Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Let’s start by saying that if nothing else, Martin Scorsese and I DO have one thing in common: an undying love for movies. Not restricted by genre, style or school, this love is of the very art form that allows us to visually tell stories. Let’s also go ahead and say that Martin Scorsese and I agree on one idea, kids are NEVER too young to be encouraged NOT to be stupid. Unfortunately, the list of my similarities with arguably one of the greatest story-tellers of contemporary cinema ends right there. What starts now is a movie, about a boy and his love of movies, and a man and his love of movies, and a whole world of people who love movies, from the time they were first made. Do not miss this line if you plan to watch this movie: Hugo is NOT about a precocious young boy named Hugo Cabret, or of his adventures in the mystical and magical Paris. Hugo is a story about Martin Scorsese’s LOVE for cinema. Again, Hugo is NOT a movie made for children, no matter what the posters tell you or the MPAA rating says. Hugo is simply a movie for anyone who loves, or has ever loved, or is even remotely interested in movies, because, by the end of the movie, you may not love the movie, but you will truly appreciate the enormous power of the medium.

That is probably the highest concentration of the words movie and love in one paragraph, but the emphasis is necessary to truly grasp the incredible journey of Hugo. First, for the naysayers who hate 3D and think it’s just a way to drive up ticket prices, GO WATCH Hugo, IN 3D. The masterful use of the medium is more than justified with his small scope, restricting us to a Parisian train station and yet showing us a whole world we could never have known, in a way we could never have known it in. From the flakes of snow that fall towards you, or the first movie train that scared all its viewers, from the swinging pendulum in Hugo’s home/workplace to the bustling crowd, Martin Scorsese uses 3D not to enthrall you, but to truly involve you. This movie will hold up for its sheer genius even in the regular 2D, but not even Avatar could truly harness the potential of 3D to tell a story, not just enhance it, like Scorsese does in this film. From turning gears to winding toys, every frame of the film is adroitly put together, with a purpose beyond mere decoration, so much so that with every repeat, an interested viewer could unravel a new layer of this truly multi-dimensional movie.
So Hugo isn’t a children’s movie; that has been established. There aren’t dragons to be tamed and wonderlands to be explored or hot air balloons to rise up in. Yet it is accessible to people of any age. Unrestricted, simplistic, and relatable are adjectives that could describe Scorsese’s approach to this film. What is even more astonishing is something that could stand as a great lesson for schools everywhere. Scorsese immerses himself so entirely in his story-telling that he translates his own love of the cinema to his viewers, without preaching to them. Instead, he chooses to share his passion, and the sincerity of purpose truly translates to the person watching. He talks about French cinema from years ago, magical realism and Milies’s work, unknown to novice movie goers, and yet, even a child (in this case, the eponymous Hugo (Butterfield) and Isabelle (Moretz)) can easily relate to it, because instead of going one of two popular routes, being pedantic or being silly, Scorsese talks about them as a visualization of dreams, something everyone has and everyone can relate to. He also breaches dissatisfaction and dejection in a very real way, a feeling of having lost one’s purpose, and yet avoids being melodramatic about it. And yet, as is probably why Scorsese chose to make the movie the way he did, this is probably the best movie to take your child to this year. There are enough thrills, there is humour, and there is a happy ending, for the traditional-minded, but so much more. There is science, and magic and just enough history to pique one’s curiosity, and it’s probably about time that children found more stimulating fare than there generally is to offer.
I haven’t really discussed the story of the film, or any of its many technical merits, because these are best experienced by watching it. The performances are brilliant all around, right from the lead child actors to the stately Kingsley and the very adept McRory. I am more fascinated by the fact that this is a Martin Scorsese film, brilliant like he always is, and yet this is the biggest departure one could imagine from his regular brand. As a film historian within the film says, it is lamentable that one can only read about old movies in books, if that, because they were, in the days before we had this technological prowess, purely a flight of fancy. Scorsese uses this flight of fancy to mirror the fact that contemporary cinema is unnecessarily pigeon-holed, restricted from reaching a wide audience by prejudices and formulae and absolutely no imagination. All you need to tell a story is an imagination and a willingness to tell it. As Mama Jeanne (McRory) tells her god-daughter about the marvelous colour films of Milies, “We tinted it ourselves, colouring each frame individually.” Scorsese too colours each film with a stroke from the brush of his mind, and adapts an already acclaimed book to a sure-to-be acclaimed movie. And as hard as it was to categorize Selznick’s literary endeavor, so pointless it is to try to restrict Hugo to a genre or a target demographic. Therein lays Scorsese’s victory, because that isn’t the point of the movie at all. The only point is that this, finally, is a movie that you aren’t TAKING your child to, but GOING with your child for, a rare feat in the live action movie world.


