Ah. The movies. And to dream of being more than what we are, or less, maybe even other…
“Hugo” – (126 minutes, USA – PG)
Both films express a passion for movies at a time when much of the public shuns theaters for at-home viewing, like us here at JBoD. I frankly can only think of two films in recent memory which passed the “windshield rule”: “we are what we are“, Terrence Malick’s “the tree of life“, perhaps even Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia“.
On my daily commute, especially in the summer months, I get to enjoy both sunset and sunrise, a benefit of working nights. And so I got to wonder just how many films are really worth watching on anything larger than a car windscreen. By and large, especially with high definition TV, I feel most movies fail the test.
“Hugo” was filmed in 3D and perhaps should have been seen in a theater to get the full experience, but I really didn’t fancy it enough to risk the usual migraine which I feel as a result of the technique.
Besides, I was more intrigued by the story: “Hugo” begins with the humdrum story line of an orphaned kid surviving on his own in a Paris train station between World Wars. Played by Asa Butterfield, Hugo is a cute kid whose tribulations vaguely echo 19th century lit’s greatest sob stories, a scrappy but sensitive little soul like say, David Copperfield but not quite so tragic as Gwynplaine.
Hugo lives with his father (Jude Law), a clockmaker who also works (and dies tragically in a fire) at a museum. The father left behind an automaton of mysterious origin he was trying to fix, and Hugo now spends his days attempting to accomplish the same.
By a twist of fate, Hugo is taken in by a gruff toy repairman who owns a shop at the train station. Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley) turns out to be the creator of the automaton, legendary film maker Georges Meliès, long believed dead. And Meliès intends for his past to remain so. Hey, he’s got his reasons.
It is in its second half, once we unravel the mystery of Meliès ‘ story, that “Hugo” finally warms up to a nostalgic look at the passion and artistry of making films.
Ben Kingsley even looks close enough to the real Georges Meliès to alternate seamlessly between original footage from the actual Meliès films and “Hugo“, not just believably but touchingly so. By then, the young Hugo character takes a back seat to the story of Meliès and once again appears like a simple story-telling device.
For those interested, the documentary “Meliès the magician“, available through Netflix, includes a few original films from the illusionist turned filmmaker and they are well worth watching. As someone who saw many films from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and others, I always had the notion that these artists were the special effects of their era, when in fact someone like Meliès pre-dated their efforts while pioneering trick photography.
But beyond the films and the innovations, the passion and infectious enthusiasm of Meliès and his contributors are what really comes through in “Hugo” and the documentary.
The craft, attention to detail, vision and courage it took to invest all his fortunes and dreams to share with the audiences remain a testament to the filmmakers and storytellers of today. Folks like Larry Fessenden, George Romero, and the Soska sisters (Jen and Sylvia).
“Hugo” gets three jellybeans…
“War Horse” – (146 minutes, USA – PG-13)
Eyes half glazed over, my thoughts drifted towards another automaton story also featuring Jude Law and a lost kid, Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: artificial intelligence“, a perfect segue for the next film I’d been looking forward to: “war horse“. Spielberg is another of my favorite story tellers, although he does piss me off on occasion (“Jurassic Park“, “Hook“, “E.T.: the extra terrestrial” to name a few).
But it’s misdirected anger after all: just because critics fawned over “war horse” did not mean I should have expected it to be much more than “saving private Flicka” without all the gore and drama. The fact is that “war horse” is saccharine in many places, and it’s also schizoid: it feels like a movie for children, which may make sense as it is based on a children’s book but detracts from a more somber message.
I get it: not everything has to be dark and neo-realistic, but if the intent was in fact to show the “universal suffering” of the first World War through the eyes of a horse, then the episodic nature, clichés and visual references to John Ford films in “war horse” stamp it ‘FAIL’.
In “Hugo” I was distracted by the limited color palette of blue and orange (a consequence I think of the 3D technique), and in “war horse“, it is the lighting which to me seemed seldom natural with actors’ faces always lit in outdoors settings when they shouldn’t have been. Technique aside, certain comparisons tend to occur easily enough with Robert Bresson’s “au hazard Balthazar“.
“Au hazard Balthazar” isn’t a story so much as a stark narrative following a girl, Marie, and her donkey Balthazar, from childhood growing through various forms of abuse, leading to one of the most deeply emotional endings on film. It really would be unfair to compare “war horse” with “Balthazar“, but the former does impart certain human qualities to its character, such as self-sacrifice, while the latter transcends such considerations by simply enduring.
Joey, the titular character of “war horse” is a thoroughbred which becomes more than he is by becoming less. Men throughout the film are amazed at his grace and beauty, but Joey does what no thoroughbred can do: plow a rocky field and later plow through machine guns’ fields of fire and pull artillery pieces in the mud, now and then helped along by an admiring human. And he triumphs.
Balthazar in peacetime never does more than what is expected of a donkey and is used and abused more and more and more, yet endures in silence until the end when most human and animals would have long whimpered and buckled under.
“War horse” gets two jellybeans…
Joey, it turns out, reminds me of Jacques Brel’s song “Jacky”.
“Cute, cute, cute, in a stupid ass way…”
Ah, but the original needs to be heard…
I have some recommendations to make after this write-up, if by chance your curiosity is piqued: Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “the city of lost children“, Robert Bresson’s “au hasard Balthazar” of course, but also the Polish brothers’ “Northfork“.