Martin Scorsese’s first foray into 3D and children’s cinema has produced a mixed bag of a film that will leave you equal parts charmed, touched, disappointed and surprised.
I have always associated the name “Hugo” with the unexpected. At my primary school a boy of that name, as naked as a newborn baby, burst into the classroom one day to ask the teacher if we were required to wear pants for PE. I haven’t encountered a Hugo since with sufficient charisma to banish that hilarious and utterly strange memory. And Scorsese’s Hugo doesn’t quite manage it either, despite some magical moments.
For me these whiffs of cinematic fairy dust can be found mostly at the beginning of the film. Scorsese introduces us to the world of Parisian orphan Hugo Cabret, who maintains the clocks clandestinely at a train station all by himself, in startling, unforgettable fashion. At first we hover over a sparkly skyline with the Eiffel Tower at its heart, descending gently through marvellously lifelike 3D snowflakes. Then the camera plunges dramatically towards the station that is Hugo’s home, zooming along the tracks and in between the vivid crowds. This shot has incredible depth and uses 3D, as well as traditional set design, to astonishing effect. All our senses feel completely immersed and submerged in the setting of Scorsese’s story.
Unfortunately Hugo’s Achilles heel is its overwhelming lack of a story. The whole movie looks and feels fantastic and there are some exciting set pieces that make excellent use of the spot on period detail. But Hugo is all setup and no payoff. Scorsese sets the scene so perfectly in the opening shots that he needn’t delay steaming on towards the meat of the plot. By the end it becomes clear that the story is nothing but the framework for a lecture and certain sections of the audience, particularly children after a gripping seasonal tale, might well feel cheated.
Scorsese’s lecture is about the worth and wonder of early cinema. There are all the elements of normal children’s films to begin with, including Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumbling slapstick as the station inspector, but then there is a sudden and random transition to the history of the movies. The shift is executed via some sledgehammer dialogue, totally lacking in subtlety or relevance to the back story. The mystery of the clockwork mannequin left behind by Hugo’s dead father (Jude Law) is connected to the movies and is, at least initially, rather flimsy and uninspiring.
However Hugo ultimately delivers an innocent, personal journey not on offer to children elsewhere. It may be disjointed but great performances from the young leads, coupled with Scorsese’s skill and passion for cinema tackling truths of the human condition like purpose and loneliness, makes this lecture more moving and awe inspiring than anything on offer on campus.
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Avatar; the highest grossing film of all time and the future of cinema. Yesterday I finally saw it in all its three dimensional glory. For me the film’s success rested entirely on whether or not the technical wizardry was simply a gimmick or a groundbreaking revolution in film making. Of course I had heard all about the clunky dialogue and transparent plotting but nevertheless people were telling me you had to see the eye popping visuals of Avatar to believe them, so along I went with others seduced by the hype.
Firstly was all that talk of a lifeless script, seemingly rattled off in a couple of summer afternoons by an idealistic hippy , actually true? Yes it’s all true. The script was heavily laden with painful voice over segments that are usually indicative of excruciating cinema experiences and certainly did not surprise the audience with any unexpected plot twists. The worst aspect of the story was its lack of subtlety and originality. It was as if James Cameron came up with the general idea of a 3D spectacular with an environmental message and then sketched out the narrative in five minutes, with the natives of Pandora residing in a giant tree called “Hometree” and refusing to budge as the nasty corporations move in with the bulldozers. After all, his name as director and the unique 3D element already ensured the project’s blockbuster credentials. The society of the blue skinned aliens is also an amalgamation of influences rather than a new creation, with much talk of a “flow of energy” connecting all things that sounded distinctly Buddhist. Even the creatures, hailed by champions of the film as imaginative, were merely colourful copies of animals like horses, dogs and perhaps a triceratops. All this mixing and matching of influences still might have been redeemed by some convincing acting performances, but sadly all of the lead characters were crudely drawn and never really make you care. In fairness to the actors the 3D elements involved in shooting must have made natural performances difficult, despite the cast’s praise of Cameron’s handling of the directing in recent documentaries. Add to this the atrocious dialogue they were working with (Unobtanium for God’s sake!) and it’s no wonder Sam Worthington’s voice over sounds so plodding.
It’s also difficult to connect with the blue aliens who basically look like savage, tribal cartoon characters; big nasty smurfs. This brings me to the big question of whether or not the 3D tech works. Well the giant Elton John style sunglasses certainly produced 3D visuals and for the first half an hour you are glued to the experience, which partly makes up for some of the worst sections of the film where the context is established and the deforestation to mine UNOBTANIUM is less than delicately explained. The opening scene in which Jake Sully emerges from a coma in a zero gravity hospital environment is quite jaw dropping; actors float in front of your eyes, steel surfaces glimmer and there is an incredible sense of scale and perspective. However after the initial wow factor fades, although there is now and again the odd fascinating visual flourish, you want more from the story. I think Cameron may have been like a kid in a sandbox with his 3D toys, so much so that he forgot the basic rules of storytelling. Avatar has an annoying habit of telling not showing the audience things and this seems even more inexcusable when you have 3D visuals to show off. The director also produced a dizzying number of similar action sequences so that when the film climaxes the final battle is a concoction of various elements already shown to us earlier in the film. The first chase sequence is quite impressive (although in my view too fast) but this is followed with lots of almost identical jungle running with replica slow motion shots of arrow shooting that scream CHEESY! Another problem is that all the money shots of floating mountains and hordes of blue aliens on flying creatures do not look nearly as amazing in 3D as a room of humans watching a speech. This meant that during the sequences intending to be riveting, edge of your seat stuff I found myself thinking this was all rather like the trailer for a disappointing video game.
Far more enjoyable as a cinematic experience was Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes. Avatar takes itself too seriously but with Robert Downey Jr in the lead role and a general light hearted tone this update has no such problems. All the actions sequences were great fun to watch and they rarely became repetitive as in Avatar. The running time was also pleasant rather than bladder busting. Jude Law, a surprising choice as Watson, works well in partnership with Downey Jr and some excellent elements are retained from the original stories. The script is also more skilfully crafted than Avatar’s in that it leads the audience to believe Holmes cannot explain the supernatural occurrences of the plot, only for the detective to unmask all the unexplained events as works of villainy at the end, to the great relief of myself as it would certainly have been against the empirical spirit of the original tales to have Holmes taking on groups with genuine spiritual powers. The setting of Victorian London is brilliantly evoked and I found it personally more engaging, despite money shots of Tower Bridge under construction, than the CGI jungles of Pandora. The score too was playful and matched the film’s tone and pace, in contrast to Avatar’s epic soundtrack with regular echoes of Leona’s I See You ballad which was difficult to sustain.
Personally then give me a Victorian gutter and an entertaining performance over a fibre optic forest any day. It’s a shame Cameron will probably scoop best director and best film at the Oscars for a film carried by its 3D technology.