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Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese tackling a children’s film feels like an odd fit for the man responsible for classic gangster epics and symphonies of violence. But if David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Danny Boyle can all make family films that don’t make your brain rot, then why not the greatest living director? Maybe notorious sadist Lars von Trier will be next. Adapted from the award-winning children’s book, Hugo is, as my pal Eric Muller put it, a family film for film historians.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living beneath the walls of the Paris train station. He’s secretly the one responsible for winding up all the clocks and keeping time. He has to stay one step ahead of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who snatches wayward boys and sends them off to an orphanage. Hugo has been swiping clock pieces from the booth of a mysterious toy collector, George (Ben Kingsley). He needs the tiny pieces to fix a metallic man that Hugo and his late father (Jude Law) had been working on together. Hugo is convinced that if he fixes the metal man the automaton will write out one last message from his father. Hugo befriends George’s niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two of them explore the various shops and shopkeepers of the station. As they uncover more clues, the kids realize that George is actually George Méliès, the filmmaking pioneer best known for the 1902 fantasy, A Trip to the Moon (the one where the moon gets a bullet in its eye).

Scorsese’s first foray into 3D filmmaking is a rousing sensation for the eyes. The images pop without superfluous objects flying at the camera. The depth of field is nicely and creatively toyed with by Scorsese. Best of all, the 3D enhances the story rather than distracting you. Hugo is a celebration of the advances in moviemaking, and 3D is the latest advancement meant to make the theatergoing experience special. Of course the theatergoing experience has always been special, as the movie indicates. Where else but a theater can we collectively bond with a group of strangers, laughing collectively, feeling the pangs of emotion in unison? There’s a thematic rationale for Scorsese’s use of the third dimension. He masterfully fills the screen with wonderful images, like the massive inner working of clock towers. Scorsese’s signature tracking shots zoom in through the wintry 1930s Paris landscape and train station. A visual highlight is when a trunk of sketches busts open, the papers scattered all over the screen, some moving like flip books, creating the illusion of animation. I can honestly advise people to seek out a 3D showing of Hugo if given the option. For once, it’s worth the extra dough. I only anticipate making this same recommendation for the upcoming Piranha 3DD.

It’s the second half where the movie shows its true intentions, becoming a love letter to the power of cinema and the early pioneers of the art form. Scrosese has long been a historian of the movies, and Hugo is his celebration of the early cinematic dream makers, notably Méliès and his surreal theatrical landscapes. Arthur C. Clark famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s what early cinema was to a populace that had never seen the likes of moving pictures (we see an early audience fearing for their lives watching a film of a train arriving). It was like a new magic. The turn-of-the century filmmakers like Méliès were charting new terrain as visual storytellers, opening the public to new wonders of the imagination. Simple tricks of editing substitution, dissolves, and visual arrangement could help foster the ongoing illusion. It may be low-rent, like hand painting individual film frames, but it was the special effects of their day. D.W. Griffith once said of Méliès, “I owe him everything.” Scorsese is sharing his passion for the history of the movies and it’s hard not to feel the power of the movies.

But when Hugo gets swallowed whole by Scorsese’s nostalgia, the rest of the plot becomes incidental. The characters, which were not strong to begin with, are given pat resolutions that make you realize how flimsy the characterization is. The movie takes a sub-Amelie route, letting Hugo bring together disparate couples, but you don’t really know anything about these people. Emily Mortimer’s female florist has maybe two lines in the movie, so why should I root for her to get with the Station Inspector? There’s an older couple whose romance is sabotaged by an aggressive pooch. You can imagine the scintillating resolution that awaits. The film history section is honestly the best part of the movie, but it means that everything leading up to that point was just in service to prop up the academic nostalgia. It means that the characters and their mysteries were really unimportant, and they feel that way by film’s end. The movie just grinds to a halt. The mystery of the metal man is that he’s a MacGuffin, a means to discover Méliès’ past. The whole clockwork symbolism can be clumsy, instructing us time and again that people are broken and Hugo feels the need to fix things. Too bad he couldn’t fix the disjointed story.

The actors manage to make favorable impressions when they can fight free of the movie’s educational pull. Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is a strong lead actor who rises above the sniveling preface of his character. He makes you root for the kid even when we don’t really know much about him beyond his Dickensian conditions. The kid has some pretty piercing Paul Newman-esque blue eyes too. Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass) is showing the poise and grace to make it long term in this business. Kinglsey (Shutter Island) is effectively curt with his poorly veiled pain and regret. Cohen (Borat) expands his dramatic range noticeably, adding touches of empathy for a character that could mostly have been arch and cartoonish. He’s still the film’s best source for comedy. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) makes a welcomed appearance as an expert on early filmmaking, Méliès especially. He serves as the mouthpiece for Scorsese’s passion.

