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All reviews - Movies (48) - TV Shows (3)

Avatar review

Posted : 6 years, 3 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:07 (A review of Avatar)

With the game-changing, magnificent visual spectacle that is Avatar (* * * out of four), writer/director James Cameron can be crowned king of the virtual world.
But he still needs to hire a screenwriter. For all the grandeur and technical virtuosity of the mythical 3-D universe Cameron labored for years to perfect, his characters are one-dimensional, rarely saying anything unexpected.

But for much of the movie, that hardly matters. The scenes in Pandora — a planet with an Earth-like environment — are so breathtaking that the narrative seems almost beside the point.

EXPECTATIONS: 'Avatar' seeks a titanic take at the box office
JAMES CAMERON: Director pushes every boundary for his vision
TRAILER: Take a quick trip to Pandora
PREMIERE: Blue people on the red carpet
The first sight of this exotic paradise may rival the seminal scene in The Wizard of Oz, when the Technicolor munchkin world first comes into focus. It's a jaw-dropping introduction to the tropical world of blue-skinned, golden-eyed aliens. Their lush jungle home is vibrantly hued, with flora and fauna, fabulous winged creatures, flying spirits that look like wispy sea anemones and floating mountains.

Cameron seamlessly melds live action, computer-generated animation and 3-D technology. The motion-capture technique that dazzled in Lord of the Rings reaches a new level of proficiency, enabling more nuance in facial expressions.

But why diminish all this with clunky dialogue?

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine, now in a wheelchair, recruited to Pandora. Humans are there at the behest of a powerful corporation mining a mineral that could solve the energy crisis on ravaged Earth.

Pandoran air is toxic to Earthlings. So scientists create a program in which human "drivers" are connected to avatars, bodies created in the lab that look like the natives of Pandora, called Na'vi, and can survive in the environment. Human DNA is mixed with Pandoran DNA, and these hybrid beings are sent on reconnaissance.

When Jake emerges in avatar form, he can not only walk but also run and leap, and his exuberance is infectious. Jake soon meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), one of the 10-foot-tall Na'vis, who saves him from rampaging creatures.

Cameron's films are noteworthy for strong female characters. Sigourney Weaver, in an evolution of her role as Ripley in 1979's Alien, plays the gruff scientist who runs the avatar program. She comes to respect Jake as he grows to admire the peaceful and spiritual Na'vi.

An epic battle to drive the Na'vi from their land tests Jake's allegiance. At nearly three hours, the movie grows sluggish, especially during the protracted battle scene.

Even so, Cameron has fashioned a breathtaking Eden. But his paradise is almost lost without characters and dialogue as imaginative as their setting. (Rated PG-13 for warfare, sensuality and language. Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes. Opens at midnight Thursday in some theaters and Friday nationwide.)

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The Lorax review

Posted : 6 years, 3 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:03 (A review of The Lorax)

Nicely making the transition from book to screen, Dr. Seuss' 1971 children's classic comes across like cautionary science fiction for the prepubescent set. Colorful and visually delightful, the film is complemented by lively vocal work that engages viewers without calling attention to the stars behind the voices. The film's ecological message is its primary takeaway, but that message develops as an organic element of the story rather than a moralistic afterthought. The Lorax allows us to imagine what might happen to the world were there no longer trees and air a commodity that must be purchased.
The town of Thneedville is the embodiment of that nightmare prospect, even though its inhabitants are not aware there is anything wrong. The entire city is made of plastic, bright and imaginatively shaped. The status quo only begins to fray when young Ted (Efron) tries to impress Audrey (Swift), a girl who would like more than anything to see a real tree. That quest leads Ted to break through the city limits to find the Once-ler (Helms), who is rumored to hold the secret to the trees’ disappearance. Ted's grandmother (White) encourages him and stokes him with her childhood memories of life before the trees went away. Once found, the Once-ler tells Ted his long, sad story about how he is the one responsible for the decimation of the forest outside Thneedville's borders. It involves a rash, young man out to make his fortune by going into the woods armed with marshmallows to feed the bears and an axe to cut down the trees (which look like psychedelic palm trees topped with colorful, round tufts). His actions bring forth the Lorax, a peanut-shaped thing with a mustache, who is the guardian of the forest. The Lorax and the other animals try to coexist with the Once-ler at first, but his business success becomes their downfall, and they all depart. Ever since, the Once-ler has remained a hermit in the woods, harboring one last seed that he passes on to Ted, who uses it to get the girl and ultimately show the entire community the error of their ways.
Although the movie's ecological message is dominant, it’s not heavy-handed. Rather, the ecological warnings are tossed out with the same joie de vivre the Once-ler displays when tossing marshmallows to the bears. In fact, on the subliminal-message scale, I have more trouble with the film's only electric rock song being associated with the movie's bad guy, Mr. O'Hare (Riggle), who bottles air to sell to the citizens of Thneedville. The film’s zippy and buoyant framework, however, make the lessons seem not like medicine.

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Journey 2: The Mysterious Island review

Posted : 6 years, 3 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:02 (A review of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island)

As simple and direct as its abbreviated title, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is a fun though rarely funny family adventure whose lively special effects compensate somewhat for actors who largely sleepwalk through their roles. With franchise continuity hinging solely on Josh Hutcherson, reprising his role from 2008's hit "Journey to the Center of the Earth," it's up to Dwayne Johnson to fill the father-figure vacuum left by Brendan Fraser. Despite limp characterizations, the eye-popping effects and Johnson's fanbase should combine to help this Warner Bros. release capitalize swimmingly on its 3D upcharge.
Opening narration by Michael Caine describes sci-fi pioneer Jules Verne and the "Vernians," followers who believe the French novelist's works offer more than just science-flavored entertainment. The pic's uncredited source text is Verne's 1874 novel "The Mysterious Island," which has provided a rich cinematic vein in the past: Multiple versions have appeared since the silent era (elements of the story were folded into 1916's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," with which it shares the character of Captain Nemo), and it even inspired ABC's "Lost."

Auds get an early taste of the pic's 3D effects with an opening chase sequence in which teenager Sean Anderson (Hutcherson), having broken into a satellite tracking station, is pursued on his motorcycle by cops around the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. Five years after the events of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," Sean clearly still needs a firm hand, and his concerned new stepfather, Hank (Johnson), hopes to provide it.

