet I can’t help but notice that he is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the film. Sure, Ellen Page’s Libby is entertaining and interesting, but Rainn Wilson’s Frank D’Arbo is the emotional core to the entire film. His character goes through numerous arcs and deals with many complicated emotions you don’t see in film very much. While Page is having fun letting loose with Libby, Wilson has to maintain a careful balancing act by keeping Frank unhinged and somewhat crazy yet down-to-Earth and still relatable.
In the end, is the film funny? Yeah, but not terribly so. There a few good laughs to be had but Super more often delves into the darker aspects of the characters and leaves the comedy behind. The film is ultimately more interested in the drama of the story and characters, as well as its themes of true heroism. The idea that while cutting in line is certainly legal and not as bad a thing to do as dealing drugs or molesting kids (and obviously doesn’t warrant the same punishment), it’s still bad, and we shouldn’t need the law to tell us what is or isn’t bad.
The limited budget unfortunately shows throughout, but not nearly enough to lose your interest.

Production Value: 6

Entertainment Value: 8

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“THOR” Review

By Andrew Walsh
If I had to describe “Thor” in one word it would be: Shakespearean. Everything from the scope, themes, tone, and characters is Shakespearean in it’s grandeur. This is certainly no coincidence as the film’s director Kenneth Branagh (whom most audiences might recognize as Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter) has an extensive background in the works of Shakespeare, having acted in as well as directed numerous stage and film productions of The Bard’s work. And it certainly helps in bringing the larger than life characters of Thor back down to Earth.
Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (as the advertisements so hyperbolically state) is cast out of Asgard, the home of the Norse Gods, by his father Odin when he impulsively commits an act of war with a race known as the Ice Giants. Thor is exiled to Earth and forced to live as a human until he can prove he is truly worthy to wield the power of the mighty war hammer Mjolnir. But as Odin falls ill the throne of Asgard falls to younger son, Loki, who has his own plans for the fate of Thor.
See, that’s pretty big in scope. We’re talking about Gods. And no, the film doesn’t cop out and explain them as aliens of some sort, the Asgardians are for all intents and purposes Gods. That simple fact deserves praise all on it’s own, mostly because Thor is not a truly standalone film; it is a part of a singular mega-production helmed by Marvel Studios to bring an interweaving continuity amongst numerous other Marvel heroes who have made their way to the big screen (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, and soon Captain America). All for the sake of coming together for one HUGE film event in The Avengers, which will see these numerous heroes teaming up to fight a villain that is too great for any of them to handle on their own. See, as big as Thor is, it’s still going to get bigger.
In terms of it’s continuity with the other films it’s still very tight. Those who stayed through the credits of Iron Man 2 will recognize a particular scene early in the film. There are also references to the wider universe, such as name-checking Tony Stark, and a brief cameo by Jeremy Renner who is set to play the hero Hawkeye in future films. But what is perhaps most impressive is that it still can play so seriously with the more fantastical elements of Gods and magic while set in the “scientifically plausible” world established by Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The simple idea that these aspects will all come together in The Avengers has me supremely excited.
But back to Thor itself. The juxtaposition of modern American attitudes with the more “classical” mannerisms of the Asgardian Gods works surprisingly well. Despite the number of jokes that are made at the expense of the Gods behavior while on Earth, the film still takes the characters very seriously and never loses the full scope of the story. In spite of the “musclehead” image of the main character, Chris Hemsworth’s performance as Thor simply couldn’t be matched by an actor in the same vein as The Rock. The character of Thor requires at least some classical background, which I’m sure Hemsworth has. Similar performances are handled excellently by Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Tom Hiddleston as Lok, and particularly Idris Elba as Heimdall (who truly owns every scene he’s in). Unfortunately, most of the human characters are largely forgettable. Honestly the only person whose performance is worth mentioning is Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, whose character essentially ties
all the marvel films together (along with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury).
If you can, I might suggest not watching the film in 3D. While it’s true I kind of have a grudge against 3D, it comes close to ruining the experience with Thor. Thanks to the 3D most of the action scenes are nearly unwatchable, which is very bad thing considering this is an ACTION film. The only time the 3D works (in this film or any other) is in the wide shots of landscapes. Granted, the realm of Asgard is a wonder to behold in 3D, but the rest of the film is greatly weakened by it.
Yet, the pure suckiness of 3D isn’t nearly enough to cripple this film. Every movie fan owes it to themselves to see Thor. Not so much for the film itself, but what it is doing for the big picture.