Hugo is a family film that ultimately gets swallowed whole by the filmmakers’ passion. It makes for an entertaining and informative essay on the skill and vision of turn-of-the-century filmmakers, but if people are anticipating a fun story about a scrappy kid and his mischievous adventures, then this is not that movie. Hugo benefits from terrific visuals, strong acting, and Scorsese’s blend of whimsy and innocence without stooping to anything crass or lowbrow. Hugo aspires for the rich, romantic experience of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) but comes up short. Hugo is at turns charming and magical but as a narrative it is too often flimsy, a wispy thing meant to lead to Scorsese’s love letter. It’s a fine and fitting tribute but even the best and most powerful love letter can only go so far, never mind the hassle of special 3D glasses.

Nate’s Grade: B

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The visuals by Tim Burton are suitably lavish but it’s missing the heart of the 1971 film. I never thought I’d say a movie worked despite Johnny Depp’s performance, but that’s the case here. It was far too off. Whereas Gene Wilder had the dichotomy of warmth and madness, Depp was just the kooky Michael Jackson-esque weirdo in a bobbed haircut (I thought Neverland had been found). Perhaps the added Michael Jackson vibe makes the premise a lot darker, what with luring children into a chocolate factory. Charlie is a really boring character lacking definition beyond his “goodness.” Once they get to the factory he?s basically wallpaper, watching his peers fall one by one to their vices. I’m not sold on a Wonka back-story. I don?t need to know why he is as he is; I need no tormented childhood and daddy issues. This new film has more polish but the old film has more togetherness and lasting power.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

I was in Dublin, Ireland of all places when I saw Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I was enticed to get off my sick bed and see George Lucas’ final Star Wars installment. As a kid I loved the original trilogy. My expectations were piqued by the promise that Revenge of the Sith would be bigger, badder, and suitably darker than any previous Star Wars installment. It did get the series’ first PG-13 rating and a stern warning to parents from Lucas for nothing. I had equal hopes for the other two prequels, 1999’s The Phantom Menace and 2002’s Attack of the Clones, but said hopes were dashed upon actually watching the movies. This was the last film and I had my fingers crossed ole George would finally get it right.

It’s now several years into the war between the Galactic Republic and the separatists led by General Grievous, leader of the droid army. Anakin (Hayden Christenson) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGreggor) fight for the Republic and the chancellor of the Senate, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Anakin is having nightmare that his secret wife Amidala (Natalie Portman) will die in childbirth. He seeks out a way to save her and is tempted by certain promises by shadowy figures that the dark side of the force can restore life. From there things are set into motion that turn the Republic into an evil Empire, the Jedi into a near extinct band of warriors, and Anakin into the iconic Darth Vader.

My friend Josh Browning brought up the idea that Star Wars would be so much cooler without George Lucas. I gave this idea some thought and have come to the same conclusion. Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? Directing flaws aside, where Lucas really needs assistance is his writing. The biggest qualms I’ve had with the new set of Star Wars, horrible acting aside, is how unforgivably boring they are and the tepid romance. The original Star Wars were about action, adventure, and things that mattered. The prequel set has been mostly about trade, taxation, Senatorial control, and separatists. The majority of the prequels have been sleep-inducing and riddled with pacing issues.

In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Lucas said 60% of his prequel story was related to the final film. With some quick calculations, that means that there was 20% plot in The Phantom Menace and the remaining 20% in Attack of the Clones. No wonder nothing seemed to be going on! This also creates the problem of Sith having far too much plot to deal with in too short of a reasonable time frame. Things feel left out or not fully explained, like why the hell does General Grievous have a cold? I know I’m missing something but it’s lazy filmmaking to make an audience do extra homework to flesh out your storytelling.

As stated, my other main gripe was the half-baked romance Lucas had between Anakin and Amidala. In Attack of the Clones, the romance is spontaneous. He hasn’t seen her in like 10 years and now they’re instantly smitten? There is no beginning to this romance, no nurturing, no progress. The romantic troubles are worsened by Lucas’ disinterested writing. Lucas cannot write dialogue to save his life. Romantic bon mots like “Hold me like you did at the lake” and “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you reentered my life” will not exactly stoke a fire in your loins. Plus Portman and Christenson have as absolutely no chemistry.