Sean has gotten hold of a coded transmission that consists of character names from Verne novels, and that's enough to convince him that his Vernian grandfather is sending a message. As with the first film, which used its source material as a convenient guidebook to keep the plot moving, Sean is certain his hardback copy of "The Mysterious Island" provides the clue to his granddad's location.

Having been a codebreaker in the Navy, Hank helps Sean solve the puzzle and figure out the location of the titular Pacific island in a matter of seconds. As the boy already has been to the center of the planet with his uncle, it's a small matter for his mother (Kristin Davis, replacing Jane Wheeler) to let him travel to the South Pacific accompanied by his stepdad, low-rent helicopter pilot Gabato (Luis Guzman, stuck playing the cowardly comic relief), and Gabato's fiery daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), who gets Sean's pulse racing.

Following a lightning storm that strands the quartet in a tropical paradise, the pic finally hits its stride both in terms of effects and excitement with the appearance of a giant, aggravated lizard. Coming to the rescue is Sean's grandfather, Alexander Anderson (the previously heard but not seen Caine), whose resemblance to Indiana Jones is emphasized by a John Williams-esque flourish in Andrew Lockington's score.

From there, the proceedings are mostly stop-and-go, alternating dazzling special effects with dull expository passages and flaccid character conflict, much of it driven by the difference in mentoring styles between Sean's competitive father figures. A belching volcano foreshadows a big finish, but the pic never develops a sense of building momentum, and most of the jokes fall flat.

With helmer Brad Peyton ("Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore") primarily invested in the CGI elements, the actors often seem stuck in an energy-draining vortex; Hutcherson appears less engaged the second time around and none-too-eager for a possible third installment of the Verne-inspired franchise, while Caine merely looks fatigued. Johnson at least embodies a near-shameless charm, at one point warbling his way through a ukelele-backed rendition of "What a Wonderful World." Hudgens, who spends almost the entire film in khaki shorts and tanktop and is subjected to some prurient glances by the camera, provides a feisty presence, even if her aggressive attitude seems more redolent of L.A. than the tropics.

The unspoiled island looks supernaturally vivid, the colorful backdrops seamlessly blended with North Carolina and Hawaii locations to create a persuasive impression of an actual world. All other tech credits are first-rate.

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows review

Posted : 6 years, 3 months ago on 21 March 2012 07:56 (A review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows)

I suppose any hope of an authentic Sherlock Holmes movie is foolish at this epoch in movie history. No matter that a story is set in 1895 in Victorian London, it must be chockablock with explosions, gunfire, special effects and fights that bear no comparison to the "fisticuffs" of the period. As an Anglophile, I've luxuriated in the genial atmosphere of the Conan Doyle stories, where a step is heard on the stair, a client tells his tale, and Holmes withdraws to his rooms to consider his new case during a period of meditation (involving such study aids as opium).

We see a great deal of Victorian London (and Paris and Switzerland) in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," but we must look quickly. The movie all but hurtles through episodes that would be leisurely set pieces in a traditional Holmes story. This is a modern action picture played in costume. I knew it would be. After Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" (2009) with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law grossed something like half a billion dollars, this was no time to rethink the approach. What they have done, however, is add a degree of refinement and invention, and I enjoyed this one more than the earlier film.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" opens with an emergency that threatens to rock Holmes' world: Dr. Watson (Law) is getting married. In the first film, we learned of his engagement to Mary Watson (Kelly Reilly), and now a date has been set for the poor girl. Holmes (Downey), who considers himself every bit as much good company as the doctor could possibly require, deplores this development, and indeed even joins the blissful couple on their honeymoon train journey. At one point, he throws Mary off the train, but to be fair, it's to save her life.

Most of the film centers on a climax in the long-standing feud between Holmes and Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), who beneath his cover as an Oxford don, is the mastermind of an anarchist plot to use bombings and assassinations to push Europe into war. Moriarty would profit handsomely from that because he operates an enormous secret munitions factory, turning out everything from machine pistols to gigantic cannons. The lives of many European heads of state are threatened, and Holmes is the only hope to keep the peace.

Once this game is afoot, it seems too large to be contained by the eccentric investigator of 221B Baker Street and Watson, his intimate. (I am using "intimate" as both a noun and an insinuation.) It's more of a case for James Bond, and Moriarty's grandiosity seems on a scale with a Bond villain. Guy Ritchie and his writers Michele and Kieran Mulroney, however, wisely devote some of their best scenes to one-on-ones between Holmes and Moriarty.

Their struggle comes to a head in an elegant, high-stakes chess game, held for some reason in Switzerland in the dead of a winter night on a snowy outdoor balcony. As played by Jared Harris, Moriarty doesn't gnash or fulminate, but fences with Holmes in barbed language. This returns the story somewhat to the Conan Doyle tradition that Holmes did most of his best work in his mind.

Dr. Watson has a more proactive role this time. "A Game of Shadows" opens with him recalling these events on a typewriter that is too modern for 1895 but maybe suggests he's writing years later. He's not just a confidante and chronicler but a hero, too, involved in fights and shootouts. His wife must be thankful that Holmes abruptly eliminated her from most of the action.

Mycroft, Holmes' brother, turns out to be well-placed at the center of European diplomacy; Stephen Fry has plummy good fun in the role, especially in nude moments where he shields his netherlands from view by employing artfully arranged foregrounds in the "Austin Powers" tradition. Two women characters are prominent. Back again is Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the enigmatic figure in much romantic speculation about Holmes. And we meet for the first time a gypsy fortune teller named Madame Simza Heron, played by Noomi Rapace, the original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." She capably discharges the duties required of her as Madam Heron, but demonstrates how really brilliantly conceived the Dragon Lady was. Heron is pale by comparison.

It's Downey's movie. With his cool, flippant manner, his Holmes stands apart from the danger, thinking it through visually before performing it, remaining insouciant in the face of calamity. He appears in many disguises, one with a markedly bad wig, another as a remarkably convincing chair. The thing to do, I suppose, is to set aside your memories of the Conan Doyle stories, save them to savor on a night this winter and enjoy this movie as a high-caliber entertainment.

