U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 2011, Paramount
Martin Scorsese's Hugo -- a movie masterpiece if there ever was one -- is a film for film lovers to dream on.
It's an incredibility entertaining show. But how could it not be? Scorsese has made it at the peak of his craft and art, and so have his collaborators. Besides appealing to children, the movie should -- a cliché, I know, but it applies here -- appeal to the child in most of us too.
In telling his fabulous story of a little boy named Hugo Cabret, who secretly runs the clocks in a huge early '30s Parisian train station (the Gare Montparnasse) and his initial nemesis but eventual friend, filmmaker Georges Méliès (the pioneering film genius who invented fantasy movies and narrative movies, now fallen on harder times), Scorsese takes much of the fantastic apparatus and the magical tools and tricks of cinema -- touching on everything from the hand-tinted black-and-white silent movies of the turn of the century (Méliès' métier) to the spectacular 3D widescreen color and CGI effects of today -- and uses it all to lavish breathtaking skill and a prodigal affection on each scene.
The maker of Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas and The Departed, showing his gentler side, turns Hugo into a feast of delights.
Scorsese's collaborators here are all among the best in the business, some among the best that ever were. Cinematographer Robert Richardson lit the glowing images, Dante Ferretti designed the brilliantly complex sets, Howard Shore wrote the lyrical music and Thelma Schoonmaker, once again, cut it all together, beautifully.
In the movie, the heroes, 12-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and 70-year-old Méliès (Ben Kingsley), are a couple of glorious gadgeteers, inventors and artists who've both lost their worlds and have to reclaim them together. Even though we hardly ever leave the station, except briefly when, in one of Hugo's dreams, one of the trains crashes through an outside wall, Hugo becomes a kind of quest film, a journey film. Scorsese's movie keeps whisking us from wonder to wonder, from the giant clock looking out at the Eiffel Tower (the perspective near the clock, especially when Hugo dangles off of it, suggests a mix of Quasimodo's view and that of Harold Lloyd's in Safety Last, a movie that Scorsese shows us) to the grand flamboyance of the station interior, to Méliès' toy shop with its skittering little play-creatures and shelf-rows of mechanical dolls, through the vast clockwork gears and wheels and winding stairs and pullies behind the walls where the Gare Montparnasse time machinery is controlled.
All of this is seen, with Citizen Kane clarity and depth, through the eyes of 12-year-old Hugo, a Dickensian orphan leading a hard knocks life in the station while secretly running the works in the walls -- the boy who finds Méliès, among his toys. (The real-life Méliès, after he lost his movie studio, really did have a toyshop in the train station.)
The union of the two is inevitable. Hugo was robbed of his childhood when his horologist father (Jude Law) died, leaving him the weird but bewitching legacy of an automaton that writes. Hugo's drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), then the station's timekeeper, took him into Montparnasse, and taught him all about time. Then he died too, leaving Hugo, all alone, to run the clocks. And Méliès, an extraordinarily gifted man, was robbed of his artistic career, and even forced, to dismantle his movie studio (the world's first), and destroy his own films because of changing public tastes and the machinations of the clever businessmen who robbed him and others blind.
Scorsese's movie, the purest expression ever of the director's passionate love of the cinema, shows us how both the fleet urchin inventor Hugo and the bearded, bespectacled magician/movie-man Méliès regain what they lost.
There are others in the story of course, other denizens and habitués of the Gare. There is Méliès' plucky god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who becomes Hugo's station angel and movie-going buddy, and Méliès' wife, beaming Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), the studious looking Lisette (film noir lover/actress Emily Mortimer), a fictional Emily (Frances de la Tour), who has a little dachshund, and Emily's rotund boyfriend M. Frick (Richard Griffiths, who looks like he was born for a silent movie, and a pie in his face) and, most dangerously, the tyrannical station inspector (played with an edge by Sacha Baron Cohen), a World War I veteran with a prosthetic leg, a stickler who chases Hugo and other orphans all around the station.