Now, the reason I’ve reviewed the romance from Attack of the Clones is because it serves as the linchpin for why Anakin goes bad and becomes Darth Vader. It’s a mighty big question about what turned Anakin from man into one bad mutha, and his quest to save his wife is a satisfyingly plausible answer. But the transition doesn’t have near the punch Lucas intends because of his weak romance he’s penned. Lucas’s shortcomings as a writer finally pull the rug out from Anakin’s big moment.

The acting is another weakness. True, the acting hasn’t always been the top priority with any Star Wars film, but these prequels have shown that Lucas would rather stand behind a computer than in front of an actor. Portman has generally seemed bored and lacks any interest in hiding it. In Attack of the Clones she seemed sedated. In Revenge of the Sith she gets to cry a bunch. In Lucas land, that’s seen as character development.

I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this. Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. I will say Christenson was rather good in Shattered Glass where his arrested development acting techniques expertly channeled the manipulative Stephen Glass (if you do have a choice, go rent Shattered Glass). But in the more operatic Star Wars world, Christenson routinely comes off like a kid playing dress-up. Even after he’s gone full evil and growls and screams and glares, he comes off like nothing more than a poodle trying to be a guard dog. Of course neither performer is helped any by Lucas’ absentee directing style with actors.

The only members of the Star Wars prequels that will walk away unblemished are Ewan McGreggor and Ian McDiarmid. McGreggor has got the Alec Guinness voice down and proves to be a capable and dignified leading hero. McDiarmid has a juicer role than Anakin and really relishes his villainy.

Sith is the best of the three Star Wars prequels but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Whereas Menace and Clones were boring, Sith is just kind of slow and okay. It’s an improvement but the bar wasn’t exactly set very high. The formula is about the same: the first two acts are again quite plodding and then Lucas unleashes a torrent of action to close out his film. Sith does break apart because, surprise, things actually happen and they actually matter. After about six hours of buildup, actions meet consequences, characters meet their demise, and our boy wonder becomes the dark Jedi. People have been waiting decades for these moments and when they arrive they hit like a thunder bolt. Most of the time at least.

The special effects are uniformly fantastic, which has never been an issue for Lucas. Yoda moves and emotes fantastically, actually besting some of his flesh and blood thespians. The interaction of live elements and CGI seems improved. Planets are rendered beautifully and the lava world is simply visually stunning and just plain cool.

The action is exciting but a bit overly edited in light saber battles. As we march into Act Three, there’s a terrific sense of climax with Yoda going off to battle Palpatine and Obi-Wan knowing he must put down Anakin. At long last I felt jolts, shivers, and goose bumps at what was to come. The concluding half of Sith is great rollicking entertainment and visually luxurious to watch. See George, light saber duels and character deaths are far more entertaining than trade disputes and embargo talk. The excitement’s back in the Star Wars franchise but it’s a shame it had to only appear this close to the finish line.

The final chapter on the Star Wars universe is closed. Well, for now. The lure of mountains of cash will probably ensure we haven’t seen the last of some of these beloved characters. Revenge of the Sith is a moderately satisfying closing episode to the Star Wars saga. The film still is an exhibition of Lucas’ filmmaking flaws (writing, pacing, his handling of actors) but Sith finally reaches the excitement and grandeur the original Star Wars had. My Dublin theater was roaring, clapping, yelling and screaming throughout. And for the first time during the prequels, so was I for awhile. And you know what the absolute best part was? Not one single word from Jar-Jar Binks!

Nate’s Grade: B-

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

My countrymen and fellow Americans, I come here not to praise ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ but to bury it. I don’’t know if it’’s a result of being the bridge between the beginning and end of this saga (taking the role of neglected middle child), or a result of unmet sky-high expectations, but I may be alone here in saying that ‘Two Towers’ was a letdown. I’’ll try and frame my reasoning as to not be attacked by hairy hobbits and men with pointy hats and long flowing beards.

1) Story structure. Unlike Fellowship of the Ring, where we’re introduced to a rich world and have suitable character set-up, the second LOTR film puts almost all our characters on the backburner and gives us an insufferably long subplot involving a king and his brood. The movie peters out an ending and seems to throw its hands in the air saying, ““See ya’ a year from now.””