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Schindler's List (1993) review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 March 2012 11:05 (A review of Schindler's List (1993))

There is a real photographic record of some of the people and places depicted in "Schindler's List," and it has a haunting history. Raimund Titsch, an Austrian Catholic who managed a uniform factory within the Plaszow labor camp in Poland, surreptitiously took pictures of what he saw. Fearful of having the pictures developed, he hid his film in a steel box, which he buried in a park outside Vienna and then did not disturb for nearly 20 years. Although it was sold secretly by Titsch when he was terminally ill, the film remained undeveloped until after his death.

The pictures that emerged, like so many visual representations of the Holocaust, are tragic, ghostly and remote. The horrors of the Holocaust are often viewed from a similar distance, filtered through memory or insulated by grief and recrimination. Documented exhaustively or dramatized in terms by now dangerously familiar, the Holocaust threatens to become unimaginable precisely because it has been imagined so fully. But the film "Schindler's List," directed with fury and immediacy by a profoundly surprising Steven Spielberg, presents the subject as if discovering it anew.

"Schindler's List" brings a pre-eminent pop mastermind together with a story that demands the deepest reserves of courage and passion. Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again. With every frame, he demonstrates the power of the film maker to distill complex events into fiercely indelible images. "Schindler's List" begins with the sight of Jewish prayer candles burning down to leave only wisps of smoke, and there can be no purer evocation of the Holocaust than that.

A deserted street littered with the suitcases of those who have just been rounded up and taken away. The look on the face of a captive Jewish jeweler as he is tossed a handful of human teeth to mine for fillings. A snowy sky that proves to be raining ashes. The panic of a prisoner unable to find his identity papers while he is screamed at by an armed soldier, a man with an obviously dangerous temper. These visceral scenes, and countless others like them, invite empathy as surely as Mr. Spielberg once made viewers wish E.T. would get well again.

But this time his emphasis is on the coolly Kafkaesque aspects of an authoritarian nightmare. Drawing upon the best of his storytelling talents, Mr. Spielberg has made "Schindler's List" an experience that is no less enveloping than his earlier works of pure entertainment. Dark, sobering and also invigoratingly dramatic, "Schindler's List" will make terrifying sense to anyone, anywhere.

The big man at the center of this film is Oskar Schindler, a Catholic businessman from the Sudetenland who came to occupied Poland to reap the spoils of war. (You can be sure this is not the last time the words "Oscar" and "Schindler" will be heard together.) Schindler is also something of a cipher, just as he was for Thomas Keneally, whose 1982 book, "Schindler's List," marked a daring synthesis of fiction and fact. Reconstructing the facts of Schindler's life to fit the format of a novel, Mr. Keneally could only draw upon the memories of those who owed their lives to the man's unexpected heroism. Compiling these accounts (in a book that included some of the Titsch photographs), Mr. Keneally told "the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms."

The great strength of Mr. Keneally's book, and now of Mr. Spielberg's film, lies precisely in this pragmatism. Knowing only the particulars of Schindler's behavior, the audience is drawn into wondering about his higher motives, about the experiences that transformed a casual profiteer into a selfless hero.

Schindler's story becomes much more involving than a tale of more conventional courage might be, just as Mr. Spielberg's use of unfamiliar actors to play Jewish prisoners makes it hard to view them as stock movie characters (even when the real events that befall these people threaten to do just that). The prisoners' stories come straight from Mr. Keneally's factual account, which is beautifully recapitulated by Steven Zaillian's screenplay.

Oskar Schindler, played with mesmerizing authority by Liam Neeson, is unmistakably larger than life, with the panache of an old-time movie star. (The real Schindler was said to resemble George Sanders and Curt Jurgens.) From its first glimpse of Oskar as he dresses for a typically flamboyant evening socializing with German officers -- and even from the way his hand appears, nonchalantly holding a cigarette and a bribe -- the film studies him with rapt attention.

Mr. Neeson, captured so glamorously by Janusz Kaminiski's richly versatile black-and-white cinematography, presents Oskar as an amalgam of canny opportunism and supreme, well-warranted confidence. Mr. Spielberg does not have to underscore the contrast between Oskar's life of privilege and the hardships of his Jewish employees.

Taking over a kitchenware factory in Cracow and benefiting from Jewish slave labor, Oskar at first is no hero. During a deft, seamless section of the film that depicts the setting up of this business operation, Oskar is seen happily occupying an apartment from which a wealthy Jewish couple has just been evicted. Meanwhile, the film's Jews are relegated to the Cracow ghetto. After the ghetto is evacuated and shut down, they are sent to Plaszow, which is overseen by a coolly brutal SS commandant named Amon Goeth.

Goeth, played fascinatingly by the English stage actor Ralph Fiennes, is the film's most sobering creation. The third of its spectacularly fine performances comes from Ben Kingsley as the reserved, wary Jewish accountant who becomes Oskar's trusted business manager, and who at one point has been rounded up by Nazi officers before Oskar saves him. "What if I got here five minutes later?" Oskar asks angrily, with the self-interest that keeps this story so startling. "Then where would I be?"

As the glossy, voluptuous look of Oskar's sequences gives way to a stark documentary-style account of the Jews' experience, "Schindler's List" witnesses a pivotal transformation. Oskar and a girlfriend, on horseback, watch from a hilltop as the ghetto is evacuated, and the image of a little girl in red seems to crystallize Oskar's horror.

But there is a more telling sequence later on, when Oskar is briefly arrested for having kissed a young Jewish woman during a party at his factory. Kissing women is, for Oskar, the most natural act in the world. And he is stunned to find it forbidden on racial grounds. All at once, he understands how murderous and irrational the world has become, and why no prisoners can be safe without the intervention of an Oskar Schindler.

The real Schindler saved more than a thousand Jewish workers by sheltering them in his factory, and even accomplished the unimaginable feat of rescuing some of them from Auschwitz. This film's moving coda, a full-color sequence, offers an unforgettable testimonial to Schindler's achievement.

The tension in "Schindler's List" comes, of course, from the omnipresent threat of violence. But here again, Mr. Spielberg departs from the familiar. The film's violent acts are relatively few, considering its subject matter, and are staged without the blatant sadism that might be expected. Goeth's hobby of playing sniper, casually targeting his prisoners with a high-powered rifle, is presented so matter-of-factly that it becomes much more terrible than it would be if given more lingering attention.