Production Value: 8
Entertainment Value: 9

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13 Assassins Review

By Andrew Walsh

13 Assassins is a new film by controversial filmmaker Takeshi Miike, who has gained international notoriety for his unflinching portrayal of violence, sexuality, and numerous taboo subjects. While I’m not on for pushing the envelope simply for the sake of it, Miike’s work has a very unique style to it, and the man is always willing to work in a variety of different genres.

The film tells the story of the assassination of Lord Naritsugu, the brother of the Shogun who is rendered “above the law” due to his status. However, other government officials fear the eventuality of Naritsugu rising to a higher political position where he may gain true ruling power. To stop this from happening a ronin samurai, Shinzaemon, is secretly hired to kill Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon enlists the help of 11 other samurai, and eventually a bandit, to fight through the Lord’s daunting number of bodyguards. Together, they orchestrate a final stand against the Lord within a booby-trapped laden village.

One could say that 13 Assassins, despite being a remake of a film from the 60’s, could be said to parallel Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai. It deals with numerous ideas about the life and code of a samurai, as well as the gathering of a large number of characters to accomplish a singular task. There are several instances of characters performing hara-kiri, a concept that is quite foreign to Western audiences.

The film also deals with the duty of a samurai: the 13 assassins are initially ronin (master-less samurai) who can fight for their own causes due to their lack of loyalty to any master. Yet Lord Naritsugu is protected by hundreds of samurai who have sworn to give their lives for his, regardless of how they personally feel about his actions. One such samurai, Hanbei, the personal bodyguard of Naritsugu, is actually an old friend of Shinzaemon. Hanbei is shown to be a generally good person who is faced with a difficult moral descision of whether to betray his (quite obviously evil) master, or retain his honor as a samurai. For Western audiences the choice would be obvious, but from the point of view of a samurai it becomes far more complicated.

Lord Naritsugu in particular is an interesting villain. The kind of villain that is so cartoonishly evil you would expect him to be larger than life and unbelievable, but he is actually quite an engaging character. He is the kind of villain you love to hate, the kind of person who, in a perfect world, no one could possibly identify with. He interchangeably rapes the wives of men who offer him shelter and uses entire families (including children) as target practice. He is the kind of person who will kick the severed head of a man who has just sacrificed his life for him, and delights in the numerous deaths of men who protect him. Naritsugu is a man of great power who knows how to abuse it.

One may be surprised at the pacing of the film. For well over the first hour is mostly expository information, building up the incomprehensible evil that is Lord Naritsugu as well as the entire plan to bring about his death. There are brief bits of action within the first half, but thing don’t really get rolling until the second half… and boy do they get rolling. Almost the entirety of the final 45 minutes of the film consists of the final stand within the village. Imagine the ending of Saving Private Ryan but in Feudal Japan. The entire sequence is thrilling and rarely lets up until the final showdown (we all knew it would come to that). In the end, the surviving samurai contemplates his loyalty: does it belong to a master, or to himself?

13 Assassins is definitely not to be missed if you get the chance. You can currently watch it on Amazon before it’s in theaters, but is scheduled for release by the end of the month. Do not miss that opportunity.