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Friday, November 18, 2011

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn

Never has a woman been more mysterious or more universally popular than Marilyn Monroe. She was the very essence of the damsel in distress, the helpless little angel who needed a man to admire her every little pirouette, who seemed both naively unaware of her own sexuality, and yet constantly manipulating men of all size and stature using it. She was the epitome of everything that the feminist movement was against, and yet, there was a grudging admiration amidst that resentment. She was in the exact position that every woman would want to be in. I first wondered why a biopic on the life of Marilyn Monroe wasn’t called Norma Jean, but ten minutes into the movie, and you know that this isn’t Norma Jean, this is Marilyn. Not just during the shoot of the movie within the movie, but even more so outside of it. And she’s quite something.

My Week with Marilyn
British cinema has made habit of making episodic true-story films in the new millennium, and making them damn well. It started with The Deal and its sequels, the more popular The Queen and The Special Relationship. Then last year, The King’s Speech swept the awards roster. This year, they’re doing it again, taking a very short period of time, the film shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl, and introducing into the fray the last true universal sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe (Williams).
Narrated by Colin Clark (Redmayne), this adaptation of his memoirs chronicle the time he spent making his foray into the entertainment business, as a third assistant director on the production of Laurence Olivier’s (Branagh) collaboration with Monroe. It is in equal parts a love letter addressed to an unattainable fantasy and a diary note of a young man’s coming of age. Curtis tells the tale of a privileged man, who is obsessed with the movies, a career choice not respected by his family. He is the fabled underachiever, whose drive is fueled by his lack of appreciation, and is determined to make it on his own. His delight is elevated when the object of every man's affection at the time, Marilyn Monroe, is amongst the people it is his duty to serve. As he and Sir Laurence discover quickly, she is anything but the dream one sees on the silver screen, riddled with insecurities and obsessed with her method and acting coach, Paula Strasberg (wife to the legendary acting teacher behind the eponymous Lee Strasberg Institute). But whilst Larry finds her incorrigible, Clark is entranced by her apparent vulnerability. And after her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Scott) goes back to the States, following a particularly vicious fight, Clark is suddenly at the start of his week with Marilyn.
The film has numerous triumphs, amongst which the MOST significant is its phenomenal casting. Besides Williams, who I will come to later, every character is incredibly well suited to its portrayer. From Dame Judi Dench, playing the stateswoman actress Dame Sybill, to Julia Ormond in her brief but captivating imagining of the original Elsie Marina, Vivien Leigh (yes, Scarlett O’Hara). There is one particular scene for Ormond where she discusses her husband’s (Olivier) love for Monroe with the na├»ve Clark which is a perfect representation of the stiff British upper lip, and is just delightful to watch. A week with Marilyn cannot help but be rife with men though, and men completely besotted. Whether it was Redmayne with his cub to her cougar, or Branagh who is simultaneously frustrated and yet transfixed, Scott who is profoundly aware of his incompatibility with this nymphet or Jackson who was once in Redmayne’s place, and is working with Monroe purely out of devotion, even after having his heart broken. Each of these men is but one spoke of a life cycle of men who were charmed, right off their feet, by the magic that was Marilyn. The direction by Curtis is seemingly adequate, and the screenplay is delicate, but the film, a vast tableau of character studies, is theatre come to life, and rides entirely on its performances.
And speaking of performances, there is Michelle Williams. It is hard to believe that the same woman who was effortless in Wendy and Lucy could so entirely transform into this character. The threat that exists, that worried me before I went in to the screening, was the fact that Monroe is such a larger than life character, her appeal so entrenched in her affectations, that it would be almost impossible to play her with any measure of sympathy. And perhaps even more than that, Williams would be not just seducing the bevy of men lining up on the stage for her, but millions of people, most of whom have at some point had a cut-out of Monroe shaping their fantasies. Just the fact that she took on such an iconic role shows incredible chutzpah, and boy, does she deliver. She is in equal measure vulnerable and enticing, innocent and yet wily, and startlingly, she manages to embody that deep conflicting misery that consumed Monroe, without making any of it seem disingenuous. Her every laugh, twirl, smile, song, dance, everything brings back Monroe in a way that is absolutely breathtaking. There will be people who think this movie is less than other similar movies, but no one could deny that Williams’s turn is not astonishing, it is spell binding.
Meryl Streep has won two Academy Awards out of an incredible sixteen nominations. What is even more incredible is that whilst the last time she was nominated was just two years ago, her last win came almost 30 years ago. With her forthcoming biopic on Margaret Thatcher almost certain to net her nomination number seventeen, it would be heartbreaking to see her lose, but the American dream in the British film may just beat out the Iron Lady herself.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Movie Review: The Descendants – Not quite ascending to greatness.


