Hugo (3D) – Film Review

I had given up hope that Martin Scorsese would ever make a picture aimed at all ages. With his love of film and unsurpassed knowledge of the art form, I felt he was a natural. But with New York as your muse, there are more serious matters to attend to. Turns out, Scorsese was hit by the perfect storm. His memories of early 3D films (Dial M for Murder, Kiss Me Kate), a beautifully crafted Caldecott medal winning children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) with a compelling story, and of course, the birth of cinema. Marty never had a chance.

Picture opens with two sounds; a steam train and the confident clicking movements of hundreds of timepieces. Suddenly we are whisked into a massive 1930’s Parisian train station bustling with activity. Scorsese’s 3D camera is in flight and traverses the entire station. In a few moments we see everything that’s happening. Then we see the face of a very serious boy peering out onto the grand station lobby from behind a large clock. This is Hugo Cabret, a 12 year old who lives in hidden apartments within the station walls and tends the clocks. Hugo, Asa Butterfield, is intense and not very pleasant. He steals food from the station cafe and small mechanical parts from a toy shop run by a sour old man.

Hugo needs the parts to fix an automaton that sits sad and lonely at a small desk, waiting to write a clue to Hugo’s existence. His father, Jude Law–who we see in flashback–was hypnotized by clockworks and split his time between working on them and his job in a Paris museum. He and his son collaborated to restore the automaton when a flash fire at the museum took his life. Hugo is immediately taken in by his oft inebriated Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) who is employed by the train station to mind the clocks. He teaches Hugo to keep them lubricated and in good working order, and gives him a small bed in the apartment. But that’s all he gives him.

The unpleasant man at the station’s Toy shop is George Méliès, played with power and wide emotional range by Ben Kingsley. He catches Hugo stealing from him and is brutal in his treatment. He takes his detailed notebook containing the schematic of the automaton, which he recognizes. The encounter leads Hugo to meet Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a bright, bookworm young girl who has also lost her parents, and now resides with Méliès and his wife Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) in a small Paris apartment.

Lost parents, being an orphan, and all that goes with it plays a major role in this picture. Some of the best children’s stories begin with parents being immediately dispatched in the first paragraph. They are lost at sea or in a tragic car accident, releasing their children from  authority figures and freeing them to seek adventure without fear of being disciplined. I saw this film with my 7 year old son who grilled me at length about orphans and orphanages over dinner following the viewing. It further reinforced how the absence of parents sends children adrift.

Hugo talks about his dreams and his father and how they attended the movies. Isabelle has never seen a film, so he takes her but, they enter through the back door with the help of Hugo’s lock picking skills. She is enthralled with Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock in “Safety Last.” But there’s much more going on here than a simple adventure. Hugo is desperate to find meaning to his life and he believes Méliès and Isabelle can help unlock the mystery of the automaton to learn the answer.

Méliès is not the only player complicating Hugo’s life. The Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is in charge of discipline and he doesn’t take his duty lightly. He has made it his mission to round up all parentless children he comes across and ship them off to the orphanage. He spars with Hugo on and off in the picture and is careful to instill in him the real purpose of a train station. “People are here to get on trains and get off trains and there are shops.” He was wounded in the war and wears a crude metal brace on his left leg. When it comes to chasing children he gets around just fine, but the brace mechanism locks up whenever his human side emerges. Cohen is quite good, has the best costume, and along with his Doberman companion, Maximilian, provides welcome comic relief to an otherwise emotionally draining story.

Hugo and Isabelle become closer. She sees him as someone who can provide her with adventure, and in return gives Hugo access to society and culture. He is drawn to Isabelle as someone who might be able to help him find his past. Despite diligent work on the automaton he is unable to make it work without a heart shaped key that initiates the crude program. Isabelle wants Hugo to take her behind the walls of the station, something that he is uncomfortable doing and turns to run. Isabelle is nearly trampled by departing train goers and when Hugo returns to save her he sees the heart shaped key around her neck. She gives him the key and he clicks it into place in the automaton’s back.

The machine draws a familiar picture that sets the two of them off on a quest to research the early days of the cinema. While in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève they discover that Isabelle lives with the real George Méliès. The film curator at the library is a Méliès fan and has the only surviving Méliès film. They invite him to Isabelle’s apartment to screen the picture. There Méliès tells the entire story. His early magic show gave way to cinema when he met the Lumière Brothers at a local carnival. He was forever hooked and made hundreds of films. But the war changed everything, his work became irrelevant and it was systematically destroyed. Méliès was forever crushed.

All the characters have been pointing themselves to the film’s climax. A young boy’s courage and determination to solve the mystery of his own life, impacts so many others at the same time. What Selznick and Scorsese have done so wonderfully here is show the inter-connectedness of life. Nothing exists in a vacuum. All things are intertwined in a complex tapestry. Without it we are miserable. Embracing it is the nourishment of happiness.

The film evoked Cinema Paradiso for me. Another deeply passionate story of film and relationships. Scorsese’s treatment of Hugo advances our love of film and embeds it deeply into our heads and hearts, forever.