Production Value: 9
Entertainment Value: 9

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SUCKER PUNCH Review

By: Andrew Walsh

Sucker Punch is, not ironically, something you will not see coming. It is a film that is equal parts action, fantasy, asylum drama, burlesque, and quasi-music video. It’s the kind of film that, despite appearances, does have thought in its head and a theme to be examined.
Sucker Punch is the fifth film by Director Zack Snyder, yet the first of which that is not an adaptation of some kind. Snyder is a born visual storyteller, composing each shot as if it were a painting. There is true artistry in the visuals of all of his films (particularly Watchmen) and he’s not about to hold back now.
Sucker Punch tells the story of a young woman (nicknamed Baby Doll) who is sent to an insane asylum by her stepfather. She learns that in five days she will be lobotomized, and so she escapes into a fantasy world within her own mind. A world in which she instead trapped in a 1920’s style brothel and acts out her escape plan there. Yet even within this dream Baby Doll imagines her various trials and tribulations as fantastical action sequences.
For the most part, all Sucker Punch really has are symbols and metaphors. The story isn’t particularly interesting and there’s little, if any, character development. What’s interesting about the film are its various iconography, which it uses to comment on female empowerment.
Think about what it means to be a strong male character: a man who stands up to his oppressors, a man of action who is always able to fight back, a man who stands up for his ideals. What do you think of when you hear strong female character? Personally, I don’t see many heroines in films that are actually strong female characters. Most of them essentially become roles that would be interchangeable with another male role (think Alice in the Resident Evil movies). The only one I can think of in recent memory is The Bride in Kill Bill, a role of action hero that could only be portrayed as a woman.
All of the heroines of the film are essentially all fighting back against heroic male iconography: battles with large samurai, battlefields of both World Wars, a Lord of the Rings styled castle (complete with orcs), and a runaway train with a bomb onboard. The fantasies all take place in the mind of Baby Doll when she is forced to dance for the entertainment of her male oppressors, yet these dream sequences are filled with Freudian male imagery (swords, guns, trains, etc) which the heroines interchangeably use and destroy.
What we are seeing is the typical female heroine’s internal, emotional battle “translated” as the typical male’s outward, reactionary battle. It’s not the fantasy battles themselves that are empowering, but instead what they stand in for.
Also of note is the aesthetic portrayal of the film’s male and female characters. All of the male characters are portrayed as being sleazy, conniving, or downright ugly with the exclusion of John Hamm who plays the one sympathetic male character (within the real world). In contrast, the women are breathtakingly beautiful, particularly within the dream sequences where they are often wearing sexy lingerie. They appear almost as works of art to be appreciated in and of themselves (objectification) yet consistently fight back and overpower their adversaries.
However, as fun as it is to wax philosophically about a film such as this, there are still questions that need to be answered.
The acting is all good for the most part. While the characters are not particularly developed, the actors portray them with much more depth than the script would suggest. Particular praise must be given to Emily Browning as Baby Doll, who shows us the character clearly and definitely yet doesn’t utter a single word for the first 15 to 20 minutes of the film (I actually thought Snyder might have been attempting to tell the story without the main character ever speaking, which could have been cool). Also of note is Scott Glenn as The Wise Man, who essentially embodies every male action hero/mentor character complete with clichés and one-liners.
The film’s biggest problem is a lack of emotional context. Once we figure out that the actions sequences are all dreams while the “real” world of the brothel is also a dream we lose nearly all our sense of place or consequences. It’s like when a friend tells you a story that one of their friends told them.
In the end, Sucker Punch is a visual fiesta that is gorgeous to behold. In some ways a action film with messages and ideas, yet in other ways plays as indulgence for indulgence’s sake.

Production Value: 8
Entertainment Value: 8

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LIMITLESS Review

By: Andrew Walsh

Limitless is the story of a struggling writer who happens upon a miracle drug that unlocks the hidden potential of his brain and allows his mind to focus and work at superhuman levels… that sounds like a pretty cool idea to me. It’s not wild and altogether unbelievable but has enough room with which it can be creative. Unfortunately, this is not entirely the case when it comes to the movie as a whole.
We follow Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) as the struggling writer. As he takes the wonder drug and seems to be solving all the problems in his life Eddie soon realizes he is in way over his head and now has multiple enemies gunning for the secret to his success.
Honestly, that’s about it. There are a few threads dealing with Eddie’s girlfriend, Robert De Niro in the one-note role of “Mean Businessman #1,” a half-assed murder mystery that is ultimately glazed over in about 5 seconds, and something about Russian gangsters who are after the miracle drug. None of these threads seem to come to fruition and all ends up becoming so much noise.
The big problem with the movie is, ironically, a lack of focus. All of those storylines are happening all at once, they all have an equal impact on the story, yet all of them feel equally unimportant compared to one another. It would be much more interesting if they had dropped one of these storylines, especially if they could have focused more on the characters. Also, each story only plays at face value: there are no real world parallels, metaphors, analogies, etc. The miracle drug is not a metaphor for heroin nor is there any thought given to whether or not Eddie remains the same person while he is on the drug (or rather, they mention the idea in one scene and then drop it completely).
That being said, the more technical side of things is far more impressive. While most of the cinematography is a whole lot of unspectacular medium-shots and tracking-shots for most of the film, there are short glimpses of genius. In particular, there is an effect that is repeated several times in which the camera travels forward on a straight path for what must be multiple blocks on the streets of New York. I have never seen anything like it and I applaud whoever came up with such a brilliant and unique effect. Also, I like the detail of enhancing the color saturation of the film whenever Eddie is on the drug. It’s a subtle detail that becomes a shorthand for telling you he is currently on the drug, as opposed to constantly showing him take it onscreen.
At the end of the day Limitless is an entertaining movie with some cool ideas that unfortunately don’t ever pay off. You’ll probably have fun, but you might be yearning for something more…

Production Value: 7
Entertainment Value: 6

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