Mr. Spielberg knows well how to make such events truly shocking, and how to catch his audience off guard. Most of these shootings are seen from a great distance, and occur unexpectedly. When it appears that the film is leading up to the point-blank execution of a rabbi, the director has something else in store.

Goeth's lordly balcony, which overlooks the film's vast labor-camp set, presents an extraordinary set of visual possibilities, and Mr. Spielberg marshals them most compellingly. But the presence of huge crowds and an immense setting also plays to this director's weakness for staging effects en masse. "Schindler's List" falters only when the crowd of prisoners is reduced to a uniform entity, so that events no longer have the tumultuous variety of real life.

This effect is most noticeable in Schindler's last scene, the film's only major misstep, as a throng listens silently to Oskar's overwrought farewell. In a film that moves swiftly and urgently through its three-hour running time, this stagey ending -- plus a few touches of fundamentally false uplift, most notably in a sequence at Auschwitz -- amounts to a very small failing.

Among the many outstanding elements that contribute to "Schindler's List," Michael Kahn's nimble editing deserves special mention. So does the production design by Allan Starski, which finds just the right balance between realism and drama. John Williams's music has a somber, understated loveliness. The soundtrack becomes piercingly beautiful as Itzhak Perlman's violin solos occasionally augment the score.

It should be noted, if only in passing, that Mr. Spielberg has this year delivered the most astounding one-two punch in the history of American cinema. "Jurassic Park," now closing in on billion-dollar grosses, is the biggest movie moneymaker of all time. "Schindler's List," destined to have a permanent place in memory, will earn something better.

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Jurassic Park review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 March 2012 11:04 (A review of Jurassic Park)

"Jurassic Park" is a true movie milestone, presenting awe- and fear-inspiring sights never before seen on the screen. The more spectacular of these involve the fierce, lifelike dinosaurs that stalk through the film with astounding ease. Much scarier, however, are those aspects of "Jurassic Park" that establish it as the overnight flagship of a brand-new entertainment empire. Even while capturing the imagination of its audience, this film lays the groundwork for the theme-park rides, sequels and souvenirs that insure the "Jurassic Park" experience will live on. And on. And on.

The timing of this cinematic marketing coup could not be better, since an entire generation of children has fallen in love with dinosaurs, transforming the fossils of yesteryear into the totems of today. On the other hand, "Jurassic Park" has its planning problems, since this PG-13-rated film is clearly too frightening for the young viewers who could have best appreciated its magic, and who will most easily be drawn in by its marketing arm. Parents and guardians, take note: children who think of Tyrannosaurus rex as a huge hunk of friendly, prehistoric exotica will not want to see a T. rex bite a lawyer in half.

Who will? Well, anyone of an age and disposition to appreciate one of Mr. Spielberg's canniest roller-coaster rides and to have read Michael Crichton's novel. "Jurassic Park" is a gripping, seductively scientific account of a top-secret theme park, named for the era during which dinosaurs reigned. Jurassic Park's main attractions are real live dinosaurs, which have been created through the reconstruction of dinosaur DNA. The DNA has been obtained through blood found in prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber. (The film, being much more mainstream, explains this process with the help of an animated "Mr. D.N.A.")

Mr. Crichton, who wrote the film with David Koepp, delights in such details and presents his story as a fascinating, obsessively detailed treatise on both the possibilities and the evils of modern science. "Jurassic Park" is that rare high-tech best seller punctuated by occasional computer grids to advance its story.

The savviest character in Mr. Crichton's book, a glamorous mathematician (yes) named Ian Malcolm, is among several scientists taken to Jurassic Park to inspect the place before it opens. Confronted with the apparent glitch-free nature of this computerized Eden, Malcolm is skeptical. He frequently cites chaos theory as a way of suggesting that theoretically perfect models have a way of going haywire once they run up against reality. This idea has some bearing on the film version of "Jurassic Park," too.

On paper, this story is tailor-made for Mr. Spielberg's talents, combining the scares of "Jaws" with the high-tech, otherworldly romance of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and of course adding the challenge of creating the dinosaurs themselves. Yet once it meets reality, "Jurassic Park" changes. It becomes less crisp on screen than it was on the page, with much of the enjoyable jargon either mumbled confusingly or otherwise thrown away. Sweetening the human characters, eradicating most of their evil motives and dispensing with a dinosaur-bombing ending (so the material is now sequel-friendly), Mr. Spielberg has taken the bite out of this story. Luckily, this film's most interesting characters have teeth to spare.

Sometimes matching the scare value of "Jaws" (though they also occasionally suggest an educational trip to the World's Fair), this film's dinosaurs trample its humans both literally and figuratively. They appear only for brief interludes, but the dinosaurs dominate "Jurassic Park" in every way. Amazingly graceful and convincing, they set a sky-high new standard for computer-generated special effects. But thoughts about how those effects were achieved aren't likely to surface while the film is under way. The most important thing about the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" is that they create a triumphant illusion. You will believe you have spent time in a dino-filled world.

That world, on an island near Costa Rica, is the brainchild of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a mostly venal developer in Mr. Crichton's account but now a tediously merry old codger. Hammond recruits Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) as part of a team that is expected to give Jurassic Park its seal of approval. But a funny thing happens on the way to the T. rex pen. Because of an industrial saboteur (Wayne Knight) who tries to steal dinosaur embryos, electricity within this automated theme park is turned off. Huge, mean, hungry things start to escape.

Plotting the dinosaurs' escapades is Mr. Spielberg's strongest suit, and the director's glee is clear. Mr. Spielberg has great fun with every last growl and rumble signaling the approach of danger, as when Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) looks down to see a mud puddle shake. He also leaps to the challenge of choreographing ingenious duels, as in a terrific sequence that shows vicious velociraptors stalking Hammond's two grandchildren (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) through the large kitchen of the Jurassic Park visitor's center.

Anybody can stage a fight, but it takes Mr. Spielberg to show just how the pots and pans might go flying at the stroke of a velociraptor's tail, or how the children might trick their wily attackers. In assessing such an episode, it also helps to look at the big picture. Who but Mr. Spielberg could convince an audience that there are dinosaurs loose in a kitchen at all?

"Jurassic Park" keeps its viewers on edge while leaving much of its real violence to the imagination. When it's dinosaur feeding time, Mr. Spielberg avoids obvious gore; he gets a greater frisson out of showing farm animals that are left near the hungry beasts and suddenly disappear. To give the velociraptors a suitable introduction, he opens the film with a character whose upper body remains visible while the rest of him is being attacked off camera, a la "Jaws."

