Hugo

A young boy, orphaned by circumstance, lives in the secret passages of a large train station in 1920’s Paris. His story becomes entwined with that of George Melies, an early French filmmaker.

Hugo is fictional, but Melies is real, and many of the details about his life, even the strange story about some of his films being melted down for shoe heels, are historically accurate. Melies, who started as a magician, was apparently one of the first film-makers to appreciate the uses of special effects in movie-making, which makes him a particularly appropriate subject for this FX-driven film.

The visual imagery of this film, even in 2-D, is stunning.  Both the Escher-like maze of the train station, and the dreamscape Paris-that-never-was, are outstanding feats of creative imagination. The snippets of early films, primitive though they are, are as enchanting to us as they clearly were to Scorsese.  From the visual standpoint, Hugo is a triumph of modern movie-making, by a master at the top of his game.

The more traditional part of the movie — the story — is less successful.  Many of the smaller characters — the book-seller, the flower-seller, the old couple in the cafe with the dog — are well-drawn and quite charming, even with only a few minutes on screen.  Sacha Baron Cohen (better known as Borat), gives a surprisingy restrained performance as the stationmaster, broken in more ways than one.  And he gets some of the best lines — “I don’t like the cut of your jib, little man.”

But…

Ben Kingsley, normally an outstanding actor, is little more than a cipher here.  His part is poorly written, but he doesn’t seem to have bothered to try and flesh it out. And the child actors playing Hugo and the young girl who befriends him are overly precious — they’re the Harry Potter kids, without the slice of wry. I cringed every time they were on screen.  As a result, there’s a hole where the emotional center of this movie should be.

Hugo is  a good film, worth seeing, and suitable for all but the youngest children (who might be creeped out by some of the chase scenes).  But it could have been a much better one.

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My Week With Marilyn

This “chick flick with a difference” chronicles a British movie made in the 1950s starring the improbable duo of Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. The story is told through the eyes of a young man just starting out in the movie-making business, who is assigned the job of babysitting Marilyn. Some decades later, after most of the people he talks about were safely dead, he wrote a memoir, which is the basis for this movie.

Michelle Williams portrayal of MM is not totally convincing — she’s too skinny, for one thing — but the simulacrum she creates is attractive enough. The movie makes you sympathize with MM by its slyly subversive observations about the faux snobbery of the British theatrical aristocracy. The most affecting scene involves MM in a library, looking at a collection of priceless Old Master drawings. Here, in an artificial, almost hermetically sealed environment, MM can actually respond as a normal human being for a few minutes, instead of “being her.”

As is typical in British ensemble movies, there are a lot of wonderful British actors in relatively small roles — Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond, Judy Dench, and the incomparable Derek Jacobi. And it was nice to see Emma Watson in something non-Hermione (although I hope she gets a better part next time).

This is a surprisingly sweet, charming film — much better, I am sure, than the rather silly movie they are supposedly shooting.