Feb 29, 2012

This Is Not A Film

This shrewdly subversive film by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who has been sentenced by the Iranian government to six years in jail, and has been banned from directing, writing screenplays, traveling abroad or talking to the media for twenty years, is a cunning little gem of courage and defiance. Apparently, it was spirited out of Iran in a flash drive hidden in a cake, and shown at Cannes last year. I saw it at the New York Film Festival. It is now showing at Film Forum. It is a great film.
In the film, Panahi is under house arrest, unable to work, so he decides to shoot his own reenactment of a movie the regime has forbidden him to make. The movie is about a young girl who gets accepted to study art in the university, but her religious family prevents her from doing so by locking her up in the house; a pretty straightforward metaphor for the cultural repression in Iran today.
Panahi creates the location by delineating it on his living room carpet with masking tape. He describes the action. He talks about how he would shoot it. But he doesn't touch the camera. His son turns it on for him before he leaves in the morning, and he has a documentary filmmaker friend helping him, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, credited as co-director. This poor young man has since been also convicted of espionage, presumably because he worked for the BBC.
Panahi is making his film without making his film. Panahi is alone in the apartment except for a huge pet iguana that slithers around on the bookcases and sofas and enhances the aura of surreality of his newly Kafkian life. Sometimes he talks to his wife on the phone. He steps out into his balcony, talks to people on the phone, gets a delivered lunch, intimates about the mass demonstrations that were happening in Iran at the time. Sometimes he talks to his lawyer on the phone, who tells him his case is very hard to overturn. It is obvious he is not helping his own cause by defying the regime's orders.
When you read about Panahi's circumstances, you imagine This Is Not A Film as some kind of heroic manifesto against artistic repression but This is Not A Film surprises by being a modest but cunning portrait of quiet defiance, with a streak of absurdist humor. Panahi is just a director, not a hero, and all he wants to do is direct. He refrains from agitating. He just stubbornly insists on being who he is. His protest is to continue doing what he was meant to do and to show the irrationality of his oppressors.
Even though it appears to happen over the course of one day and it lasts only 75 minutes, This is Not A Film was actually shot over ten days. It is not a spontaneous, haphazard work. It is carefully thought out and composed. This is as substantial a film and certainly a better film than any mindless $200 million extravaganza. There is something of the surrealism of Magritte in this humble piece of filmmaking. Panahi's professional life has been truncated, which he refuses to accept; he does exactly what he was told not to do, by not exactly doing it. The production resources may be minimal, but the intelligence and the depth of Panahi's concept are brilliant. 
At the end of his day, which increases in defiance as it goes along, Panahi  accompanies the building's super on his rounds as he picks up the garbage. All he is doing is going into the elevator, and his conversation with the super is, like the rest of the movie, a telling glimpse into Iranian society, a sophisticated country that has been abducted by stone age fundamentalists, cowards who arrest artists.
As self effacing as he is, as modest a project as this film seems to be, Panahi's act of defiance is tremendously courageous. He is well aware that some friends may suffer simply by associating with him. His collaborator understands he might be digging his own professional grave. It takes great bravery to defy your captors. 
In my encounters so far with Iranian cinema I have always been struck by its cunning intelligence, a bracing matter of factness, a lack of sentimentality and a fantastic sense of humor, always suffused with great empathy and wisdom. To us in the West, Iran is a very unlikely country to have a world class cinema. But it does, despite or maybe perhaps because it has to continually fight against the stupidity of tyranny. The great Iranian filmmakers are a self-effacing bunch. Their movies are small and economical but their scope is rich. They are subversive not only politically, but also in the very essence of what constitutes a movie. They make masterpieces with very little and they show it is possible to make great films without spending millions or selling your soul to mass idiocy. So it is with this powerful film. 