"Jurassic Park" mixes such horrific touches with sentimental strokes, suspenseful action scenes and occasional droll notes. The camera effectively winks at a "Jurassic Park" souvenir book shown at a concession stand (though this may be most clever to those who plan on selling programs). Mr. Spielberg also gets a last laugh by letting a T. rex muscle aside a museum exhibit of a dinosaur skeleton, rising up against a banner that reads "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth." Obviously, they rule again.

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Catch Me If You Can (2002) review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 March 2012 11:03 (A review of Catch Me If You Can (2002))

Here in the land of opportunity, we pride ourselves on taking one another at face value. That's why in a culture that falls all over itself to invest glamorous images with substance, any quick-witted trickster can have a field day pretending to be what he's not.

In the opening scene of ''Catch Me if You Can,'' Steven Spielberg's supremely entertaining portrait of a virtuoso impostor, its protagonist, Frank W. Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), appears on ''To Tell the Truth,'' the archetypal television game show celebrating mendacity and fraud. Before his 19th birthday, the announcer proclaims, Frank successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, and made millions of dollars forging checks.

As the camera surveys the three contestants, there's Mr. DiCaprio in the middle, the faintest twinkle of mischief in his snaky eyes, his baby face gone playfully poker. Mr. DiCaprio's portrayal of this brilliant fraud is, in a word, sensational (and far more confident, by the way, than his stolid star turn in ''Gangs of New York''). An extraordinarily fluid and instinctive actor, Mr. DiCaprio has always conveyed the slippery acuity of a chameleon whiz kid who could talk his way in and out of any situation, and his performance is a glorious exhibition of artful, intuitive slipping, sliding and wriggling.

In ''Catch Me if You Can,'' the 28-year-old actor melts into the body and mind of a wily, precocious teenager who turns himself into a master forger. Adding depth to his performance is the flashing intensity with which he conveys Frank's mercurial bouts of insecurity and panic. Even while his character is flying high, Mr. DiCaprio understands that Frank is a wounded boy, and the actor remains in intimate touch with the childish desperation behind his bravado.

Initially at least, Frank's goal isn't a selfish urge to find a shortcut to the high life, but to recoup the standard of living lost by his larcenous father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), who is being hounded by the I.R.S. for tax fraud. The son also vaguely imagines that with enough money he can reunite his parents, who split up early in the movie. In the most poignant scene, a lawyer announces to the stunned youth that his parents are divorcing, and in the next breath insists he choose between them. Frank refuses and runs away from home to begin his career of kiting checks.

A major strand of the film is a father-son love story, in which Frank hungrily absorbs his shady dad's lessons in deception, bribery and sweet talk. The chemistry between Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Walken (giving one of his strongest, most sympathetic screen performances) is so charged the two actors actually seem to share the same reptilian genes.

''Catch Me if You Can'' moves in pirouetting leaps and dips that mirror its peripatetic antihero's shifting identities and changes of fortune. The game-show excerpt, which follows a cool-handed animated title sequence, sets the lighthearted tone of a movie that admires Frank almost to the point of suspending moral judgment.

From here, the film hops over to France in 1969 to observe Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the strait-laced F.B.I. agent who has pursued Frank with a Javert-like persistence, confront him with the roster of criminal charges in a grim Marseille prison. Then it bounces back to 1963 in New Rochelle where the fresh-faced 15-year-old Frank and his French mother, Paula (Nathalie Baye), are attending a cozy Rotary Club ceremony honoring Frank Sr., whose fortunes are about to take a dive.

The film eventually makes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New Orleans. Some of the wittiest scenes find Frank engaged to an adoring airheaded nurse, Brenda Strong (Amy Adams), whom he meets during his brief career impersonating a doctor. He so charms her unctuous father, Roger (Martin Sheen), a New Orleans prosecutor, into imagining they're fellow romantics that Roger helps him establish a new identity as an assistant prosecutor. Frank's television textbook for courtroom decorum is ''Perry Mason.''

To describe ''Catch Me if You Can'' (which takes its title from the autobiography of the real Frank Abagnale) as a smart, funny caper film is to ignore its strain of sly social satire. If the spine of the story is the elaborate cat-and-mouse game of Frank and Carl, the movie, written by Jeff Nathanson, is also a delicately barbed reflection on the American character and the giddy 60's ethos that allowed Frank to live out his fantasies. The 60's, you may recall, were the decade when jobs became ''gigs.'' And John Williams's uncharacteristically jaunty, saxophone-flavored score captures that spirit of frisky devil-may-care merriment.

The film's cheeky attitude is distilled in a fable Frank Sr. passes down to his son about two mice who fall into a vat of cream. One mouse instantly drowns, while the other puts up such a furious struggle that the cream turns into butter and the mouse walks out. That story is repeated three times in the movie, the third time as a ludicrous mealtime blessing Frank delivers at the Strongs' dinner table.

Without referring to the burgeoning hippie culture or to the era's radical politics, drugs and rock 'n' roll, ''Catch Me if You Can'' captures the frivolous side of the 60's: the decade of ''The Pink Panther'' movies, ''The Girl From Ipanema,'' the Rat Pack and James Bond. A clip of Sean Connery and Honor Blackman swapping double-entendres in ''Goldfinger'' introduces a delicious scene, set to the silky purr of Dusty Springfield's ''Look of Love,'' in which Frank, impersonating a junior-size Bond wannabe, outwits a high-priced call girl.

Among Frank's assumed identities, the one he savors the most is airline pilot. And the movie's zaniest scenes remind us of those tinselly days when air travel was sold as sex in the sky. Before the arrival of the metal detector lent aviation an ominous undertone, every airline passenger was a jet setter, uniformed pilots rivaled astronauts in masculine sex appeal, and a lubricious novelty like ''Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses'' could be a best seller.

The movie's recurrent images of squealing, strutting flight attendants batting their eyes at the pilots are a hilarious throwback to a swinging 60's just before a resurgent feminism rewrote the rules of courtship and airline employment, and turned stewardesses from jiggly, compliant bunnies into crisply efficient flight attendants.