2) Length. This wasn’’t a problem with the previous film but man did ‘Two Towers’ become unbearable as it went. Some described the first film as three hours of walking; well the second could be described as two plus hours of folks hyping a battle and then — a battle. Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about a significant battle …and that’’s it. An hour could have easily been cut from this. It got to the point where my girlfriend was sprawled across my lap pleading for me to somehow make the movie end.

3) Characterization. So much time is spent doing nothing you think the film would further round the characters? Oh how stupid you would be. Nothing new seems to be drawn from any character, with the exception of the treacherous yet likable Gollum. Several people from ‘Fellowship’ (Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen) have screen time that amounts to no more than a cameo, so why in the world aren’’t we getting anything more from our already established heroes? Everyone just looks friggin’ bored. As was I.

4) Excessive dwarf jokes.

I re-watched ‘Fellowship’ and all of the reasons ‘Two Towers’ suffered were not evident. So what does this tell me? Nothing particularly, except not to see the movie in the theater again. ‘Two Towers’ is by no means a bad film. The cinematography, production and special effects are all breath-taking and sweeping. I’’ll still look forward to seeing the next, and last, installment in Peter Jackson’’s ‘Rings’ epic, but ‘Two Towers’ has left a bitter taste of disappointment to linger upon.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Yes, it’s easy to say that Attack of the Clones is better than Phantom Menace, but hey, most anything was better than watching that movie about trade and taxes. The truth of the matter is that for a long while Clones is just as boring as Menace, especially anything involving Anakin onscreen. It’s slow moving, dull, and remarkably poorly written. Lucas cannot write dialogue and someone needs to take away his yellow writing notebooks before he strikes again. The movie only shows life during the last 45 minutes when it finally cooks with a non-stop rush of action. Before then though I would recommend resting up for this period.

Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? What Lucas needs desperately is collaboration, writing and directing. Lucas needs to loosen up the reign of his empire before the three Star Wars prequels undermine the original set. He may have the technology to create any manner of CGI creature but he has no power to get his actors to show any of the realistic and animated life. It seems all Lucas cares about is directing blue screens and leaving his actors out to dry.

And that much ballyhooed romance between Anakin and Amidala? Oh ye God, what romance? You could find something more alive in a monastery. Portman and Christenson have as absolutely no chemistry (unlike the romantic pairs in another, huge Hollywood movie out now). Portman has perfected the staring ahead method. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be romantic. Now I like Natalie Portman, I really do. Her performance in The Professional gets me every time, but her acting is stiff and overly serious here.

I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this begrudgingly. It’s easy to see why Christenson was chosen, he looks like the lost N’SYNC member. His acting on the other hand is not with the force. The Clones Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. It’s actually quite funny to see the future Darth Vader, evil master of the Dark Side and much feared, whining like a six year old throwing a tantrum. This Anakin needs a time out and a lolly.

When Anakin returns to become a protector for the senator, upon their first meet in ten years he shoots her the puppy eyes and says, “I see you have grown as well — grown more beautiful.” Subtlety, thy name is not Anakin Skywalker. The very next scene where they’re alone he’s trying to put the moves on her, though he does not try and use the force to undo her bra. Then somewhere along the line his dogged persistence just wears Amidala down and she relents. She says, “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you re-entered my life.” Ugh. You’re likely to find more romantic passages in a Harlequin bodice ripper at 7-11.

The romance in Clones is like spontaneous romance. There is no beginning, the nurturing of it is not shown, we don’t see the eventual progress. All that happens is he shows up and then instant romance. It just happens. I don’t think so. It’s like a kid went to a girl’s third grade birthday party, then they meet in high school for the first time since that day and are instantly in love. Do you buy that? Well I certainly don’t.

The scenes revolving around Obi-Wan are the only ones worth opening your eyes for. Ewan McGregor has got the Alec Guiness voice down and proves to be a capable leading hero. His voyage to see the clone army and Jango Fett is the subplot that we want, but the movie keeps skipping back and forth between this and the inept romance. By this time everyone knows that Yoda shows off his fighting mettle with a light saber. This is a great idea and the audience I saw it with was having the time of their life during this moment. It’s the only part of the movie that taps into the feeling of whimsical fun of the original trilogy.

Lucas curtailed the criticism of Menace saying it was the setup for all five other movies. I imagine he’ll say the same thing with this one, except that it was setup for four movies. Yes it’ll make a huge amount of bank. Yes it’s a technical achievement but what good are all the bells and whistles if we as an audience are bored? You’ve got one more Star Wars left George, please do it right.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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