Feb 27, 2012

Oscars Postmortem 2012

As always, such an anticlimax. But, the consensus in my tiny Oscar watchfest was "they were not that terrible". Given that these are the Oscars, this is like getting an A-.
First, the dresses. Undisputed best look of the night, Rooney Mara. Best dressed, she was the only one who looked like a bona fide movie star. Second place goes to a brave and elegant Gwyneth Paltrow for pulling off a spectacular white dress. The rest was a parade of high-end schmattes, as far as I'm concerned. Put them all together in a rack and you'd think you were at a formal gown sale at Bolton's. It's a bad day for glamour when Penelope Cruz looks matronly. Where is Tilda Swinton when we need her?
I like Billy Crystal, but the shtick is not getting old, it's getting prehistoric. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: that's how my relatives are watching this show". Me and the alte cackers who comprise the Academy are suckers for borscht belt humor. The rest of the world, probably not so much.
Am I crazy, or were there not enough stars? (Never enough stars). At least they had the decency not to bother with the Taylor Lautners and Ryan Reynoldses of the world. But I sorely missed me some Fassbender, some Mortensen, some Gosling, some Swinton, some Theron, some hormone blasting eye candy.  Alas.
I am still at a loss trying to understand what the hell was that commercial for Cirque Du Soleil in the middle of the proceedings. Although we are progressing as far as stopping audience abuse with musical numbers, apparently the producers cannot bear to part with random cheesiness altogether.  Who are we getting next year, Siegfried and Roy?
Obit time was long and corny, and is it me or they always use that song? There were some bad omissions: Raul Ruiz, Pedro Armendáriz Jr, Michael Gough, Michael Sarrazin, Arthur Laurents, Harry Morgan, Nicol Williamson. Instead, there was some marketing research guy in there.
Apropos of which, I thought the focus group bit by the fabulous Best in Show troupe was very funny. Focus groups are exactly like that. This was documentary in its realism. But if Hollywood thinks focus groups are so satanically moronic, as they are, why do they keep using them? Self-serving crap.
Was I moved by stars talking about how they love movies? No, because they didn't say anything specific. And who cares what Adam Sandler's influences are?  Anybody who opens a montage with a scene from Forrest Gump deserves a special circle of hell designed exclusively for them, with that scene looped at nauseam for infinity.
Emma Stone was charming. Ben Stiller should be disinvited posthaste (what was that skin color?), and as far as I'm concerned Will Ferrell and Zack G. can do no wrong. And last year's winners talking personally to the acting nominees is borderline offensive. It's like rabbis giving eulogies at funerals of dead people they never met. Horrifying. The rest is a blur.
Now, as far as the prizes: I was flummoxed by the techie love shown to Hugo, and thought it was mostly consolation prizes to Scorsese, until I read in Deadline Hollywood Daily that Hugo, which cost over $200 million to make, (and for some incomprehensible reason this obscenity is being rewarded) employed almost every tech guy in town and they all voted for it. Which explains. Because although it uses 3D and HD and ADHD, I found the look of the movie garish and applied with a heavy hand, sort of like a Parisian strumpet with a bad case of rouge. Which brings me to the one upset of the night that made me scream in horror. I was not rooting for cinematographer Emannuel Lubezki because he's a Mexican Jewish homie, but because his work in The Tree of Life is truly awesome and ravishing. Plus, he has been nominated 5 times and never won. I really thought he had it in the bag. It went to Robert Richardson's ugly, if super complex, work in Hugo. Aargh.
I had problems with many of the nominations to begin with. I would have gladly exchanged Kevin Spacey in Margin Call and Viggo Mortensen as Freud for Christopher Plummer and Nick Nolte. I would have loved to see Ryan Gosling for Ides of March or Michael Fassbender for Shame instead of Dujardin or Clooney. I would have loved to see Kristin Wiig or Charlize Theron instead of Glenn Close (who looked like the leprechaun in the Lucky Charms cereal box) or Viola Davis (yes, I've said it. I'm tired of her virtuoso weeping). 
And except for The Artist and The Tree of Life, I don't think any of the other 10 movies deserved a best of the year award. Do Moneyball and War Horse (which I haven't seen) deserve to be there, but not Bridesmaids? With bad choices to begin with, it's hard to get worked up about this.
The only awards I really cared about were that justice be made for A Separation, and for Meryl Streep, who everybody loves to hate because they cannot conceive she is as impossibly magnificent as she is. That was the one standing ovation that had actual merit in the entire show. She is the Grande Dame of American Acting if not of All Acting Ever, so back off, haters. She also does fake humility to a t.
As we have complained before, for the Oscars to have some sort of suspense, the ceremony needs to happen at the beginning of awards season and not at the end, when the outcome is almost uniformly a foregone conclusion. Let the voters not be swayed by the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs and the Golden Chickens. Let them do their homework. This would make them more exciting.
And BTW, next year, fix the sound problems. Geez.

