Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Please note: on first viewing I saw the film in a Digital IMAX 3D print in the lower frame rate of 24fps (trust me, it matters.)

2012, 169 mins, 12A, Dir. Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Ken Stott

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Like a lot of people, I hungrily anticipated Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit from the start, right through from its director confusion to its casting decisions to the announcement that the whole thing would be split into two… no, three films! I managed to read the book, which was even more imaginative, colourful and witty than I could have imagined (roll on The Lord of the Rings). A lot was building on this film, and I am more than satisfied to say that, even in the wake of some negative critical response, it delivers – perhaps not in the neatest way, but it doesn’t disappoint.

An Unexpected Journey is the first of a trilogy that follows the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet and conservative Hobbit who would much rather be at home consuming tea and scones than going on an adventure with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen unpredictable dwarves. As it turns out, however, that is exactly what happens, and Bilbo finds himself up against Goblins, Orcs, trolls and a thin, intimidating creature by the name of Gollum. At least, that’s what happens in this film; there’s still a plethora of strangely shaped monsters and enemies to come, including the formidable and cunning dragon Smaug. We begin, much like The Fellowship of the Ring, with a lengthy prologue that explains the current situation of Middle-Earth with some truly fiery special effects; then we’re transported to an aged Bilbo whiling away his time in The Shire; he decides to record what has happened in his life for the sake of his son Frodo, and this is where our journey begins.

The decision to expand into three films was controversial at first; while the Lord of the Rings trilogy came from source material that was much broader and certainly not lacking in detail, The Hobbit is a relatively short children’s novel that arguably contains only enough set-pieces for one (or certainly two) films. What Peter Jackson has decided to do is incorporate other elements from Middle-Earth, from The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s lengthy appendices at the end of Return of the King. The effect isn’t overwhelmingly positive. In fact, in certain parts of the narrative we certainly feel distanced from the main character and his story as Jackson scrambles to put in references to Tolkien’s world and characters; one scene of dialogue in Rivendell simply goes on for far too long. How you respond to that could very well depend on how much you’ve been looking forward to the film; certain critics have dealt with this inconsistency very harshly. But I think that there is more than enough in An Unexpected Journey that outweighs the problems with the plot.

Firstly, the casting. Martin Freeman is simply a joy to watch as Bilbo, fussing around hilariously when the dwarves first arrive in his home and later making for a truly believable hero. We have Peter Jackson to thank for waiting long enough for Freeman to become available for the film – indeed, it seems little likely that anyone else could fill his role so effectively. Though Ian McKellen’s role as Gandalf is less demanding and perhaps less interesting here, he is still a delight to watch. The dwarves also fare very well. The director arguably misses a trick by not introducing them all individually, something that certainly could have been achieved in place of another longer, pondering scene of which there are a few; it is a shame that the tiny quirks, like the random axe buried in Bifur’s head, are not dwelled on particularly. Oh well. The major dwarves are characterised reasonably well and there is more opportunity to do so in the future installments.

Bilbo with Bifur, Dwalin, Bofur and Oin (OK, I suppose the axe is sort-of noticeable…)

I also loved its humour. An Unexpected Journey has darker elements but it doesn’t ultimately disguise the fact that it is based on a children’s book, and there is plenty of physical comedy involving the dwarves, much of it revolving around the fattest of them, Bombur. The design of the characters also lends to this lighter mentality – the dwarves all have rather incredible moustaches and beards, the trolls retain their slightly cockney accents, and the Great Goblin has a chin that extends to his stomach and happens to be played by Barry Humphries (the Goblin, not the chin). How brilliant is that?