Arguably the best-acted of any Spielberg film, ''Catch Me if You Can'' finds Mr. Hanks displaying his usual aplomb. The actor hones a severe, potentially drab role into an incisive, touching character study of a lonely, humorless New England workaholic whose adrenaline is fired by a cat-and-mouse game in which he loses all the early rounds. Over time, Carl develops a respect and a paternal fondness for Frank. And in the movie's finale, the father-son theme culminates in Frank having to choose between the values of his real father and the surrogate dad who reined him in.

''Catch Me'' is the most charming of Mr. Spielberg's mature films, because is it so relaxed. Instead of trying to conjure fairy-tale magic, wring tears or insinuate a message, it is happy just to be its delicious, genially sophisticated self.

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Saving Private Ryan (1998) review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 March 2012 10:59 (A review of Saving Private Ryan (1998))

When soldiers are killed in ''Saving Private Ryan,'' their comrades carefully preserve any messages they left behind. Removed from the corpses of the newly dead, sometimes copied over to hide bloodstains, these writings surely describe some of the fury of combat, the essence of spontaneous courage, the craving for solace, the bizarre routines of wartime existence, the deep loneliness of life on the brink. Steven Spielberg's soberly magnificent new war film, the second such pinnacle in a career of magical versatility, has been made in the same spirit of urgent communication. It is the ultimate devastating letter home.

Since the end of World War II and the virtual death of the western, the combat film has disintegrated into a showcase for swagger, cynicism, obscenely overblown violence and hollow, self-serving victories. Now, with stunning efficacy, Mr. Spielberg turns back the clock. He restores passion and meaning to the genre with such whirlwind force that he seems to reimagine it entirely, dazzling with the breadth and intensity of that imagination. No received notions, dramatic or ideological, intrude on this achievement. This film simply looks at war as if war had not been looked at before.

Though the experience it recounts is grueling, the viscerally enthralling ''Saving Private Ryan'' is anything but. As he did in ''Schindler's List,'' Mr. Spielberg uses his preternatural storytelling gifts to personalize the unimaginable, to create instantly empathetic characters and to hold an audience spellbound from the moment the action starts. Though the film essentially begins and ends with staggering, phenomenally agile battle sequences and contains isolated violent tragedies in between, its vision of combat is never allowed to grow numbing. Like the soldiers, viewers are made furiously alive to each new crisis and never free to rest.

The film's immense dignity is its signal characteristic, and some of it is achieved though deliberate elision. We don't know anything about these men as they prepare to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day, which might make them featureless in the hands of a less intuitive filmmaker. Here, it means that any filter between audience and cataclysm has effectively been taken away.

The one glimmer of auxiliary information is the image of an elderly visitor at a military cemetery, which opens and closes the film (though these brief sequences lack the film's otherwise shattering verisimilitude). Whoever the man is, he sees the gravestones and drifts into D-Day memories. On the evidence of what follows, he can hardly have gone to sleep since June 6, 1944, without reliving these horrors in his dreams.

Though ''Saving Private Ryan'' is liable to be described as extremely violent for its battle re-enactments, that is not quite the case. The battle scenes avoid conventional suspense and sensationalism; they disturb not by being manipulative but by being hellishly frank. Imagine Hieronymus Bosch with a Steadicam (instead of the immensely talented Janusz Kaminski) and you have some idea of the tableaux to emerge here, as the film explodes into panoramic yet intimate visions of bloodshed.

What's unusual about this, in both the D-Day sequence and the closing struggle, is its terrifying reportorial candor. These scenes have a sensory fullness (the soundtrack is boomingly chaotic yet astonishingly detailed), a realistic yet breakneck pace, a ceaseless momentum and a vast visual scope. Artful, tumultuous warfare choreography heightens the intensity. So do editing decisions that balance the ordeal of the individual with the mass attack under way.

So somehow we are everywhere: aboard landing craft in the throes of anticipatory jitters; underwater where bullets kill near-silently and men drown under the weight of heavy equipment; on the shore with the man who flies upward in an explosion and then comes down minus a leg; moving inland with the Red Cross and the priest and the sharpshooter; reaching a target with the savagely vengeful troops who firebomb a German bunker and let the men burn. Most of all, we are with Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) in heights of furious courage and then, suddenly, in an epiphany of shellshocked confusion. Never have Mr. Hanks's everyman qualities been more instantly effective than here.

When the battle finally ends, there are other unfamiliar sights, like the body of a soldier named Ryan washed up on the beach amid fish. (The film's bloody authenticity does not allow false majesty for the dead.) Next we are drawn into the incongruously small-scale drama of the Ryan family, with three sons killed and only one remaining, lost somewhere in Normandy. Miller and his unit, played with seamless ensemble spirit by actors whose pre-production boot-camp experience really shows here, are sent to find what the captain calls ''a needle in a stack of needles'' and bring him home alive.

In another beautifully choreographed sequence, shot with obvious freshness and alacrity, the soldiers talk while marching though the French countryside. On the way, they establish strong individual identities and raise the film's underlying questions about the meaning of sacrifice. Mr. Spielberg and the screenwriter, Robert Rodat, have a way of taking these standard-issue characters and making them unaccountably compelling.

Some of that can also be ascribed to the fine, indie-bred cast that includes Edward Burns (whose acting prospects match his directing talents) as the wise guy from Brooklyn; Tom Sizemore as the rock-solid second in command; Giovanni Ribisi as the thoughtful medic; Barry Pepper as the devout Southern sharpshooter; Jeremy Davies as the timid, desperately inadequate intellectual; Vin Diesel as the tough Italian, and Adam Goldberg as the tough Jew.

As the actors spar (coolly, with a merciful lack of glibness), the film creates a strong sense of just how different they are and just how strange it is for each man to find himself in this crucible. Yet ''Saving Private Ryan,'' unlike even the best films about the mind-bending disorientation of the Vietnam War, does not openly challenge the moral necessity of their being forced to fight. With a wonderfully all-embracing vision, it allows for patriotism, abject panic and everything in between. The soldiers' decisions are never made easily, and sometimes they are fatally wrong. In this uncertainty, too, ''Saving Private Ryan'' tells an unexpected truth.