The production values in Hugo are top notch. I was anxious to see how Scorsese would employ 3D. He uses it a lot. Robert Richardson’s 3D lens moves flawlessly through the sets. Dante Ferretti created the train station and reproduced Méliès’ original film sets, providing the visual grammar for the film. The team spent five days filming on reproductions of Méliès sets, including building a glass studio complete with dragon and fish tank. And then there is of course Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, which converges seamlessly with Scorsese’s vision. Howard Shore’s thematic score supports the emotional arch of the story, traversing mystery, boldness, playfulness, and finally optimism. Music is used liberally throughout the picture.


Was that Johnny Depp on guitar in the cafe in the chase scene? I think it might have been. I was interested that many of the clocks in the film used Arabic numerals. Train station clocks that use Roman numerals don’t use IV because it is right next to the V on the clock face. Commuters hurrying to catch their train glance up at the clock and might confuse IV from V, so clock makers changed IV to IIII to avoid the problem. I loved how most of the actors spoke with a British accent while living in Paris. Visit the official Hugo web site here.

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Avatar – Film Review

Avatar is in a word, ASTONISHING. Many aspects of the storytelling are familiar but the way in which James Cameron unfolds the story is, in every respect, entirely new. He has has kept his formidable storytelling skills but this time wrapped them in an imaginative presentation layer unlike anything you have ever seen. That theme plays out over and over as you sit through 2 hours and 30 minutes, which seems to go by as it were 90. That thought is “I’ve seen this before, but never in this manner.”

The year is 2054. The planet is Pandora. Man is in his usual greedy gold rush mode to take someone else’s natural resources for his own personal consumption, regardless of the cost. We see most of the usual suspects; science, business and the military. Surprisingly there are no political figures at the table. Wonder how they managed that in only 44 years?

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sgourney Weaver) is the scientist. She’s tough as nails and a stickler for details, but has a secret wish to believe in magic. The only reason she’s associated with this mission is to fund her research. The corporate top voice is Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who’s only concern, at the outset anyway, is keeping the shareholder quarterly reports in the black. The military man is a very scary Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). He’s all duty. Tightly wrapped, flawlessly trained and in complete charge. You can bet even his fingernails have muscles. Of all the characters in the story, his motivation and purpose is the most pure and unwavering.

Pandora is at once a dangerous and enchanting land. But it feels a lot more like a rain forest on earth than a faraway alien planet; nasty animals and exotic plants notwithstanding. It’s inhabits are the Na′vi who are tall, willowy  and blue with flat noses and sparkles on their faces. They have very long tails to help maintain balance as they navigate the forest limbs and an extensive pony tail fitted with a live plug on the end enabling it to access Pandora’s vast nerve network through animals and plants. The Na′vi have learned to enjoy and thrive in their world. The invading earthlings, who have used up their natural resources back on earth need to mine a precious substance that is abundant under a vast tree where the natives make their home. It seems like a simple enough proposition. The Na′vi move to a different tree and the humans get the goods. Yeah, well…

When it becomes obvious that talks are going south, the humans give diplomacy a twist and one last try. They enlist Dr. Augustine to create replicants of the Na′vi by combing DNA from both species into Avatars. Humans are then able to take over the Avatar bodies from a dream state induced by what looks to be a cross between a tanning bed and an MRI. When the human Avatar controllers are asleep they’re counterparts are awake and can be controlled inside the Na′vi tribe. The plan is to gain their trust and persuade them to move. Otherwise Colonel Quartich will deploy a more direct method.

That’s where hardcore marine Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) comes in. Sam is twin brother to the man who was being trained to take over an Avatar, but was killed in a skirmish before he could reach Pandora. Sam is confined to a wheelchair and has no formal training, but he gets a shot because of the DNA sharing.

Everyone wants Jake to find out information to further their personal cause. He commits to the Colonel, mostly because of the corps and duty, but as time goes on the line between human world and Na′vi world become blurred. While in his Avatar body, Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) an exotic beauty and member of one of the upper crust families. She is instructed by her father to train Jake in the ways of the Na′vi, and does so with an iron fist. Jake becomes more and more separated from his military life and is seduced by the simpler, more harmonious way of living. Cameron uses voice over sparingly, but very effectively to give us clues along the way. “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.” As the film advances Cameron makes Jake look more like his Avatar when present in the human world. There is a metamorphosis under way on many levels.

Much of the talk of the film revolves around the technical aspects of Avatar and Cameron’s wizardry with new cameras and breakthrough 3D effects. All of that discussion is justified. Let it be proclaimed that 3D has officially moved beyond “effects” and has taken its place as part of the grammar of the film. Has it “changed everything?” No, but it certainly will challenge everyone from here on out. Personally I hope this will be the catalyst that moves Hollywood off the stagnant explosions and recycled garbage into a new phase of sophistication and economics. The current formula is obsolete and has kept many cinema lovers away from the theaters. Raising the bar on content and production value might very well expand the runway for an entirely new creative revolution, as well as business model, that can engage a broader audience. Cameron just may be an Avatar inside Hollywood.