It also happens to be absolutely stunning in terms of its visuals. As if we would expect anything else from Peter Jackson – the worlds he creates (with Tolkien influence, of course) are astonishing to behold. Rivendell, once again, is beautiful to look at, while the escape scene in the Goblin Kingdom is so perfectly orchestrated it left me literally salivating for more. Who could forget, however, a quieter but pretty integral part involving riddles duelled in a dark cave? Gollum is once again vividly realised by Andy Serkis and his scene with Bilbo is arguably the greatest in the film, as it is in the book. While what’s onscreen is ravishing, how the film is presented is a different matter. I cannot comment on the impact of the new frame rate of 48fps because I simply didn’t see it in that format. I will say that I was very annoyed by the 3D in my showing, especially in IMAX; light from the screen caused very distracting reflections on my oversized glasses – for very little visible 3D effect, it was frustrating. If you’re going to see this film (and I heartily advise you should), see it in 2D to get the most out of it.

Jackson is pretty faithful to the original book. The chronology is similar and a lot of the scenes play out as I imagined them (although my mother did complain that the scene with the trolls wasn’t long enough). The songs sung by the dwarves early on in the book are not forgotten, and the director even uses Tolkien’s brief reference to rock giants as a basis for an entire set-piece that may be unnecessary but sure is fun to watch. But it’s also similar in spirit, as I’ve discussed above. The Lord of the Rings is much darker and more adult and complex, like its source material; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may have less to justify its length (and follow-ups), but it’s hard not to like. Aided by some terrific performances and visuals, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth is nothing more and nothing less than a triumph, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.

8/10

The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.
The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.

(On a side note, it was enthralling to see the return of the fanbase-Christened Figwit (as portrayed by Bret McKenzie for three seconds in The Fellowship of the Ring) in the new film; read about him here. You won’t regret it, honestly.)

Review – Prometheus

Prometheus is a worthy contender for the most talked-about film of the year. After an extensive marketing campaign and all the hype surrounding Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Blade Runner, initial reviews came in mixed. I’m a big fan of Alien and after a season of exams, I finally got to see the filmon Friday at the Arclight Multiplex on Sunset Blvd. To be as open-minded as possible, I have not yet read any reviews or discussion boards; I hope this will make my contribution to the film as personal and individual as possible.

Review – Prometheus

2012, 127 mins, 15, Dir. Ridley Scott, starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron

Prometheus

Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi after 30 years, Prometheus, was described by the director as having ‘some of Alien‘s DNA’. It seems Scott was being deliberately vague – the film is closer to Alien than previously thought, as revealed in the closing few minutes. Nevertheless, it’s an ultimately more ambitious film, dealing with the origin of life within a sci-fi veneer and asking vital questions about technology and our existence. While the cinematography is startling, the many different aims of Prometheus show it to lack focus, and after all the hype it proves to be mildly disappointing.

We follow the journey of the crew of the spaceship Prometheus as they search for clues of man’s origin. As they explore the foreign and hollow buildings of a distant planet, discoveries are made which both advance and threaten the mission. Matters come to an aggressive head when one of the scientists is infected with foreign DNA and the by-the-book superior officer refuses to provide any help.

That description, sparse as it is, omits the many plot twists that take place as Prometheus unfolds. One of the excellent things about the film is that it constantly has the ability to surprise, with sudden outbursts of slimy violence and major shifts in direction. What is even more surprising, however, are the things that Scott chooses to keep from us. While Alien was shrouded in mystery, Prometheus seeks to (in part) answer these mysteries, but doesn’t bother to explain a lot of things that are happening onscreen. This is understandable given that we experience the film mostly from the point of view of the characters, although it arguably gives the film a strange sense of incompleteness. Perhaps it’s too ambitious for its own good.

Nevertheless, it contains a few standout performances. Michael Fassbender in particular gives a terrific turn as David, a truly sinister and deceptive android. Ironically, the one character without emotion has the most intriguing character arc, with an unexpected change in his motives halfway through. Unlike the small, contained crew of the Nostromo in Alien, however, the crew of the Prometheus is very large; with too many characters, some of them are reduced to simple clichés and we only (partially) explore the backstories of a few.

Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus.