The film divides gracefully into a string of well-defined sequences that lead inexorably to Ryan. Inevitably, audiences will know that he is played by Matt Damon and thus will be found alive. But the film still manages to create considerable suspense about when and how he will appear. When it finally comes, Mr. Damon's entrance is one more tribute to Mr. Spielberg's ingenious staging, catching the viewer utterly off-guard. There's the same effect to Ryan's impassioned reaction, in one of many scenes that prompt deep emotion, to the news that he can go home.

Though ''Saving Private Ryan'' features Hollywood's most durable contemporary star in its leading role, there's nothing stellar about the way Mr. Hanks gives the film such substance and pride. As in ''Apollo 13,'' his is a modest, taciturn brand of heroism, and it takes on entirely new shadings here. In Miller, the film finds a plain yet gratifying complex focus, a decent, strong, fallible man who sustains his courage while privately confounded by the extent that war has now shaped him.

''Back home, I'd tell people what I do, they'd say, 'It figures,' '' he explains to his men after an especially troubling encounter. ''But over here, it's a big mystery, judging from the looks on your faces. I guess that means I've changed over here. I wonder sometimes if my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is I'm going to get back to her. And how I can possibly tell her about days like today.''

Among the many epiphanies in ''Saving Private Ryan'' are some especially unforgettable ones: the anguished ordeal of Mr. Davies's map maker and translator in a staircase in the midst of battle; the tranquil pause in a bombed-out French village, to the strains of Edith Piaf; the brisk way the soldiers sift through a pile of dog tags, momentarily forgetting that each one signifies a death. A man driving a tank looks up for a split second before a Molotov cocktail falls on him. Two of the film's principals huddle against sandbags at a critical juncture; and then, suddenly, only one is still breathing.

The sparing use of John Williams's music sustains the tension in scenes, like these, that need no extra emphasis. But ''Saving Private Ryan'' does have a very few false notes. Like the cemetery scenes, the capture of a German soldier takes a turn for the artificial, especially when the man expresses his desperation through broad clowning. But in context, such a jarring touch is actually a relief. It's a reminder that, after all, ''Saving Private Ryan'' is only a movie. Only the finest war movie of our time.

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J. Edgar review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 25 February 2012 12:53 (A review of J. Edgar)

Even with all the surprises that have characterized Clint Eastwood’s twilight film years, with their crepuscular tales of good and evil, the tenderness of the love story in “J. Edgar” comes as a shock. Anchored by a forceful, vulnerable Leonardo DiCaprio, who lays bare J. Edgar Hoover’s humanity, despite the odds and an impasto of old-coot movie makeup, this latest jolt from Mr. Eastwood is a look back at a man divided and of the ties that bind private bodies with public politics and policies. With sympathy — for the individual, not his deeds — it portrays a 20th-century titan who, with secrets and bullets, a will to power and the self-promotional skills of a true star, built a citadel of information in which he burrowed deep.
To find the man hiding in plain sight, Mr. Eastwood, working from a smart script by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), takes a dynamic approach to history (even as it speaks to contemporary times), primarily by toggling between Hoover’s early and later years, his personal and public lives, while the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The film opens in the early 1960s with a shot of the Justice Department building, the original home of the bureau, establishing the location, as well as the idea that this is also the story of an institution. As Hoover croaks in the voice-over (“Communism is not a political party — it is a disease”), the scene shifts inside, where the camera scans the death mask he kept of John Dillinger, former Public Enemy No. 1, and then stops on Hoover’s pale face: a sagging facade.

Old, stooped, balding, his countenance as gray as his suit, Hoover enters while in the midst of dictating his memoirs to the first of several young agents (Ed Westwick) who appear intermittently, typing the version of history that he feeds them and that is dramatized in flashback. The earliest episode involves the 1919 bombing of the home of the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson), a cataclysmic event that — accompanied by terrified screams and a wide-eyed Hoover rushing to the conflagration — signals the birth of an anti-radical. Hoover, a former librarian, subsequently helps deport hundreds of real and suspected extremists; hires his lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and begins amassing secret files on possible and improbable enemies that, like a cancer, grow.

Without rushing — a slow hand, Mr. Eastwood likes to take his time inside a scene — the film efficiently condenses history, packing Hoover’s nearly 50 years with the bureau into 2 hours 17 minutes. By 1924, Hoover was its deputy; a few years later in real time, seemingly minutes in movie time, he meets Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network”). Tall and impeccably groomed, Tolson is a golden boy who, here at least, physically recalls the 1920s tennis star Bill Tilden and quickly becomes Hoover’s deputy and constant, longtime companion. The men meet in a bar, introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Hoover blusters through the easygoing introductions, his eyes darting away from the friendly newcomer literally looming over him.

Later, Tolson applies for a job at the F.B.I. and is eagerly hired by Hoover, inaugurating a bond that became the subject of titters but that Mr. Eastwood conveys matter-of-factly, without either condescension or sentimentality. Before long Tolson is helping Hoover buy his suits and straightening his collar, and the two are dining, vacationing and policing in lock step. Tolson becomes the moon over Hoover’s shoulder, a source of light in the shadows. Even the ashcan colors and chiaroscuro lighting brighten. In these scenes Mr. Hammer gives Tolson a teasing smile and the naked face of a man in love. Mr. DiCaprio, by contrast, beautifully puts across the idea that the sexually inexperienced Hoover, while enlivened by the friendship, may not have initially grasped the meaning of its depth of feeling.

Mr. Eastwood does, and it’s his handling of Hoover and Tolson’s relationship that, as much as the late-act revelation of the pathological extent of Hoover’s dissembling, lifts the film from the usual biopic blahs. Mr. Eastwood doesn’t just shift between Hoover’s past and present, his intimate life and popular persona, he also puts them into dialectic play, showing repeatedly how each informed the other. In one stunning sequence he cuts between anonymous F.B.I. agents surreptitiously bugging a bedroom (that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a resonant, haunting presence seen and heard elliptically and on TV) and Tolson and Hoover walking and then standing alone side by side in an elevator in a tight, depthless, frontally centered shot that makes it look as if they were lying together in bed.

Although Hoover and Tolson’s closeness was habitual grist for the gossip mill, the lack of concrete evidence about their relationship means that the film effectively outs them. Certainly a case for outing Hoover, especially, can be made, both because he was a public figure who, to some, was a monster and destroyer of lives, and because he was a possibly gay man who hounded homosexuals (and banned them from the F.B.I.). But this film doesn’t drag Hoover from the closet for salacious kicks or political payback: it shows the tragic personal and political fallout of the closet. And Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Black’s expansive view of human frailties means that it’s Hoover’s relationship with Tolson — and the foreboding it stirs up in Hoover’s watchful mother (Judi Dench) — that greatly humanizes him.