The actions scenes using CGI and 3D are spectacular, but I found the more static scenes of actors sitting around a table more visually compelling than some of the action segments. We expect the CGI to be otherworldly, but to have everyday interactions so rich in depth and texture is a wonderful surprise and I believe it’s the space where real creativity can best occur with 3D going forward. It’s a bit like looking at a topographic map on celluloid.

Back on Pandora it becomes clear that a deal cannot be struck and Colonel Quaritch baits Selfridge into taking action. Parker is having second thoughts. He’s the only character in the entire film not in a uniform. When we first see him he has on a tie, a nod to corporate regalia, but he quickly strips that off as he wrestles with the final decision. In the end we learn he is a mere puppet.

Everything builds up to the final battle. Each side summons forth their own alchemy for victory. The fighting takes place in the air and on the ground as the “sky people” guide their helicopters, gunships and robots against the natives who are aboard the winged Banshees of Pandora. Jake has provided good intelligence to Quaritch but also brings what he knows about humans to bear in a fresh strategy for the Na′vi, complete with weapons and communications devices.

James Horner’s soundtrack is big, wonderfully inspiring and refreshingly varied. It resembles his score for Titanic at times, but when we are deep in the jungle of Pandora he borrows heavily from Native Americans, giving these scenes more of a tribal feel than science fiction. All the characters are sharply drawn and the performances are sound on both the human and Na′vi sides. Look for pic to garner much critical acclaim, lots of Oscar nominations and a big box office take. Highly recommended.

Visit the official Avatar web site here.

Photos: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Studios Try to Reinvent Themselves in 3D

3dglassesU.S. film studios enjoyed a lock on the moving picture experience for many years before television invited itself to the party. Movie moguls were afraid that television was replicating the movie house experience so they completely changed the format from a standard 4:3 aspect ratio screen to a much wider screen. This helped them differentiate the experience in hopes of continuing to attract the public to paid showings. It was for the most part a successful strategy. But home theater has advanced significantly over the last 15 years and now many consumers have wide screen TVs that display beautiful high definition pictures. Blu-ray HD DVDs are coming close to replicating the visual acuity of the theater experience without the expensive ticket price and even more outrageous prices for tubs of popcorn and soft drinks.

The studios are working hard on 3D. Not a cheesy version usually reserved for blood bucket, low budget pics, but one that is much more refined and ready for grown-up subject matter. This potential evolution might seem radical, but these are desperate times, so anything goes. Studios think they can charge significantly more for a ticket to a 3D version of a film vs. the standard version, perhaps as much as $25 per seat. When you couple the increased profits with a unique experience and throw in world class filmmakers like James Cameron, it’s a tempting proposition for investors.

There is one minor glitch. The film houses are not ready for the switch to 3D. Exhibitors must upgrade the technology to be able to project the new format, which can cost up to $100,000 per screen. The studios hoped the exhibitors would pick up the tab, as their part of the investment, since the studios would bear the additional production expenses (shooting in 3D can add up to $15 million to a film) as well as the need to also produce and distribute a regular version of the film for the foreseeable future.Unfortunately the credit markets are a bit frozen right now, so the technology upgrade money is not available.

Of the approximately 40,000 screens in North America, only 1,300 of them are ready with the 3D technology. The story is much bleaker oversees, which is important to note, as well north of half of a film’s grosses come from that market. But Fox is readying James Cameron’s Avatar for a prime December release date. Many other major studios have numerous 3D projects in the pipeline, including Pixar, putting even more pressure on the system.

It’s an interesting problem that studios find themselves in. The entertainment world expanded so quickly and there was is much pressure to produce profits, that simply making great films hasn’t been enough for a long while. Franchises like Batman and Spiderman have helped studios stay viable. They have launched web sites that promote films using social media functionality as an accelerant to their astronomical marketing budgets. Other owned media properties are leveraged to promote and sometimes even re-purpose material for the home screen.

We have seen the television networks completely give up on drama and turn their slates over to the reality format for the last few years. The cable networks like HBO and most recently with AMC’s Mad Men are leading the way with serious subject matter that is garnering critical acclaim and engaged viewers. The movie studios must guard against over-betting on the potential promise of 3D profits only to find themselves in a creative wasteland.

movie-theaterObviously not ever project will work in 3D, and ultimately the consumer will decide if 3D is a great new format, or simply a trick to squeeze more money out of each ticket. But there is another major consideration. If it does work the studios could ruin their home video distribution channel by not being able to at least approximate the 3D experience. If someone loved it in 3D but can’t have that same experience at home for repeat viewings, will they just pass on renting or adding that film to their collection? There are firms working on 3D TV, but it’s not ready for prime time yet.

My advice to the system is be cautious and think through the life-cycle of the product. Hollywood needs more sources of value, not less. Theatrical box office revenues will not make up for lost home video sales. The infrastructure is simply not there and films have such a short shelf life in the cineplex. And above all, don’t leave the serious film projects behind.

YouTube and the recently launched MeHype site are giving rise to personal production companies. It certainly is no threat to the craftsmen in Hollywood, but consumers don’t seem to mind lower production values as long as they can be entertained. Netflix is moving quickly on their streaming concepts and partnering with LG for OEM tests. A TV is not a PC, at least not now. I will be watching this space closely.