Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Welcome to 1930s Paris where everyone speaks with a British accent.

Director Martin Scorsese treats us to an uninterrupted opening shot in his movie “Hugo” that shows us this magnificent city from the air; the camera first shows it as roughly concentric circles of light, seen from Zeppelin height, moving through a Fodor’s tour of highlights: headlights and taillights that stream like long ribbons around the Arc de Triomphe, a swoop past the Eiffel Tower (no embellishment needed) a final approach to Gare Montparnasse, the camera diving down to the tracks, rushing into the station, speeding not just between trains but also passengers (and I’m wondering, am I still watching “Tintin”? Are all these people animations?) finally coming to the end of the line to once again soar upward into the station's vaulted heights, slowing, settling, finding and framing the giant clock-face where, peering out from behind the number 4, spying on happenings below, is a boy. Hugo. A face within a face.

It is so magnificent that the opening shot warrants an end credit.

From here the pace slows for a while and much is done with little said. We learn that Hugo is a fixer of things, a sort of urchin, a sort of thief, living alone and by his wits in secret apartments within the giant clock. This seems appropriate enough in that Hugo’s father (Jude Law) and uncle work with clocks and gizmos and watch springs. Apart from his memories, Hugo’s sole companion is a boy automaton that sits at the table, broken and neutral but seeming to regard everything with a sense of patient expectation. His father found it, and fixing it was to be a hobby for the two of them. We can do this, said the father to the son, because we’re watchsmiths. The father’s use of second “we” was poignant.

The movie quickly establishes its set of characters and draws them in untrustworthy shades of good and bad. There is the evil and comic train inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) who has a Doberman, a small jail cell for captured orphans and a balky metal leg brace. Where Scorcese’s camera effortlessly accompanies the boy through the grandness of the clock’s interior, the station inspector’s leg is not built to facilitate the same pursuit. There’s the young girl whose love of books informs her vocabulary and she treats herself to the considered use of words like “reprobate” and “seclusion” and “superlative”, which she finds as delightful in her mouth as maybe Smarties. There’s the old man at the toy shop who through merciless effort and outward appearance is a cruel, cruel man. But here’s the first real hint of greatness in the movie: you disbelieve him. It’s a wonderful performance by Ben Kingsley.

The movie describes a great circle of a story. The boy believes the automaton holds a secret message from his father but lacks a critical piece. The girl solves the mystery of the automaton’s heart-shaped key. The automaton solves the mystery of the unhappy man in the toy shop. The unhappy man made movies. A full-moon of a circle.

Movies, this movie tells us, let you see your dreams in the daytime. In fact, this movie tells us a lot about movies. Isabelle, the girl with the heart-shaped key, has never seen one. And so Hugo (himself evocative of "Oliver Twist") takes Isabelle to sneak into a showing of “Safety Last”. It is fortunate that they are discovered and thrown out only after having just viewed the most iconic scene from that movie. The image of Harold Lloyd clinging to life by a minute-hand will later have great import for Hugo as he finds himself pursued by the Station Inspector to the crossroads of escape or capture.

The more you know about the earliest movies, the more you are likely to enjoy “Hugo”. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I have only recently seen for the first time some of the great films of Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton. So in "Hugo" you get peeks of the magnificent shot from “The General” - Buster Keaton sitting stone-faced as the train’s great connecting rod starts to move. There’s Charlie Chaplin and a young boy - it must be a scene from “The Kid”. And key to this movie, you watch as a rocket is launched to approach the moon, which turns into the Man in the Moon, and the rocket hits him dead in the eye. That movie, “A Trip to the Moon”, was made by Georges Méliès and the more you know about him going into "Hugo", the more delighted you’re apt to be.

Some irresistible sidebars: If you were to attempt to draw an arc along the whole history of movies, could you have done a better job than pulling together a cast that included Christopher Lee, Jude Law and Sasha Baron Cohen? I nudged Ian at the cameo Scorcese made as (what else?) the photographer. And it took a moment, but I finally placed the man playing René Tabard as the actor who plays Arnold Rothstein in "Boardwalk Empire", executive produced by Martin Scorcese.

The plot of the movie twists and turns. At one point Ben Kingley’s character sadly tells Hugo that happy endings only happen in movies. Since we know he’s in one, Ben has given away the finish.

I have only two complaints. One is that the 3D effect was often distracting and jarred me out of the story. Admittedly, the distraction grew less as the movie went on. And to give it its due, there were scenes in the clock tower where the combination of camera angle and 3D provided a fantastic sense of depth and a delightful lurch in the stomach.

My other smallish complaint was with Sasha Baron Cohen who seemed to bring to the movie certain improvised moments whose tone ran against the grain. As well, there were times when his accent would wander and for several lines I found myself suddenly listening to Ali G where moments before there had been the Station Inspector.

Here's where I found greatness in this movie. Your results may differ.