Feb 21, 2012

Foreign Policy and The Oscars

Few categories are more infuriating than the Best Foreign Film category in the Oscars. The films are submitted by their countries (a bureaucratic choice), so many times there are ridiculous omissions in the category. Sometimes great movies happen to make it to the list, only to be voted down by either feel-good movies, foreign movies that are Hollywood wannabes, or Holocaust movies.
The Holocaust movie/documentary winner has become like a bad recurring joke. I've no doubt that some of them are worthy films, but I think this is a case in which the good intentions of an insular industry end up creating animosity. Most people just roll their eyes every time yet another documentary or foreign film on the subject wins, particularly when the competing subjects are other equally egregious human injustices, whose loss seems guaranteed at the mere inclusion of a Holocaust themed competitor. There is Holocaust fatigue. And worse, the very disturbing fact that among some non-Jews this is seen as some sort of irrational, obnoxious Jewish obsession with the topic. 
This year, there is a true contender in the Foreign Film category that is almost the sure bet to win the statuette. Iran's official entry, A Separation, is, in my view, the best movie of the year. But it cannot compete in that category, so it has been nominated, not only for foreign film but surprisingly for best original screenplay as well. Truly deserved on both counts.
Its win could be a fait accompli if it weren't for two movies that may prove tough contenders. Poland's In Darkness, about, guess what, the Holocaust, and an Israeli movie called Footnote, which won best screenplay at Cannes last year.
Indeed, Footnote boasts a great screenplay, but its execution is deeply flawed. In Darkness is a good, but uneven movie. And it's about the Holocaust. About the other contenders I know little and I don't expect the members of the Academy to know much more (a movie from Belgium, and a movie from Canada). The only one that truly made a splash internationally, and with good reason, is A Separation.
The problem is that it is from Iran, a country that seems to be our current foreign policy bogeyman. This may put the voters in a conundrum. Do they want to reward a movie sent by a regime they probably hate? If they are smart, I think they should. The right thing is to award it the prize on its outstanding artistic merit. At the same time, this would also be a very meaningful symbolic statement. It would extend a hand to the people of Iran, who are brilliantly, humanely represented in the movie, amidst the worrisome cacophony of bellicose intentions among certain hawks in the US and Israel. And this could perhaps even elegantly flip the anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda of Iran. But if instead of giving the award to A Separation, it goes to In Darkness (massive roll of the eyes) or to Footnote, Iran and all the Jew haters can go back to saying that the Jews run everything anyway, etc. If Belgium or Canada win, it's a cop out and nobody cares.
This is the most important prize of the evening, people. The smart thing to do is to vote for A Separation. It is, after all the much superior film.
On the surface, A Separation does not seem like an overtly political film. But it is a very shrewd film which depicts a society that is deeply divided along class lines (The educated, more secular middle class, and the poor and pious), who, thanks to their particular kind of regime, are incapable of coming to terms with one another. The movie shows how a simple decision by an unhappy wife who wants to leave the country and a husband who cannot, snowballs into a drama that involves almost all segments of Iranian society. It is not a particularly rosy picture of life in Tehran, but it feels true.

I remember my shock when The Secret In Their Eyes, a Hollywoodish Argentinian potboiler took the prize from the magnificent French film A Prophet, in a year where both were competing against Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. The winner was a perfectly entertaining movie, but A Prophet and The White Ribbon are masterpieces, too gloomy and realistic for the feel good schmaltz of the Academy.
A Separation is a masterpiece. Vote smart.

Feb 20, 2012

An Old Fart Game

Well, now we know why the Oscars are so irrelevant, so bland, so boring, so conventional. Because the Academy is comprised almost exclusively of white alte cackers. 
The LA Times culled the numbers in shocking infographics.
The numbers are appalling:
  • 94% white
  • 77% male
  • 2% black
  • Less than 2% Latino
  • 14% people under 50
  • Median age is 62
The absence of women is appalling, the dearth of Blacks and Latinos is appalling, the dearth of young working talent is appalling. But while the dearth of people of color is somehow less surprising, I find the lack of women across most important categories (writer, director, producer, executive, cinematographer) absolutely dispiriting. How can we expect the Academy to have more minorities if they don't even have women! It is very disappointing that an industry that makes so much money and has so much cultural influence throughout the world is so disgracefully behind the times.
That is why they vote for aberrations intended to make it look like the Academy is progressive, making matters even worse, because movies like Slumdog Millionaire and The Help are condescending heaps of false piety.
Bizarrely, not everybody who is nominated is automatically invited to become a member, which would make the most sense to me, unless the Academy aims to belong in the fossil wing of the Museum of Natural History. 
To make matters worse, some important members have the nerve to disdain these findings. From a comment on Deadline Hollywood Daily:
From the article…”I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
I completely agree. This is a group representing an industry. Who cares if it’s diverse?
Indeed, the Academy doesn't have to mirror US demographics to a T, but what arrogance. This window into the make-up of the Academy simply reflects the reality of Hollywood as a whole. I find it very unfair and very sad, and quite alarming that instead of being jolted by it, they are defensive. This is the typical response of members of a boys' club.
Now, the Academy is an invitation only club and they can have the rules they want. Or maybe not. But if they want to be relevant, and they want more ratings, and they actually want the Oscars to stand for something meaningful, it would behoove them to diversify. Bringing in James Franco and Anne Hathaway is bad cosmetic surgery, and obviously didn't work. Have a younger, newer, more diverse membership with more adventurous tastes and a wider frame of reference. This may give comedies and independent films a better chance, which may bring a wider audience. In the end, even though the Oscars have always been nothing but a brazen PR stunt, it is in the interest of Hollywood to make people feel passion for movies. This is not going to happen if they keep creaking while the rest of the world zips ahead.