That humanization is at the center of the film, which, as the very title announces, is less the story of Hoover, the public institution, than of J. Edgar, the private man. It would take a mini-series to name every one of his victims and enemies, a veritable Who’s Who of 20th-century notables, and a book as fat as Curt Gentry’s biography “J. Edgar Hoover” to communicate the sweep of the man’s power and impact on history. In crucial, representative scenes, the film instead offers quick sketches of the more familiar Hoover — the top cop and hunter of men (always ready for his close-up); the presidential courtier and exploiter; the wily Washington strategist and survivor — who decade after decade fended off threats real and imagined, and foes like Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan).

The official take on Hoover, or rather on the F.B.I., his sepulchral home away from home, has been told before, including in Hoover-approved howlers like the studio flick “The F.B.I. Story” (1959). At once a fascinating psychological portrait and an act of Hollywood revisionism, “J. Edgar” doesn’t set out to fully right the record that Hoover distorted, at times with the help of studio executives (including those at Warner Brothers, which is also releasing this film). Instead, Mr. Eastwood explores the inner life of a lonely man whose fortress was also his stage. From there, surrounded by a few trusted souls, he played out a fiction in which he was as heroic as a James Cagney G-man (despite a life with a mother Norman Bates would recognize), but finally as weak, compromised and human as those whose lives he helped crush.


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Hugo review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 24 February 2012 07:35 (A review of Hugo)

Martin Scorsese leaves his mean streets behind for this exhilarating family tale inspired by the birth of cinema.
The families we most associate with Martin Scorsese are the five criminal ones that make up the mafia in the United States, and both they and Scorsese's films deal in violence involving pain and death. His new film, however, aims to entrance every member of every family, and it centres on the great art form that over the past century became the great family entertainment: the cinema. A dramatic pursuit many see as essentially violent and once described by the art theorist Herbert Read as "a chisel of light cutting into the reality of objects", it is created with a demand for "Action!" and ends with the order "Cut!". Based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a beautiful book, half graphic novel, half prose tale, by Brian Selznick, the movie is a delightful fable. Its various subjects include magic, tradition, respect for the past and affection between generations, all bound up in the history of the cinema and the machinery invented to capture images on strips of film and project them on screens.
Hugo is set in Paris in 1931 and begins with a breathtaking shot of the city, as the camera swoops down on to a busy railway station. It flies along a narrow platform between two steam trains, crosses a busy concourse and ends up on the 12-year-old Hugo, who is peering at the world from behind the figure "4" of a giant clock. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has inherited a love of tinkering with machinery from his late father, and has quite recently taken over the job of superintending the station's clocks from his drunken uncle. The boy lives in the hidden tunnels and passageways of the building, where he's repairing a 19th-century automaton. He's a crafty Dickensian orphan, a benign phantom of the opera, a blood brother of Quasimodo, a cinematic voyeur looking out on the world like the photographer in Hitchcock's Rear Window. Fate has brought him there, and it then draws him into the orbit of a querulous old man, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs an old-fashioned shop on the station selling toys and doing mechanical repairs, assisted by his 12-year-old god-daughter, Isabelle. Hugo becomes involved with the old man when he's accused of theft and has a cherished book of drawings confiscated. He is then assisted by Isabelle in retrieving the book, and in turn, when he discovers she's forbidden to go to the movies, he takes her on a great "adventure", a visit to the lost world of silent movies at a season of old films. She is overwhelmed.

The literate Isabelle is a great admirer of Dickens, and a succession of clever Dickensian twists ensue as the labyrinthine plot takes the pair on a journey into a mysterious past. They discover the origins of the movies in the late-19th-century careers of the Lumière brothers, who put on the first picture show in Paris in 1895, and Georges Méliès, the professional magician, who became obsessed after attending this historical screening. The Lumières photographed the world as it was and didn't believe the cinema had a future. Méliès turned his theatre into a picture palace, built his own studio and became a prolific producer of fantasy films that merged life and dream, before his business tragically collapsed and he disappeared into obscurity.
In following the example of his early hero, John Cassavetes, in making naturalistic pictures, Scorsese set out on the route pioneered by the Lumière brothers, but from time to time slipped into the parallel path taken by Méliès as, for instance, in New York, New York. Now, with this celebration of magic and the imaginative use of 3D, he is saluting what many will see as an alternative kind of cinema to his own. But Scorsese has always been fascinated by the all-involving experience of moviegoing and has a knowledge of and affection for film history matched by few directors of his generation. Since the 1970s he has used his influence and his money to campaign for the restoration and preservation of films.

Hugo is a moving, funny and exhilarating film, an imaginative history lesson in the form of a detective story. The film is a great defence of the cinema as a dream world, a complementary, countervailing, transformative force to the brutalising reality we see all around us. It rejects the sneers of those intellectuals and moralisers who see in film a debilitating escapism of the sort the social anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker impugned by calling her study of the movie industry Hollywood: The Dream Factory. As a commentary on this, Hugo at one point has a double dream, waking from one into the other, both of them forms of nightmares connected to the cinema.

Appropriately for a medium initially launched in France (where it is still taken more seriously than anywhere else) but developed almost simultaneously in a variety of countries, Hugo is an international movie with a wonderfully gifted team behind it. The photographer (Robert Richardson), editor (Thelma Schoonmaker) and screenwriter (John Logan) are American, the production designer (Dante Ferretti) Italian, the costume designer (Sandy Powell) and the cast British (except for the delightful young American Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle), and it was made in this country.

Georges Méliès, the ultimate hero of the film, became a magician while working in London and returned there to buy his first projector. One of the movie's endless felicitous touches occurs during a whirlwind chase, when Hugo is pursued by the vindictive station inspector through the crowded concourse. The camera briefly alights on a startled James Joyce, then a resident of Paris, who had returned in 1909 to Dublin to open the city's first purpose-built cinema, the Volta. Appropriately its premiere kicked off with a short called The First Paris Orphanage. At the time Hugo is set, Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake, a novel in the form of a dream in which he refers to the Marx brothers.

The Guardian

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