And there's another character from outside the station group: the film lover, academic and Méliès admirer Rene Tabard, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who played the Job figure in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man.
Scorsese is a master director of actors, but usually in rougher, tougher, fouler-talking urban milieus. Here he and his actors go for the larger-than-life fairytale quality that Spielberg or Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Robert Zemeckis have mastered. It's not Scorsese's milieu, and in a way, not even his style, but you can tell how much the material means to him, how much the cinema means to him.
Hugo is based on the children's book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and the screenwriter was John Logan, of The Aviator, Gladiator and Rango. With its child's perspective on a child's fantasy world, it's the first movie of its kind that Scorsese has ever done. Yet its also pure Scorsese, and quite clearly one of the most personal movies he's ever made.
Puss in Boots (A)
U.S.: Chris Miller, 2011, DreamWorks
Puss in Boots, which gives its starring role to Antonio Banderas' swashbuckling cat, turns out to be one of my favorites of the year, a movie chockfull of goodies and a few surprises: funny, lively, charming, well written, full of action, full of character (and not just from the one with the boots), packed with genuine good times. The show centers around Banderas and his magnificently daffy voice acting and the delightful onscreen character he's playing (to the hilt): the dashing feline adventurer Señor Puss in Boots of the Shrek series. It's a real gem of cartoon characterization. Banderas makes the movie, but the surprise is that the show has so much going in support of him as well, including first-rate supporting performances by the likes of Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris. Directed by Chris Miller from a witty script by Tom Wheeler (and others) and visualized by production designer Aretos Guillaume and a gifted horde of artists, the movie is also often spectacular and gorgeous.
It's actually one of the best movies of the year, and one of my own personal favorites: a first class entertainment, a rousingly well-made show, and a perfect showcase for Banderas.
The plot of Puss comes from the fairytale world of Charles Perrault (Puss's original creator), by way of Alexandre Dumas, Zorro, Casanova, Sergio Leone's '60s Italian-made, Spanish-shot spaghetti Westerns, some film noir archetypes, and a hip take on Mother Goose, and all the other other Disneyfied or Looney Tuned cartoon fairytales you can cram into one movie. Especially Leone, almost as big an influence here as he was in Rango. In the story, Puss is on the trail of some magic beans, now in the possession of that sleazy old couple Jack and Jill (Thornton and Sedaris), and he hooks up with the luscious Kitty (Hayek) and also with his dubious one-time best friend Humpty Dumpty (Galifianakis), who, like Puss, has gone beyond the law and who also also has reason to feel betrayed by his old buddy.
Soon, the trio have collected the beans, climbed Jack's beanstalk though the clouds and gotten their paws and shell-fingers on the goose that lays the golden eggs, and its mother, The Goose That Can Take on Godzilla. Fights, chases revelations, tender moments and cliffhangers follow. It may not seem too original, but that's one of the reasons it works so well. You always have the feeling that everyone involved knows what they're doing, isn't taking themselves too seriously, and are having a ball. What makes this Puss in Boots work so sell? We start with Banderas. Like the great Looney Tunes vocal maestro Mel Blanc, when he gave voice to sarcastic Bugs Bunny or frazzled Daffy Duck or explosive Yosemite Sam, Banderas has contrived a speech pattern for Puss (admittedly closer to his own than Blanc's were) that perfectly suits the visual image of his role, while also playing hilariously just a bit against it.
Banderas gives us a totally cute little cat, who's also suave, arrogant, well-dressed and elegantly charming, who can fence as well as Errol Flynn, who can paw his way into a cantina/bar (a horse opera tavern right out of Sergio Leone or Rio Bravo), eye the barhounds and gunslingers and fearlessly order a bowl of milk. A cat of cats whose hot-blooded, cool-talking Spanish charm drives all the little pussycats mad. I defy you not to giggle at this gato! (Extras: featurettes, deleted scenes; games; fairytale pop-up book; trivia track; digital copy.)