While the opening title sequence is visually stunning, some parts of the film feel clunky and clumsy. The first attack by an alien creature on two hapless engineers is impressively shot but marred by erroneous dialogue. Still, the pregnancy scene is suitably intense, and the gory reaction of one of the scientists to the alien gene that makes its way into his system is also horrifying. The headache-inducing 3D, however, is ineffective as usual and only darkens the picture unnecessarily.

Prometheus stands as an efficient science-fiction film, but not much more. Its story is muddled, its philosophical focus incomplete, its execution occasionally clumsy. Despite its 15 rating (R here in the US) it never quite reaches the claustrophobic terror of Alien, and its main monster, a slate-white giant man with a penchant for destroying races, is not as memorable. It fails to live up to the hype. Nevertheless, it contains some fantastic design, and it is great to finally see the mysterious origins of the world glimpsed in Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi classic.

6 out of 10

Review – Avengers Assemble

Review – Avengers Assemble

2012, 142 mins, 12A, Dir. Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson

The Avengers

In a recent survey of thousands of cinemagoers by the ticketing agency Fandango, it was found that The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble as it is called in the UK (for fear of confusion with the 1960s television series), is the most anticipated blockbuster of the year. Statistically more people want to see it than even the final Dark Knight installment. After all, publicity had been building since 2008 with the release of several Marvel movies (The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man; Thor et al) that foreshadowed this moment: the promise of a film that would put several superheroes in the same universe was tantalisingly brilliant. And who better to helm the project than Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy and Firefly, a fiercely talented writer and filmmaker? Now that it has finally arrived, does it live up to its expectations? Does it truly give us the epic spectacle of action and characters that we were hoping for? 

In a word, yes. Avengers Assemble is an absolute thrill from beginning to end, outclassing every single Marvel film that led up to this – even the really good ones. In fact, it is one of the greatest superhero films ever produced. Instead of just one, Whedon gives us six protagonists and yet still allocates enough time and effort to explore them – their backstories, beliefs and traits. And these characters are well-acted, too. The nonchalant Downey Jr. and spirited Hemsworth are, as always, hard to resist, but Johansson is particularly excellent as Black Widow. As is typical of Whedon’s work, the female character is a strong heroine and not a mere love interest; she exerts an authoritative force that equals that of the men. The Hulk is also interestingly done – Mark Ruffalo is the first actor to play both Banner and the Hulk itself, donning a motion-capture suit for the more charged sequences. Samuel L. Jackson is, as always, charismatic in his role.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

What’s more, the action sequences are fantastic, whether it’s Black Widow beating up three mobsters whilst tied down in a chair or the near-destruction of Manhattan (where else?) by the main villain, Loki: a breathtaking extended sequence which, thanks to splendid work from the special effects department, is utterly seamless and a joy to watch. And it’s funny. Very, very, very funny. Each of our heroes think they are better than the rest and this leads to inevitable bickering, ironic given that a world invasion is taking place. This contest of greatness even makes its way onto the battlefield in one hilarious scene which I won’t spoil. Although the plot is a little thin without the other Marvel films, it is a triumph in terms of dialogue, and we can only hope that the sequel, if there is one, is given due care.

Thor and Captain America get ready to fight Loki’s army.

A load of us, when we went to see Thor, Captain America and the rest, waited patiently until the end of the credits for a sequence that would hint at what was coming next. And I’m glad to say that the time was well-spent. Avengers Assemble is a triumph, a film that combines the best of the Marvel universe and yet still gives us enough time with each character. With its blend of superhero action and intelligent writing, it captures the spirit of old-style comics beautifully. The final battle sequence is an astonishing feat of special effects, an exciting and exhilarating turn of events that is brilliantly directed and edited. And, of course, it’s absolutely hilarious.

8/10

Re-release – Titanic (in 3D)

In mid-February I was lucky enough to attend a screening of  Titanic, which is re-released in 3D in UK cinemas on Friday.  James Cameron’s hugely ambitious film, which cost more to put together than the actual 1912 ship did, ended up earning $1.8 billion at the box office.  Being far too young to have watched it when it first came out, I lapped up the opportunity to see Titanic on the big screen, where surely it belongs, where multiple viewings of the film were very common amongst cinemagoers in 1997. I had only actually seen it once beforehand a couple of years ago. I ended up being quite affected by the film (despite knowing the ending) and didn’t view it again for a long time afterwards. It was therefore with tentative steps that I ascended the escalator to the cinema; with unbearable trepidation that I took my seat; and with shaking fingers that I put my 3D glasses on.

