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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Did Seeing This Inspire Any Young Folk To Seek Out Silent Movies?

Contemporary Look-In --- Hugo (2011)

Parisian orphan meets George Melies and they bond. Another of contempo pics where production design weighs like an elephant foot. Director Martin Scorsese does high-tech homage to lush filmmaking of Michael Powell extraction, Hugo a keyboard-enabled Peter Pan flying places no camera went before. Scorsese might be a modern magician after Melies' own example, but for fact so many helmsmen with big $ resource doing similar exotic dances. Hugo is typical of modern ones that tell an 80 minute story in two hours. Moments are magical and Hugo's shot through with Scorsese love for cinema at time of inception. If only he could use the hundred and fifty million to document same and leave off at times treacly narrative.

The boy that is Hugo is weepy, but determined. He'd like to communicate with his dead father through a robot they restored together (here called an automaton). Is this at all healthy pursuit for a youngster? Writer wish fulfillment gives Hugo a pretty girlfriend who shares his morbid obsession and loves him for 30's-era pioneering geekiness. This is (or ever was) happening in real life about like a cheerleader going with me in 1969 to see Destroy All Monsters, but H'wood scribes renew the fantasy in hopes of such Beauty and The Dork dreams somehow coming true.

Ben Kingley is the cranky (not camera-wise) Melies, forlorn at his toy kiosk as was real-life GM, Scorsese poising the discarded genius for a same sort of triumphal comeback Tim Burton gave his Ed Wood in 1992, outcast picture-makers of yore vindicated by modern counterparts who identify strongly with them, despite Scorsese/Burton being at no risk of decline and continuing to direct high-profile pics themselves. Sir Chris Lee is the wise old bookseller. I kept wishing he had played Melies instead of Kingsley, renewal of objection felt when Lee got the Mycroft part in Wilder's The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes rather than leading as he deserved. Sacha Baron Cohen is excellent as the cruel station inspector tossing children into a black hole of orphan asylums. He's obviously a gifted actor for having gone from Borat and Bruno to characterization like this.

The Hugo kids go see Harold Lloyd in a theatre and we get a glimpse of Safety Last in HD, which amounted to theatrical preview of Criterion's Blu-Ray which would follow within the year or two. Hugo is a Disneyland for those who thrive on birthing movies. Its re-creation of Melies-conjuring spares no expense and is lovingly rendered. "Selected" theatres got Hugo in 3-D, but my run was flat, which I'd have no other way in the face of 126 minutes and horrific prospect of sitting that long wearing depth specs. The best of Hugo is remarkable, though. Let go the mopey kid, focus on Melies, with more of Chris Lee, and I'd gladly watch again.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

HUGO is one of the best 3D films of our time. Scorsese really made use of the medium.

You missed Richard Griffiths who is terrific in this.We lost a good one with him. I am addicted to PIE IN THE SKY.

I loved HUGO and enjoy re-watching it.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Okay, you've nudged me to revisit HUGO... it's been sitting on my Netflix streaming queue for months. Like Reg, I thought it was pretty great when I saw it in the theater (and I, regretfully, skipped the 3D back then!) so I'd like to size up yours (and others') critiques against my first impressions.

But, then again, I kinda liked MAN OF STEEL a little too!

12:19 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I also think HUGO is pretty darn great. And it is a shame you didn't see it in 3-D, because I think it has absolutely the best use of that extra dimension of any film ever. Not showboaty, no paddle-balls flying at the camera, just a lovely, subtle depth throughout.

1:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson on Martin Scorsese, "Hugo," and "The Fantastic World Of Jules Verne":

A cheery Scorsese did a Daily Show interview to promote the film, crediting his young daughter with suggesting he "make a movie people want to see." I saw it in 3D and enjoyed it; the theater audience was very happy even if they didn't come out talking about George Melies and film preservation.

Don't think the film was a financial success. How's it doing in video?

Melies fans out there might look up "The Fantastic World of Jules Verne", the American release of a 50s Czech film by Karel Zeman. Where Harryhausen made his fantasies persuasive, Zeman called attention to his illusions with obvious sets (in this film everything is painted to look like an engraving) and in-camera tricks that created a sort of nightmare reality.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Jonah said...

I have to admit that despite really wanting to cheer this homage to early cinema, I found HUGO to be a total waxworks. Not once did it click with me emotionally, and indeed the dreamy music, wide-eye reaction shots, and illuminated aura of the scenes that pay direct tribute to silent cinema felt hectoring to me (and patronizing, though that may just be because I was part of the 1% of the audience that was already familiar with all of it). Speaking of Tim Burton, the score by the usually-reliable Howard Shore seemed to be imitating Danny Elfman's work, with all the tinkly arpeggios (accompanied by virtual crane shots spiraling through CGI "sets") signifying "magic" and "wonder" in overdrive.

