Movie Monday: Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ in wide release

Age of innocence

GoodFellas director Martin Scorsese shows a soft side in Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, cleaves so closely to this recipe, it would be momentous if even one second of the plot were able to catch you by surprise. It does not.

Hugo (the impossibly saucer-eyed Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Parisian train station (circa 1930), surreptitiously winding the giant clocks so no one will know his caretaker-uncle has disappeared and send Hugo to an orphanage. He scavenges food and supplies from shops in the station, eventually getting caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a curmudgeonly tinkerer and toy salesman. Georges has a secret (in this genre, everyone has a secret that could be easily told, except it wouldn’t leave any mystery; it’s borne of an WASPy sense of emotional repression and a desire to allow the plot to stretch out), so Hugo enlists Georges’ ward Hermione… er, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to help him retrieve the notebook the man took from him.

The notebook, of course, is just another storytelling device (the McGuffin) that ultimately proves irrelevant, as so much of Hugo is. The film’s real goal is to stand as a paean to the silent film era, and especially the work of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.

And that’s where Hugo begins to get interesting.

To read the complete review. click here.

—  Rich Lopez

Life as a Cabret

Scorsese shows a soft side with the children’s fantasy ‘Hugo;’ von Trier mixes opera with sci-fi in the navel-and-star-gazing drama ‘Melancholia’

HUGO

SAFETY LAST | The well worn kid-lit saw of an orphan (Asa Butterfield) hiding from thoughtless adults is given a silent-movie send up by Martin Scorsese in ‘Hugo.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It would be nice to blame J.K. Rowling for ruining children’s literature for all time, but in fact Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and others bear some of the responsibility. It has become now all-too-formulaic how (popular, at least) kid fantasy stories play out: An orphaned or neglected moppet (who came from the most loving family imaginable before falling on hard times) discovers a new friend, a nemesis who eventually becomes a friend, and an antagonist while living in a magical, Gothic castle that brings him extraordinary abilities.

Go ahead. Apply it to any kid’s fiction. I dare ya.

Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, cleaves so closely to this recipe, it would be momentous if even one second of the plot were able to catch you by surprise. It does not.

Hugo (the impossibly saucer-eyed Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Parisian train station (circa 1930), surreptitiously winding the giant clocks so no one will know his caretaker-uncle has disappeared and send Hugo to an orphanage. He scavenges food and supplies from shops in the station, eventually getting caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a curmudgeonly tinkerer and toy salesman. Georges has a secret (in this genre, everyone has a secret that could be easily told, except it wouldn’t leave any mystery; it’s borne of an WASPy sense of emotional repression and a desire to allow the plot to stretch out), so Hugo enlists Georges’ ward Hermione… er, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to help him retrieve the notebook the man took from him.

The notebook, of course, is just another storytelling device (the McGuffin) that ultimately proves irrelevant, as so much of Hugo is. The film’s real goal is to stand as a paean to the silent film era, and especially the work of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.

And that’s where Hugo begins to get interesting.

The mushy themes and soft sense of innocent delight are ill-fitted to the director, Martin Scorsese, whose most prominent use of a child prior to this was probably Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute in Taxi Driver. Scorsese doesn’t approach most of the material with that harsh eye of his; he actually seems lost in it, charming himself with the story’s doe-eyed wonder. (The train station is as improbably kooky as the Wonka Candy Factory.)

But Scorsese sustains the film during its more familiar and less compelling periods with a movie fanatic’s appreciation for the art of the silent film. It is a victory of form over substance, as Scorsese recreates the visual cues first explored by the likes of Melies, as well as Chaplin, Keaton,

Harold Lloyd. Indeed, two key scenes mirror one another: One where Hugo takes Isabelle to her first movie (Lloyd’s Safety Last, where the comedian dangles dangerously from a tower while holding on to the hands of a clockface), and one later, where Hugo does the same thing while being chased by a station cop (Sacha Baron Cohen, whose rubbery face was made for silent film).

The structuring, photography and editing are such loving and eerily accurate reproductions of film classics, you’re tempted to hold your hands over your ears and experience Hugo the way Melies’ audiences would have A Trip to the Moon.

Still, a tone of wistful nostalgia permeates Hugo, and eventually dominates it. The fact it was made in (admittedly effective) 3D, however, only highlights its failings: Melies didn’t have such technology to keep audiences in awe. We may have come a long way since 1895 in some particulars, but originality of story is still in short supply.
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MARRIAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD | ‘Melancholia’ is a sci-fi drama, about a bride (Kirsten Dunst, left), her citrus-lipped sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg, right) and the heavenly body hurtling toward earth.