I wasn’t sure how I would react. The technical brilliance of Cameron’s film was something to behold on the initial viewing and I was astonished at the quality of the special effects (though Kate Winslet was just as dazzling). But I had grown up since then. Would this 3D conversion do Titanic justice? Would I be as moved as last time? In the course of just over three hours, I would find out.

I certainly approached the film from a more analytical point of view, and was more keen to point out its flaws. The dialogue, as with a lot of Cameron movies, is often throwaway, which is a little disappointing given the film’s stark difference to the Terminator films (and others). The love story between upper class Rose and lower class Jack, supposedly the backbone of the plot, feels clunky, clichéd and shallow in comparison to the film’s gigantic setpiece, the sinking of the Titanic itself, of which the most time and effort was spent on, and of which under masterful direction from Cameron is no doubt one of the most astonishing things ever committed to celluloid. It is a shame – you really want to care for the two protagonists, you want to empathise with them, but Rose and Jack’s affair is clumsily executed, with strange casting (Winslet is too old; DiCaprio too young) and seen-it-all-before plot elements. As a self-styled film critic who has certainly matured since the first viewing, I found it utterly exasperating – I simply could not distract myself from the artificiality of ‘Jack, I’m flying!’, or Winslet’s humorously ironic final statement whilst in the water.

So why, for days following the screening, did I feel extremely sad? Why, when I felt so annoyed with the love story, did I spend hours contemplating the film? It’s simply because of the way it is shot. The cinematography of Titanic is some of the most rich and visually stunning ever seen in cinema. The incredible sequence while the strings are playing “Nearer my God to Thee”, in which we see third-class passengers preparing for their deaths, as well as the ship’s Captain silently mourning his ship, is perhaps the best and most gripping scene in the film. It is seamlessly edited together with breathtaking technical proficiency. Those images of people floating, freezing, in the water really stay with you long after viewing. Despite my reservations with the plot, which felt like it was all over the place, I will admit that watching Titanic is a truly draining experience. Many who I spoke to about it admitted they have rarely watched it all the way through because of its apparent potency. I initially laughed at most of these people at their inability to sit still, but eventually I understood what they meant. The scope and scale of Cameron’s film, its stunning visuals, its emotion (which is NOT down to the love story) are all truly breathtaking, and it is definitely made better on the big screen. Cameron, while not the greatest storyteller, is certainly a visual master.

While flawed, there's no denying that Cameron's Titanic is visually stunning.

So what about the 3D? Well, it’s rubbish. Don’t let anyone tell you different – the only remotely impressive scenes are those set in the modern day, with the underwater scenes of the wreck of the Titanic. Cameron may be a pioneer of 3D but this film, made 15 years ago when the format meant little more than a 1950s fad, benefits little – maybe is even worsened – by the conversion. It’s fantastic to see Titanic in the cinema, don’t get me wrong, but this is just superfluous. Sitting for three hours with those silly glasses on rewards you with… what? A headache, and most frustratingly, a darkened picture, which is particularly eye-straining in the second half of the film. I implore you – see this film, but see it in 2D.

So, there we go. Less of a review than a personal critic’s journey into a film which certainly has problems but is still a compelling experience. I’ve found that with Titanic some of its proven historical details are far more engrossing than the fictional parts; an officer really did shoot himself on deck, they really kept non-first-class travellers locked down in the ship, and boats really went out half full. Revelations like these remain as profound today as when they were first widespread and this only increases the Titanic’s legacy, making it still a majorly filmable subject, as exemplified by all the films that preceded Cameron’s vision as well as the recent ITV series. Will this re-release push the film’s gross up to $2 billion? Only time will tell.