“Give your children enough so that they can do something, but not so much that they do nothing”. That is the first and last ‘movie line’ that you can expect to hear in Alexander Payne’s first feature length film in eight years. This distance from everything cinematic is immediately noticeable, as Payne tells the story of a man coming to terms with the changes in his life following his wife’s coma-inducing accident in a way clearly attempting to mimic reality instead of exhibit histrionics. The film is set in the beautiful tropical island of Hawaii, but like Clooney’s archipelago analogy, the film itself is one whole but disjointed and constantly separating.

The Descendants

One must first give credit to the film’s attributes, of which there are many. The foremost of them is Clooney himself. Long gone are the days when George Clooney suffered from the Cary Grant syndrome, of the star overpowering the actor. He inhabits the cuckolded Matt King with consummate ease, and lends strong credibility to this emotionally drifting and ineffectual man who has always done just enough to get by, and is now reaping the fruits of it. Payne uses Hawaii beautifully, taking us from island to island, and intersperses the natural beauty of the setting with the pathos of the situation, to lift the film from its natural tendency to depress. Another tool he uses to do this is humor, trying hard to add an accidental levity that often accompanies the dreariest of circumstances. At times this works wonderfully, and at times, not so much. The girls, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, also do a very good job of playing their spoiled but innately well-meaning daughters who help Clooney glue back his fractured life.

Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to make a film an enjoyable experience. For the most part, there is just SO much happening in the movie that one might get tired of playing catch up. Payne tries to weave the screenplay so the subplots all merge seamlessly, but really they just entangle you in a mess of trying to understand his intention. Both characters and plot-points are over extended to a point where they seem to be superfluous. Judy Greer does her best in her small cameo, but her character adds nothing to the movie, except to add one more ladle in an already full bowl, and the same could be said for Nick Krause.  Finally, the ambling pace of the movie, as lazy as the Hawaiian background score, backfires on the director. Whereas in Sideways, his characters leisurely travels engrossed the viewers, in this film, it allows too many moments for disconnection. And that is potentially its biggest flaw. At the advance screening of the film, packed to capacity in anticipation, there were palpable moments when people lost interest, some even walking out, and even though there was a tepid applause at the close of the screening, the satisfaction that one hoped to derive was sorely missing. There are those that will enjoy it as a great character study, but for myself, I couldn’t help but be extremely underwhelmed.


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