There’s a difference between the nostalgia of Hugo and Melancholia, the new drama by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Von Trier was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 filmmaking philosophy that touted minimalism over artifice, but his career has been a testament to the theory’s unworkability. Even in the wedding scenes in Melancholia that seem lifted directly from Festen (the first true Dogme feature — significantly, from a different director) reveal how the idea of steering clear of genre pictures is a boondoggle: Dogme 95 has become a shorthand for uncomfortable family get-togethers. (In the U.S., Rachel Getting Married felt like a Dogme film.)

When Von Trier is being minimalistic, he composes scenes steeped in pain and awkward, raw emotions, but his flamboyant side cannot resist peaking through, as it did in his masterpiece, Breaking the Waves.  Melancholia begins with an extended sequence of still shots, supersaturated in colors that make David LaChapelle photos look washed out, all set to a long, graceful overture from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This isn’t film, it’s opera — big and bold and crazed with feeling.

Only it takes too much to get going. The confrontations — Charlotte Rampling giving an inappropriate wedding toast, Kirsten Dunst chastising Stellan Skarsgard and having her wedding called off, Charlotte Gainsbourg staring at something off-camera with a perpetual grimace clenched on her face — roll out with slow deliberation. There’s a lot going on here — not the least of which is a huge planet called Melancholia hurtling toward the earth, about to destroy all life on the planet — but it’s all so clinically presented, you don’t get caught up in it.

End of the world scenarios, from Last Night to Deep Impact to Armageddon, always trigger some amount of introspection, but Melancholia could use a little extroversion. It’s as caught up in itself as Hugo is the kid-lit genre, with no escape velocity.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

Batwoman begins

DC Comics’ lesbian superhero gets her own imprint, a pantheon of new supervillains … and maybe a girlfriend.

GIRL ON GIRL | DC revamps its comic world with an all-new updating of its lesbian Batwoman character.

Following a hugely successful, starring storyline in DC Comics’ Detective Comics title, the openly lesbian Batwoman begins her own titular, monthly series starting Sept. 14.

Part of DC Comics’ reboot and re-launch of its entire line of titles – with 52 all-new No. 1 issues, including Stormwatch featuring superpowered gay couple Apollo & The Midnighter – Batwoman follows the adventures of Kate Kane, a flame-haired, former U.S. Military Academy cadet discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

First introduced in 2006’s 52 miniseries as the ex-lover of lesbian policewoman Renee Montoya (a character from the excellent, GLAAD-nominated Gotham Central series), Batwoman went on to star in DC’s Detective Comics between 2009-2010 – written by Greg Rucka and superbly illustrated by J.H. Williams III  — which saw her go up against a Lewis Carroll-quoting, Tim Burton-worthy Goth nemesis, Alice, while revealing Kane’s origin story. This critically acclaimed arc was later collected in the Batwoman: Elegy trade-press graphic novel.

November 2010 saw a prelude to Batwoman’s solo series with a “Zero Issue,” co-written by new series team J.H. Williams  — also returning as an artist — and H. Haden Blackman, blending illustration styles within an inventive, sophisticated narrative approach.

Here, Williams discusses the new and past series, how the DC line’s reboot affects Batwoman (the series was originally slated to kick off in 2010 but was held up to be part of the event), and whether a girlfriend is in Kate’s future.

— Lawrence Ferber

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Dallas Voice: What’s the biggest difference between this new Batwoman series and her initial Detective Comics run? J.H. Williams: The type of story we’re leading off with. Her last stint was boiled down to her origin and the basic superhero versus ultimate nemesis sort of thing. We wanted to expand on that because she needs a pantheon of villains, so we set out to do that in ways that are fun. We do it in the art a lot, mixing styles, and we brought that into the writing, too. The lead story deviates in that way  — even though it’s very much a continuation of what came before and what’s motivating her now, the foe she faces is a very different one [from last time]. The first arc is a very much supernatural horror story and what that’s like for a costumed or uniformed vigilante who doesn’t have superpowers per se. It’s pretty intriguing, but it’s just one piece of a bigger picture we are going to expand upon over the first three arcs.