Review – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

I was privileged to attend a press screening of the new Aardman film about a month ago. After a smorgasbord of free pirate-related souvenirs and drinks in the bar (I settled on a Coke), the one and only Brian Blessed, who voices a character in the film, gave a small speech before the show. He didn’t actually say anything much related to the film, instead settling for an enthusiastic “GORDON’S ALIVE!” which nonetheless set the audience alight. Because of a press embargo I wasn’t able to post a review until its release date; I was nonetheless very keen to write about it as soon as possible. Enjoy the review.

Review – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

2012, 88mins, TBC, Dir. Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, starring Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven.

The latest offering from the irresistible animation studios Aardman is a brisk and spirited adaptation from the first of a series of children’s novels by Gideon Defoe. It’s a supremely outlandish adventure tale of a crew of  hapless, accident-prone pirates, led by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who in search of booty accidentally destroys Charles Darwin’s Beagle. But that’s not all – there’s a ‘Pirate of the Year’ contest on the rocks, and the Pirate Captain is keen to prove his daredevil enemies wrong by bringing home some loot.

If that all sounds a bit strange, then you’re completely right. The Pirates! is by far the oddest feature film given to us yet from Aardman. Everything from its bewildering subtitle (an adventure with scientists?) to its voice-acting, in-jokes, sight-gags and dialogue has a firm, unashamed sense of the oddball. It has intelligent monkeys, albino pirates, sudden and impossible changes of dress – even a cameo from the elephant man. It would be utterly criminal to reveal anything more, but you get the picture.

You could put this sense of strangeness down to the lack of a driving narrative; the film feels like it has less of a consistent storyline than a series of extravagant set-pieces, or sketches, and it feels as choppy as the water our characters sail on. Nevertheless, it manages to be consistently funny, and the characters are brilliantly written and performed. Charles Darwin, played by David Tennant, is depicted as a complete loner with only his wordless primate for company; the Pirate Captain – with a voice that is Hugh Grant’s but barely recognisable – a loveable yet comparatively soft sailor; Queen Victoria, Imelda Staunton, a supremely angry monarch who just happens to know how to wield a samurai sword. There are also contributions from Brendan Gleeson, Lenny Henry and Martin Freeman, amongst others, as fellow pirates.

All in all, you have to admire the craftsmanship of the thing. Aardman, with Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt at the helm, once again do a fantastic job in animating the film, utilising both clay-animation and the odd bit of CGI. The characters move with splendid fluidity and the action sequences are tremendous fun. The simple fact that a few of the extravagant sets made by the filmmakers only appear for a matter of minutes show the astounding attention to detail and commitment by the studio to making great films. But can The Pirates! be called great? Well, some may have problems with its plot,  but the silliness of its premise and its equally silly gags are just enough as far as some audiences are concerned.

Notice the Blue Peter badge on the right…

4 out of 5

Re-release – Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

A couple of days ago I won tickets to a screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which recently has been converted into 3D, and is out on a re-release. Having not seen the film since I was a child, the opportunity to go and “rediscover” it on the big screen was attractive, although my thoughts had been darkened by the large amounts of negative press the film had got since its initial release in 1999. The Phantom Menace is often dubbed the worst Star Wars installment and fanboys use every excuse they get to slander George Lucas because of it. Nevertheless, I had to see it again to reckon my own opinion, so I went along to the screening at the Empire in Leicester Square.

My ticket to the event
It's made of cardboard! How dreadfully exciting!

As I entered into the crowded foyer, stormtroopers and a rather large Darth Maul stood proud, posing for photos. I found this slightly strange as the stormtroopers only appear in the sequel, but I ignored it as best I could.

Disconcerting bit of red hair there...

We were handed our 3D glasses and sat down. Before the film began, a Fox executive introduced the film along with Anthony “C3PO” Daniels, who seemed, even at 65, incredibly upbeat and positive about the films. Then the show commenced, and one of the most disappointing moments of my life (very) slowly began to unfold.