I'm already disenchanted with many of the nominees, the glaring omissions and the sinking feeling it's going to be particularly gnarly his year. Billy Crystal? He's funny, but we might as well hoof it to a crumbling hotel in the Catskills and call it a day.
I am going to shoot my TV if A Separation doesn't win best foreign picture, and the politics here are complicated, in a field that has both a Holocaust movie and an Israeli movie, neither of which shines a candle to the Iranian film. (I'm writing a separate post on this complex issue).
If The Help wins, I might have to shoot innocent bystanders.

Feb 18, 2012

In Darkness

It took me a couple of days to be able to write about this movie by Agnieszka Holland, which, as many Holocaust movies tend to be, is nominated for a foreign picture Oscar. I still think A Separation is the undisputed winner, but you know how it is with Holocaust movies and Oscar voters. And this one is not bad. At least, it goes through great lengths to be honest: Poles are portrayed as the Church-encouraged Antisemites they mostly were, and Jews are not the saintly, passive victims they tend to be. Some are selfish and hysterical, others are duplicitous, others are civilized, but in these circumstances they all are reduced to bare bones human nature. Nazis are portrayed as what they were, sadistic monsters, abetted by criminal propaganda and safety in numbers.
This harrowing movie is based on the real story of a group of Polish Jews who were hidden in the sewers of Lvov by Leopold Socha, a Polish thief who knew the sewers like the back of his hand. At first he does it for the money only. One of the Jews is wealthy and gives him 500 zlotys a day to keep them safe in the sewers and bring them food. But Socha, the wonderful Robert Wieckiewicz, finds he has in him an unexplained human impulse to help these people, namely compassion or sheer human decency, even as his Ukrainian friend is offering, through the auspices of the Nazis, the same amount of money to rat out hiding Jews. He could have ratted the Jews out and be a hero to the Nazis, saving himself a whole lot of trouble. But he didn't and he reluctantly saved the lives of these Jews, including two children, one of whom wrote a memoir.
As she seems to remember it, or as Holland would have it, there was a lot of extramarital sex going on in the ghetto and the sewers. If you are suffering from scurvy and are living in a rat and shit infested sewer, I wonder how much libido you have. I can see sex as a representation of the will to live, but once would have made the point more powerfully.
I think Holland wanted to make a Holocaust movie that showed more of the personal impact, and in this she succeeds. The suffering is horrible and individualized: instead of your garden variety anonymous Jews being led to slaughter, we get individual characters having a really hard time because of who they are, and not only because they are starving. Mr. Socha also has to deal with risk and suspicion, and he also repeats tired chestnuts about Jews being greedy, etc. It's not black and white.
Holland is a very lucid, competent director, who gets great performances from all her actors, especially the two children, and the movie is extremely well made, with excellent cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska, and particularly strong editing. It's solid but too long. Just as it has some powerful scenes, as when the Jews emerge from the darkness in the middle of a sunny day, almost blinded, to the surprise of their Polish countrymen, here and there it goes into cheesy territory, like a ridiculous scene of a naked woman in the sewer bathing herself with rain water. After 14 months in there she has no reason to look like a pinup.
In his review of this film, A.O. Scott, who has written about the Holocaust "genre" before, complains that this is a feel good movie. Through three fourths of the film, in my view, it is definitely not. It is hard to sit through. It's tough minded, complicated and realistic. To the point that I wonder what compels audiences to voluntarily seek out the punishment of Holocaust movies, if not morbid curiosity, or a need for excruciating catharsis. At the end, after all Holland puts the audience through, you  think there better be a happy ending, and there is one. The Jews were saved.
But in the postscript, where we learn the facts of the story through titles, life gets to break our heart. Socha finds a premature death and the titles explain that people in his town thought that this was God's punishment for saving the Jews. Plus ça change.
Socha and his wife are among the 6000 Polish citizens recognized as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel.

