Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo, Movie Magic via Martin Scorsese

When Martin Scorsese's point of departure for a film is personal, the result is always an outstanding movie. This is the case with Hugo, a family film with a feel-good warm glow that surely on the surface does not feel at all like a Scorsese picture, but one that harbors, at its core, a loving homage to the magic of film making, making it perhaps the most personal of all the films that he has directed in his brilliant career.

When young Marty was a kid growing up in New York's Little Italy, often his health did not allow him to play with the other neighborhood kids. He would observe the world from his Elizabeth street window, and fill notebooks with storyboards of imaginary films. As a child, he was already measuring reality through the frame of a window, similar to the way the camera eye composes a shot. When we first meet young Parisian orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) his big sad blue eyes are staring at the world from inside the giant clock in the large railway station in which he lives. His "Hunchback of Notre Dame" existence consists of winding the big clock to ensure that he will not be sent to an orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), as well as stealing gears from a toy seller with a past (Ben Kingsley) in order to make a mechanical automaton -- a legacy from his dead father (Jude Law) -- come to life. As young Hugo begins to work for the mysterious toy seller he learns that the old bitter man is a very special person, none other than Georges Méliès the great film pioneer magician who between 1896 and 1913 made more than 500 short films including the classic "A Trip to the Moon" but who fell into bankruptcy and obscurity after the Great War. Before long, young Hugo and his pal Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) are on a mission to deliver Méliès (Isabelle's godfather) back from obscurity.

This is Mr. Scorsese's first 3-D film, and it finds him in a playful mood with his new toy, echoing the world of cinema right and left. His trademark moving camera, traditionally always on the prowl, here achieves a sense of depth that Alfred Hitchcock was able to capture in his one and only 3-D film Dial M for Murder. As a matter of fact, there are many homages to the Master in this film. The way that Hugo spies on the regulars that gather at the railway station reminds us of Jimmy Stewart looking out of his Rear Window. Even Hugo's dwelling inside the clock, with dozens of moving gears and mechanical parts, reminds us of the inner workings of a motion picture projector. The stairs that lead up to it bring us back to the Master by giving us a sense of Vertigo.

But when the movie flashes back to the end of the 19th century, that's when the real cinematic magic begins. Scorsese's recreation of the heyday of Georges Méliès and his wondrous, hand-tinted, theatrical and fantastical films is an unforgettable, loving homage to the time when the movies began. Ben Kingsley gives a memorable performance as Méliès, forgotten and wounded in his old age, but as a young man sunny, full of enthusiasm, and wide-eyed at the possibilities that this new medium can offer.

In many ways I picture Martin Scorsese sharing this enthusiasm when making this film. A work so different from the rest of his other works, and yet so close to his own heart and imagination. It might just become the movie that he will be best remembered for.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

J Edgar, Clint Eastwood's film with Leo DiCaprio

In a memorable scene from J Edgar, Clint Eastwood's new biopic of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's first director, the young J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is entertaining actress Ginger Rogers at the Stork Club and gets invited to dance with the Hollywood hoofer. Immediately Hoover declines, gets nervous, says that he does not know how to dance and perspiring he excuses himself from the premises taking along with him his assistant Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer). Later that night at his home, which he shares with his mother, Mrs. Hoover (Judi Dench) wonders what people will think of her son if he refuses to dance with women and is constantly seen with his male assistant. She tells him that she'd rather have a dead son than a "daffodil." That night, J. Edgar Hoover gets his first dancing lessons, with his mom leading.

In 1995, three years before the titanic turn that turned him into "Leo," DiCaprio showed that he could portray sexually ambivalent characters convincingly. In Total Eclipse, he played the young French poet Arthur Rimbaud, a performance soaked in absinthe and featuring a torrid and graphic lust affair with older poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). It was the first and last time that we would see DiCaprio having sex with a man on screen. After Titanic the very thought of it seemed ludicrous. Now, In J. Edgar, DiCaprio once again plays a character awash with feelings for a man, but whereas his Rimbaud was a sexual animal on the prowl, the extent to which his Hoover shows affection does not go beyond a momentary touch of Clyde Tolson's hand. As played by Mr. Hammer, Tolson is just as sexually inept as his boss, and this leads to quite a memorable scene in a hotel room.

Aside from spying upon J. Edgar Hoover's sexual peccadilloes, the film largely focuses on delineating the beginnings and growth of the FBI, while portraying Hoover as a monster who seeks the limelight at any cost and who keeps secret files on everyone. Clint Eastwood relishes the chance to do early 20th century period once again as in his Changeling back in 2008. The color palette provided by cinematographer Tom Stern (who also shot Changeling) captures well the 1930s as well as the 1970s, the two decades which the movie explores.

Any film that covers half a century for its character is going to need old age makeup, and as usual, this is where today's films always falter. The glory days of Citizen Kane, where with simple theatrical makeup Orson Welles was able to transform himself into an old man, have disappeared. The credits to this film lists twenty makeup artists, and the results are mediocre. The film features liberal use of prosthetics in well-lit scenes: never a good combination. For example, one daylight exterior scene at the racetrack reduces Armie Hammer's face to that of an immobile waxen dummy. Somehow, DiCaprio pushes his performance through the latex and in the struggle with makeup he manages to survive. Naomi Watts, who plays Helen Gandi, Hoover's longtime secretary, ends up looking creepy.

If you can get through the makeup I am sure that you will enjoy J. Edgar. It is the kind of well-made, well-paced film that Hollywood tends to favor around Oscar time. Already, the buzz is on for DiCaprio. This is the closest he has come in his career to making us forget that he is Leo and making us believe that he is the character. Maybe it's the make-up, after all, adding gravitas to his performance. Perhaps this year the Academy will honor his efforts.