OK, it wasn’t that disappointing. My expectations were already quite low. But Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is bad. Really bad. Perhaps not as mind-bogglingly awful as some of the fanboys make it out to be, but in comparison to the original trilogy, it really can’t stand up. There are a number of reasons for this, which have been outlined before, but I’m going over them again anyway:

1. The Story – The original trilogy certainly matured as it went on, from Lucas’ “space-western” vision of the first film to something much darker, as Darth Vader’s grip on young Luke Skywalker tightens and tightens throughout The Empire Strikes Back. The climax of the middle film of the trilogy is one of cinema’s greatest moments, a shocking revelation of grand scale, something that would assure its popularity for years to come. Given that The Phantom Menace‘s premise revolves around a trade dispute and the ensuing politics of the Jedi Council, the first of the prequel trilogy is never as interesting as the simple thrill of A New Hope or the satisfying closure of Return of the Jedi.

2. The Characters – I didn’t think I could bring myself to mention Jar Jar Binks but it is inevitable. Nobody can talk about the prequel trilogy without mentioning the irritating, 2-metre-tall, slightly racist gungan. He is a colossal error, a commercialised annoyance that surely appeals only to children rapt by flashy explosions and overdone visual humour. The young incarnations of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are poorly done, as is the (also slightly racist) Nute Gunray. Qui-Gon Jinn is the single rare paradox to the shoddy characterisation found in this film.

3. The Acting – Lucas showed remarkable aptitude for choosing the right people in his early days, especially when he employed a number of brilliant young unknown actors (handpicked from thousands) in his film American Graffiti. This time round, however, he seemed to be so far into the (admittedly rather impressive) visual effects that he forgot about the benefits of a good cast. Jake Lloyd almost rivals Jar Jar Binks in the annoyance factor, while Natalie Portman is wooden as Queen Amidala and Ewan McGregor does a rather depressing impersonation of Alec Guinness. Again, Liam Neeson is a strange paradox.

4. The Screenplay – whether it’s Anakin’s overstated cry of “NOW THIS IS POD RACING!” or the ludicrous number of times that the word “negotiations” is repeated in the first act, The Phantom Menace is often laughable. Reportedly George Lucas wrote the script in a matter of days and given his status as a powerful producer was barely challenged in the transition to the silver screen. Sadly, it shows.

5. The Directing – Natalie Portman is a good actor. She was great in Heat and fabulous in Leon, but Lucas failed to achieve an equally impressive performance this time round. He is terribly unfocused here, and the film as a result is all over the place, especially in its muddled climax.

6. The 3D – admittedly not a part of the original film, but the 3D conversion is ultimately pointless and lacking depth (around a third of the film could be watched without glasses).

The Phantom Menace has its moments, though they are few: the pod-racing sequence is a thrill and the the lightsaber fight with Darth Maul is an explosive (though shortened) affair. You can see that George Lucas is passionate about his vision, and the original three films are certainly brilliant and pivotal to American culture, but this is a terrible mess. It may be exciting and exhilarating for young children, but for older fans, it’s ultimately soulless and very poorly done in comparison.

The biggest disappointment in cinema history?

Reviews – Hugo 3D and Melancholia

Over the past two days I have seen two films in two different cinemas in Leicester Square. One was the highly-praised children’s film Hugo which was sadly put on relatively limited release in the USA. The other was Lars Von Trier’s latest, Melancholia. The latter I saw at the rather excellent Prince Charles, the West End’s only independent cinema. Like the movie double-bills it is famous for, I present to you a double-bill of reviews: of Hugo and Melancholia.

Review – Hugo 3D

2011, 126 mins, U – Dir. Martin Scorsese; starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz

Hugo

When it was announced that Brian Selznick’s historical fiction novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which relied as much on its numerous cinematic drawings as its text), was going to be made into a film, it seemed quite obvious that Martin Scorsese should be the man for the job. A cinema auteur and the inspiration for thousands of filmmakers, Scorsese was passionate about the novel which is a heartfelt ode to the early days of silent cinema. Hugo is his first U-rated film in eighteen years, as well as his first foray into the overused 3D format. Although many were skeptical about the great director utilising this, Scorsese treats 3D as an art form, not just a money-maker, and Hugo is an utter delight to watch on the big screen.

