CINEMA: Curious George

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HUGO (2011, directed by Martin Scorsese, 127 minutes, U.S.)
THE DESCENDANTS (2011, directed by Alexander Payne, 115 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK  After six years, director Alexander Payne is back with his fifth feature, The Descendants. Payne has written and directed some of the most insightful American satires of the last fifteen years, including Election, Citizen Ruth, and his last film, Sideways. With this tale showing George Clooney as a Hawaiian real estate mogul who through tragedy becomes closer with his daughters, Payne seems to stumble a bit from his high perch.

After she is seriously injured in a boating accident, Matt King (Clooney) discovers his wife has been having a serious affair. When Matt finds out that she won’t recover, he collects his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) from college and along with the precocious ten year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), the family goes on a road trip to break the news to friends and relatives. Along the way, Matt also hopes to find and confront the man with which his wife was having an affair.

Are we missing Jim Taylor, Payne’s longtime screenwriting collaborator? This is the first of Payne’s films that Taylor has not co-written and the film’s plotting and comedy miss that unpredictable edge of Payne’s earlier films. Even its story of a successful man who finds out his dead wife (or brain dead) has been cheating on him echoes their earlier film, About Schmidt. Critics have said The Descendants is a more “mature” film for Payne, but its lonely heart doesn’t cut deeper than his earlier work, its jokes just don’t pay-off as well.

Payne’s excellent dialogue has in the past elevated stock situations beyond their clichés, but here he ends up hitting too many of the expected emotional confrontations in too predictable a manner. A glaring sign of Payne’s desperation is adding a cute stoner dude along for the ride to add stale comic relief (and later “unexpected” poignancy) to the trip. The subplot, about Matt’s decision to sell a fortune in unspoiled Hawaiian land to be divided up with his cousins, should give room for some funny character parts but no one steals the scene there either. The film is wrapped up with the expected monologues at the comatose wife’s bedside, collapsing into conventionality in a way Payne’s earlier films escaped. The films isn’t without its pleasures, you see the sights of Hawaii, Clooney remains his ever-watchable self and we all can enjoy the fantasy of saving a big patch of our declining natural environment, but even its strengths leads you to believe that The Descendants displays one of our sharper writer/directors going a bit soft.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan, you ignorant slut. Points taken, but I thought this movie was pretty damn good and so did David Edelstein.

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Hugo may have gotten the most fervent reviews of any film in Martin Scorsese’s storied career, but can we trust critics to judge a film that so revels in the spiritual centrality of film itself? In its celebration of George Méliès and early cinema, Scorsese’s film reaches heights of dizzying intoxication but tying an incredible character like Méliès to the conventional tale of a dour orphan boy leaves the magic off-screen for too much of this epic film’s running time.

Set in a Paris train station in the 1930’s (filled with English-speaking folks with British accents), the camera swoops down for a eye-popping opening tour through the terminal and into the gears of its giant clock, attended to dutifully by young Hugo (Asa Butterfield, from The Boy with the Striped Pajamas) Hugo must keep the clock ticking in order to hide the fact that he alone has cared for the clock’s mechanics since his father has died and his drunken uncle has gone missing Hugo must evade the station inspector (a pitch-perfect Sasha Baron Cohen) who is quick to unleash his Doberman on any scamp who dare walk about unattended. Meanwhile, Hugo works intently on rebuilding his father’s automaton, a human-figured machine that writes messages, until one day his notebook is confiscated by the mysterious toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who owns a tiny shop in the station.

Much of the film’s first half is consumed by Hugo being chased thorough the train station with a dog snapping behind him, or being threatened by the toymaker, or remembering his father’s immolation. It is grim and fairly unrelenting, with Hugo’s precarious situation being more unnerving than Scorsese seems to realize. This is exacerbated by terse, one-dimensional performance he gets from his lead. In truth, Scorsese has mostly ignored childhood in his films, with the sexually-terrorized girls of Taxi Driver and Cape Fear his best remembered youth roles. Scorsese doesn’t bring much of a feel for childhood in this film either; Hugo is a blank at the center, a vehicle to push the plot forward and signify threatened innocence but not really a fully-dimensional character (3-D be damned). A glaring problem if you’ve made a film entitled, Hugo.

Wow, but what if Scorsese made a film called Méliès? What if he could have let Kingley have full range to create more than a kid’s movie portrait of the genius? Things take flight in the sequences where Scorsese re-imagines the film sets of the pioneer fantasist: the creature costumes that seem to make great illustration come to life, the dancers preparing their stage garb, and the house made of glass to let the sun pour inside. Hugo seems as grand as its ambitions in these sequences, and Scorsese makes stunning use of original film footage, carving out a narrative of the birth of cinema with a gorgeously restored montage of moments from Lumiere, Méliès and their contemporaries. The footage’s otherworldly quality is enhanced by the 3-D process, one of the few of the recent films to use 3-D as more than a gimmick, as the ground-breaking impact of these films is connected to some of the most-beautifully finessed images the process has to offer

Hugo is at its most exciting when those hand-wrought, hundred year-old moments from Méliès films A Trip To The Moon and The Impossible Voyage are on screen, reminding me that Scorsese’s most impressive work in the last 16 years has been his documentaries, both in music and film (making the definitive Dylan documentary as well as far-reaching studies of American and Italian cinema). The joy of seeing early French cinema at the cineplex is an experience I would recommend with unbridled enthusiasm. The rest of Hugo, the part that exhibits Scorsese’s recent predilection for glossy and stilted period dramas, I’d recommend not so much. But at least he gave Leonardo DiCaprio a rest.

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