Your point that the film told "an 80 minute story in two hours" was precisely my reaction--unfortunately it was actually slightly _over_ two hours. My partner and I both noticed that nearly every line of dialogue had air around it; I swear I was counting the seconds between lines. What's more, the repeated slapstick motifs (such as the one involving the dogs) were shot/edited in a cumbersome way. What Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton could have done in one carefully-staged shot, it took Scorsese numerous wide shots, close ups, reaction shots, travelings, etc. The effect (for me anyway) was to emaciate the gags.

This wasn't the arty, contemplative slowness of some art cinema; it was the heaviness of the "prestige" film, or as Manny Farber would have categorized it, "white elephant art."

11:48 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well,whatever you feel it is sad that the public did not respond to the film in greater numbers.

It is also sad that Scorsese seems to have taken a cavalier attitude towards his long time producer.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

My kids already knew Melies (I made sure they saw some when we read the book Hugo is based on) but especially for my younger son it reignited the desire to see and even to make films where things are deliberately fake-- where you make all the pieces of the illusion by hand.

10:26 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

I have to confess that I found the critical acclaim for Hugo to be inexplicable. I saw it in 3D, but found it tough going. Ponderous, portentous and bloated, I just could not get any sense of wonder or delight.

1:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some thoughts on "Hugo," both flat and in 3-D:

I was able to see "Hugo" in both flat and 3D versions, and much preferred the flat version. The particular charm of 3D is supposedly because it creates an illusion of reality. That isn't quite so. It doesn't so much recreate the reality of our everyday existence as that it creates its own reality. It's perspectives are different, often forced or straitened, and its difference from flat films only seems to heighten its essential unreality. What it supplies is inadequate, given what our imagination provides, when we watch a flat flim. The physical discomfort some people experience, watching a 3D film, probably has more to do with disorientation than with the particular process used to create the illusion. There is also a danger, from an aesthetic standpoint, that the dramatic focus of a scene might be obscured. In "Hugo," for instance, there are a number of scenes where an object in the foreground assumes a prominence in the 3D version that it did not have in the flat, and thus becomes a distraction from the action going on.

The film itself is charming, obviously made with a great love of the movies and their history. The young leads, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz, bring a freshness and innocence quite in keeping with the sense of wonder which embues the film. Miss Moretz, in particular, is exquisite, very much for us as the young Jean Simmons must have seemed for another generation, when she appeared in "Great Expectations." Since making "Hugo," however, she has been in such films as "Dark Shadows" and "Kick Ass 2," which suggests how our age makes use of such talent or beauty.

It is somewhat disappointing that "Hugo" never resolves the elaborate mysteries of its beginning in any satisfactory way. The automaton which figures so strongly in the initial scenes proves to be something of sidelight in the life of Melies, as it is finally revealed, and little about that life seems to justify his existence as the man of mystery he is initially presented to be. Along the way, though, there is much to touch the heart, always in its suggestion of the endless possibilities of love. The boy comes ever closer to his father, who had died, and to his memories of him, by taking up the task again of restoring the automaton, and the boy and the girl experience the first burgeoning of a tenderness beyond their years through the noble quest they are on. Even the station master reveals that his ferocity towards others is but a facade before a yearning, which might be pierced by the one woman who would look beyond it with eyes opened by love.

If "Hugo" in the end seems less than the sum of its parts, perhaps it is because any true source of wonder is amost always ineffable, something just beyond the edge of sound and always the moment after. It is not to be finally realized in this world, but in another.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

A note about Sacha Baron Cohen: I am not a fan of his TV and movie personas designed to shock a la Borat but when I saw a Borat clip prior to that movie's release (I can't recall whether it was from his TV show or the movie itself) I did note that a physical bit he did was quite wonderful and featured a facility for body language and pratfalls not seen since Peter Seller's last Inspector Clouseau outing, and before that, the golden years of silent comedy. Then it dawned on me what a wasted opportunity that the producers of the Pink Panther reboot didn't think to cast Cohen in the Clouseau role. Seeing Cohen a few years later in Hugo ostensibly playing a cousin of Clouseau only sealed the sentiment for me. Perhaps the Panther's purveyors will see fit to consider Cohen for Clouseau should another reboot of the series transpire.

12:58 PM  

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