Events unfold in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris in the 1930s. A young boy, Hugo Cabret, lives within the walls of the station. Every morning he winds up the clocks and avoids the station inspector who believes it is his late, “inebriated” uncle doing the job. Hugo manages to steal food and supplies from several shops and is eventually led to a small toy booth run by a certain old man. Gradually Hugo begins to unfold the mystery that involves this senior citizen (whose name is Georges Méliès), his deceased father and a rusted automaton that sits in his flat, waiting for the right part that will enable it to write out a message.

It was often commented by Alfred Hitchcock that the visual aspect of a film was by far the most important, and that “dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds”. Hitchcock indeed started his career making silent films (The Lodger is perhaps his most famous) and Scorsese has worked very hard in order to make Hugo as visually breathtaking as the movies of that era. The film begins with a wonderful opening shot which swoops down from the snowy Parisian sky into the busy railway station platform; soon enough, Hugo is chased through the station and ends up dangling from the minute hand of a giant outside clock, echoing Harold Lloyd’s magnificent 1923 film Safety Last. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the film’s beauty – the setting is, after all, quite magical.

Sacha Baron Cohen is an absolute hoot as the station inspector; clad in bright blue uniform, his injured leg supported by an awkward mechanism, he runs through the station with extreme difficulty, his every movement inducing laughter from the audience. The young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz perform extremely well under Scorsese’s careful eye and Ben Kingsley gives a very emotional performance as Georges Méliès, the inspirational yet troubled filmmakerThe great Christopher Lee, 89 years old and still acting, makes an appearance alongside Jude Law, Richard Griffiths and many others. 

Hugo stays refreshingly faithful to Selznick’s novel and a great number of shots in the movie are near-identical to the pencil drawings found in the book. More importantly, though, the adaptation contains the same enthusiasm and affection for the subject matter as its source material. The issue of forgotten silent films is treated with the utmost care and admiration. Although it is marketed as a children’s film, Hugo has a lot more for adults, a sensitive look at the movies that excited those in the 1900s to the 1920s, a further display of Scorsese’s virtuosity and versatility. The scenes with the automaton hark back to the days when machinery, clockwork and invention was far more wondrous.

Is it the best use of 3D so far? It could be. Will other masterful filmmakers look at this film and contemplate switching to two lenses after Scorsese, Spielberg and Cameron? Only time will tell. One thing’s for sure, though: that Hugo is one of the most honest, insightful and entertaining films of 2011 – it’s just a shame it hasn’t made more money.

5 stars out of 5

Review – Melancholia

2011, 136 mins, 15 – Dir. Lars Von Trier; starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt

Warning – contains spoilers

Melancholia

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia has a superb opening and a superb ending. What happens for nearly two hours in between, however, is thoroughly disappointing and makes me want to commit as few words as possible to this review. It commences with a montage of slow-motion shots culminating in an impressive piece of CGI in which the earth is engulfed by a strange blue planet. We then transition to a few days prior to this, where Justine (Dunst) is late to her wedding reception. The reception itself takes up a huge chunk of the film and is shot almost entirely with dizzying handheld cameras. The second part involves the lead-up to the collision between the blue planet, Melancholia, and earth. While Von Trier engages in lacklustre self-indulgence, little thought is given to the actual audience as the disorientating camerawork and dull pace distracts from what is actually a very decent concept. It does have strokes of genius here and there, particularly in the disquieting music, but as a whole the film is overlong and frequently uninteresting. Dunst gives a good but vague performance and is rarely believable as a character. The ending, in which the earth is destroyed, is practically a relief.

It’s arthouse. It’s Lars Von Trier. But all in all, Melancholia feels utterly meaningless.

2 stars out of 5