Feb 5, 2012

The Woman In Black

A lovely, surprisingly effective and intelligent ghost movie starring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter to you), Ciaran Hinds and the formidable Janet McTeer. This is a scary movie about unendurable grief. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young widower lawyer who is sent by his firm somewhere to the marshy north of England to settle some defunct lady's estate. When he gets there, the villagers won't help him and horrible things start happening to children. Radcliffe is affecting in an almost silent performance as the young man.
Most scary movies have flimsy premises and are lazily written, rarely bothering with character. This film is an exception, with a solid screenplay, adapted from a novel, that sets and pays everything off beautifully. Director James Watkins relies a lot on slamming doors and pounding sound effects, but he does make you jump many times. He also sustains tension and suspense chillingly and, rare for the genre, has tremendous empathy for his characters. The Victorian atmosphere feels authentic, misty and cold, with scary looking windup toys, sinister dolls, and the terrible sight of innocent children destroying themselves. It's such a pleasure to watch a horror movie that looks beautiful, and not shot in cheap, apoplectic video, for a change.  Watkins is stylish, restrained and wonderful with shocking apparitions. He also has a bit of a sense of humor.
The plot has a couple of excellent unexpected twists, and one of the reasons it works is because we are invested in the character, who for once, is not an idiot, but a susceptible young man in mourning, with a young child himself and therefore open to the apparitions of ghosts. I wish there was more of an intimation that perhaps all of these ghastly scares are happening only in his mind (this movie is very reminiscent both of The Innocents and The Others), and that he had more of an inner conflict, because once he becomes unafraid of the ghosts, we become a little less afraid ourselves. The story could go further and raise the stakes much higher, but it opts for more emotional grounding than just scares. Still, this is a mature, poignant film that truly sympathizes with unendurable grief, grief so monstrous that it wishes the worst kind of harm in those fortunate enough not to harbor it. More importantly, The Woman In Black delivers plenty of scares, which is all that matters in this kind of films, most of them extremely well earned (the audience kept tittering and laughing from sheer nerves), yet with a very touching aura of unfathomable sadness. 

Feb 4, 2012

Oscars: Award Bathos

Baños de pureza is a phrase in Spanish that means "baths of purity" and is used to denote someone who likes to slather themselves in holiness. Methinks that this is what tends to happen at the Oscars, where the nominations run the gamut from tokenism and holier than thou sentiments, to the pedestrian, predictable and conventional. I never thought that I'd agree with critic Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, but in his fun tirade against the ghastly Oscar choices this year, the guy has a point. This year's awards, as always, smack of humorless, pious self-congratulation, which explains many of the glaring omissions as well as the inexplicable inclusions.
A movie that was widely panned by critics, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, can only be in there because it is about 9/11 and has Tom Hanks in it, like a trusted brand of tissues. Apparently, it is the worst kind of sentimental pandering, the kind of movie that everybody hates but the Academy. Yet Bridesmaids, a hugely successful movie, both artistically and commercially, gets a consolation prize for best screenplay, because God forbid they pick a comedy for best movie or best actress of the year for Kristin Wiig. But then they complain that the ratings are falling and only old, demented farts like me watch their annual train wreck of anticipated boredom. This explains the omission of Michael Fassbender's and Carey Mulligan's searing performances in Shame, because the movie is about SEX and God forbid there is the slightest intimation they would stoop to watch such a film. They, who have no qualms about massive body counts in PG-13 movies, God forbid they look at a tit or a dick. This explains why dark independent movies like Take Shelter, or Martha Marcy May Marlene are ignored. And a solid political movie like The Ides of March, which depicts the filth of politics inside two Democrat campaigns, and is just about evil, not about Good and Evil, as they like it, gets only a screenplay nod, because it portrays flawed, messy people, not heroes bathed in the light of their own halos. For that we have The Help, a terrible movie, but one that guarantees Hollywood a nice pat in their own back, even if it is covered in the kind of schmaltz that is really bad for you. The kind of dreck that pretends that without white people, black people could not have freed themselves from slavery. The Descendants is the typical movie the Academy likes. It is solid and non-threatening; doesn't offend anybody, takes place in Hawaii. Then there is War Horse, which I haven't seen, (a weepie about a horse in the war is not what drives me to the theater), and Hugo, by Martin Scorsese, which is again, well-intentioned about cinema, but not very good. Midnight in Paris is a prestige nod and the best Woody Allen has done in years of mediocre work, but is it a best film of the year? No. I bet Moneyball is a perfectly good movie, but it is about "Triumph", and has Brad Pitt in it. I suspect it is there because no one wanted to make it, and Pitt fought for it until he got his way. Hence, a best actor nod for him as well: atonement. At least they had the good sense to recognize The Artist and The Tree of Life, which are truly magnificent. This was a particularly bad year in this category.
This explains why Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Demián Bichir got nominated. Mind you, they all are great, and bring depth and humanity to thin, idealized roles, but they are there so that Hollywood can atone with these two Black women and one Latino, all playing the noble-person-of-color, for all the hundreds of other non-white actors who either are completely absent from their movies or they mostly play the gardener or the maid, the drug dealer or the pimp, or in the best of cases, a noble second banana. With these prizes, the Academy thinks they've paid their dues for multiculti inclusion.
This halo pandering comes from a multi-billion dollar industry that is craven and morally corrupt, but that likes to wish that the lofty moral sentiments of these movies will rub off on them while they crush every other film industry with their might and they flood screens all over the world with mindnumbing crap. This is an industry that is angry at Obama, and threatening to withhold donations to his campaign because he did not support SOPA or PIPA, two strongarming bills intended to protect the billions it makes, freedom of speech be damned.
Could also be that their taste is crap. That they are old and hopelessly behind the times, and they simply love bad, tepid movies that make them feel good about themselves. This is why atrocities of cheap, false sentiment like Slumdog Millionaire, Life is Beautiful, The Blind Side, and maybe this year The Help, are categorized as best movie of the year.
Here is the list of all the Oscar nominees for best movie since 1927. Have fun.