There are several side characters, lesser characters, say, that all have parts that, while not directly serving the main plot of the story, reinforce its key theme. They also live much of their lives in Gare Montparnasse accompanied by waltzes on French accordions (lucky them). There’s the fat man wooing the spectacled woman only to be rebuffed repeatedly by her dog. There’s the pretty flower girl who has the eye of the Station Inspector, and after a few balky attempts, together they finally get to paint a more loving and sympathetic dimension to the Station Inspector. There's the book store owner who growls from his high perch (it's Christopher Lee - how could he not growl?) but in the end provides vital connections for the two young heroes. All of these characters have purpose, and that purpose is persist and succeed and elevate the people you care for. Where the movie began by showing us what we thought to be good guys and bad guys, by the end of the movie we're able to see good in everyone.

All parts are good parts.

The greatest good is Hugo’s. He has told Isabelle that he prefers to see the universe as a perfect machine, and given the assumption of perfection, there can be no extra parts. He tells her this because he does not yet know what his part is supposed to do, but intrinsically he knows that it should be useful, it should have a specific purpose and it should be good. In the end, Hugo’s isn't only that good thing that's fixed the automaton, but a great thing that's fixed a man.

My breath caught as I realized this movie had been talking to ME, that the movie was telling the whole audience that everyone's life has meaning.

That there are no spare parts in the universe. And all parts are good parts.

Four straws.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

(Thanks to conviction and planning, overcoming the obstacle of only ONE daily showing and that at noon, Ian and I watched this movie in 2D. We were still distracted by shots that were obviously made to be showcased in 3D.)

One of the things I seem to have left behind as an adult is the joyous experience of reading the collection of Tintin books, those thin, massive hard-cover comics. I read them as a boy in Bermuda, those and Asterix and Obelix, which came as identically built books. More than any individual plot, I can remember the assortment of characters and the joy of reading them. So in describing the movie "The Adventures of Tintin" I would be unable to tell you if the movie was based on any of the books except that I'd read somewhere on the internet that it includes the plots from three. Because I had loved the books in my youth, I knew from when I first heard about it that I would want to see the movie. The sequence included in the movie trailer of the sailing ship cresting the desert dune and dragging the sea behind it was the clincher if one was needed and it wasn't.

This is a beautiful movie. From the opening scenes in the outdoor bazaar, lost on the ocean and then in the desert, the middle eastern seaport, the movie is brilliant bright colours and exquisitely rendered. The animation is so realistic, you forget that it's a motion-captured, computer-generated character, except for reminders from exaggerated noses. Remember the complaints from "The Polar Express" and its successors about how no one has yet solved the motion-capture problem of dead, creepy eyes? Well, problem solved. Stephen Spielberg directed this movie with assistance from Peter Jackson (Peter Jackson as second unit director? There was a surprise). Around about the time that he directed "A.I." I noticed how Spielberg loved to craft shots from mirrors and reflected surfaces, a technique he uses wonderfully and repeatedly in Tintin, transitions that take inspired and innovative advantage of motion capture's faux-reality, including a shot that zooms into the remarkably life-like eye of his character, through the pupil and into the next scene.

Around the same time I started reading Tintin, I discovered the hard-boiled detective books of Ed McBain whose 87th Precinct series include repeated appearances by the two homicide bulls, Monaghan and Monroe. As often as I've read those books, only recently did it occur to me that perhaps Monaghan and Monroe were an hommage to Thompson and Thomson. I would watch a movie that was ONLY about Thompson and Thomson (or maybe it's Thomson and Thompson). I'd forgotten about their trademark patter as evidenced by an early exchange:

Thompson: It's childishly simple!
Thomson: To be precise: it's simply childish!

The casting of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as these two inspectors was sublime.

So with all this, why did I get the sense of being a little underwhelmed when I left the movie theatre? Let me try to spread some blame for this.

Start with the plot. The film moves from place to place without a sense of purpose or connection beyond a simplistic motivation of a scavenger hunt. The person whose half of the review you won't see at the bottom of this expressed a similar sentiment as we walked through the parking lot to the car: "It didn't seem to be about anything." And as you get to the end, in spite of the movie only being a treasure hunt, a greater goal seemingly remains to be continued.

My bigger complaints concern the two main characters, Tintin and Snowy. I realize and accept this is not a traditional cartoon. The character design for this style of animation is going to mean that Tintin isn't going to look like Tintin. But somehow I found it distracting. There's the cowlick, and it's not quite right. The face is not quite right, and dammit, his socks are supposed to be white. The story opens with Tintin having his caricature being drawn. Behind him is a gallery of faces straight from the comics and of course the final drawing of Tintin matches the way you've seen him in all of his books. It was a message straight from Spielberg. This is as close as it's going to get.

Snowy was the bigger distraction. Unlike his master, Snowy was created and rendered as the perfect match to his comic book persona. My issue was not how he looked, rather that the dog acted as Deus ex machina for at least a half a dozen plot points through the movie. Let's put Tintin in a really sticky wicket. How will he get out if THIS!!! Over and over the answer was: the dog. Over and over. And over. It became banal.

It's been a week since I saw the movie and I'm still hung up over what rating I'd give the movie. Three stars or two? "The Adventures of Tintin" was like this beautiful and exquisite goblet of cheap wine.

Ian says three straws. So.

Three Straws.