Feb 2, 2012


Wrong man for the job. Had this movie been directed by Steven Spielberg, it would have been much more fun, mischievous and magical. As directed by Martin Scorsese, even though its intentions are lovely, Hugo is a drag. It certainly does not deserve to be a contender for best film of the year. The Artist, which is a similar homage to the dawn of film, is a much superior movie in every respect. Martin Scorsese is out of his element telling a story for children, and no amount of camera pyrotechnics can add lightness and grace to this leaden affair. There are a lot of swooping computer graphics-enhanced camera moves, but they add no real excitement. Everything looks fake. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is garish. The music by Howard Shore is predictable and cliched. The story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan who winds the clocks of the Gare Montparnasse and discovers the forgotten film genius Georges Mélies (Ben Kingsley, excellent) is very dark, but neither Scorsese or screenwriter John Logan seem to know how to deal with an audience of children. Either Logan thinks children are dim and need to be hit over the head with basic, repetitive dialogue and endlessly telegraphed plot points that surprise nobody, or he was phoning it in. The kids (Asa Butterfield as Hugo, and Chloe Grace Moretz as his friend Isabelle) work very hard to act but they are not charming, through no fault of their own. 3D does not contribute anything of value, except perhaps remind us that it shares the Mélies spirit for experimentation.
In a movie that lasts more than two hours, there were only two instances where I was not bored to tears, my heart sinking with disappointment. Any time that Sacha Baron Cohen appears as the evil station inspector who likes to send kids to the orphanage, simply because he is fun to watch. And once Scorsese gets around to tell the story of George Mélies, which is when the movie finally blossoms. Scorsese's love of movies is heartfelt and evident in his moving homage to this great artist, a former magician who after being a prolific filmmaker and the first inventor of visual effects in silent film, ended up tragically impoverished and forgotten. Scorsese shares his love of movies by including footage of two of the first movies ever made, the Lumiere brothers' Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory and Train Arriving at a Station (1895), of one of the first fictional narrative movies made in the US, The Great Train Robbery (1903), and of Mélies' magnificent A Trip to The Moon (1902). There is a bit with Harold Lloyd famously hanging from a clock, just like Hugo does in the movie, some snippets of Chaplin and Buster Keaton. These old movies are still as potent and beautiful and modern and timely as the day they were printed. The story of Meliés is a good reason to see this movie, the only time it truly comes alive with a lovely, elegiac sense of awe. Scorsese is right to to share his passion with audiences that simply do not appreciate enough the astonishing wonder that is film. I suggest you get the DVD and skip to those parts, which are truly beautiful and moving.