What’s the name of this first arc’s villain? The Weeping Woman, and she’s based on Mexican folklore, which goes into a lot of cultural stuff. Everything developed for the new villains is based on urban legends. It’s key, making them have a logical point of origin, so we’re not just throwing random characters in, and hopefully have them be strong enough to hold their own outside the story we’re telling.

Can you elaborate on the story arcs that follow? The first one dovetails into a James Bond-ian espionage plot, then to an epic fantasy kind of plot. Even though those are very different from one another, we have figured out how to make them be a bigger whole and form one giant story. Instead of trying to pigeonhole the kind of series we’re doing to one thing, I want to pursue how far we can take things and how we can work in unison when all is said and done. When people go back and read “Elegy” and see what’s upcoming they’ll see the sense of diversity in the types of stories can be told.

What will Kate’s love life be like? We saw her hook up at a nightclub in the Zero Issue. She’s openly dating, but fun-dating. With the start of the new series we show that she wants to take a turn for something different, a normalcy, because her life as Batwoman is an extreme one. Superheroes today can never make their personal relationships work. But we’re going to build toward a solid relationship with somebody. She wants that person to come home to.

You’ve included many queer characters in your previous work including Promethea, written by the very pro-gay Alan Moore, and 1994’s Deathwish, which featured a transgendered protagonist. Did you base any element of Kate on a real woman or lesbian you have met or known? Not really. Her sense of realism comes from the fact we want to humanize this character as much as we can. The key to any character is no matter where they come from, sexual orientation, whatever, they need to be relatable as human beings.

What did you think of the mainstream media hubbub about Batwoman being a lesbian when the news first hit in 2006? The way DC announced the character way back when put people on their heels a little bit. There wasn’t any solid plan behind the character yet, so some took it as a publicity stunt  — and it wasn’t at all. As people started to see there was potential for this character as a deep-rooted one you can believe in, some of that hubbub went away. She’s a legitimate character people can find things to relate with. We’re not being exploitative with her being a lesbian. We’re treating it as with any other character regardless of what their sexual orientation is  — that’s a small part of who they are as a person. It’s not all about her being a lesbian and I think that’s made her a bit of a beacon for people to get behind the character instead of it being a publicity grab or something that doesn’t sit as a three-dimensional person.

What sort of feedback have you personally received from the lesbian community since Elegy? Any anecdotes to share? I remember one moment doing a signing in New York City. One of the girls standing in line when she came up to get her book signed said, ‘Thank you for drawing a real lesbian and not a stereotypical one.’ And then she said, ‘like me!’ and waved her hand across her forearm. That was fantastic. It gave me a sense that we’re definitely doing things the way they should be done.

The relaunch of DC Comics’ entire line in the wake of its ‘Flashpoint’ event sees a lot of characters reconceived, rebooted, and many stories and series go back to one. How will this affect Batwoman and her past? We have to acknowledge the new, post-’Flashpoint’ continuity, but we worked on this series for such a long time and so far headway into the story we didn’t have the luxury of going back and disregarding what came before  — and I didn’t want to. So although she exists in the new DC status quo, those previous events still happened, which is good. The Batwoman character is so new, anyway, it would be a real disservice to disregard her roots this early on.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

First person shooter

An old-fashioned Western with modern FX, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ rides roughshod

CRAGGY CRAIG | Daniel Craig projects the right amount of swagger as a gunslinger fighting ETs in 1873.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

2.5 out of 5 stars
COWBOYS & ALIENS
Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Adam Beach, Olivia Wilde.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins.
Now playing in wide release.

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Movie adaptations used to be based on literature and theater and even magazine articles. Nowadays, they are based on cartoons, video games, toys (the “Hasbro Presents” credit still gets a laugh during the opening credits of Transformers movies) and comic books. Such movies usually feel so pre-fab: Meta-cultural, with Hollywood navelgazing into a state of catatonia. (The games and comics are often inspired by trashy action movies, perpetuating the Mobius strip assembly line of dreck.)

But while Cowboys & Aliens’ source material is, sadly, a graphic novel about settlers and scalawags in 1873 New Mexico, its real progenitor is the movie Western of yore: Black hats versus white hats. Lasses and scoundrels in saloons. Gunslingers and cattlemen.

And extra-terrestrials. Yeah, it still is a sci-fi film.

The sci-fi, though, doesn’t overwhelm the tale, which has the plainspoken good-and-bad dichotomy of the genre, anchored by a humanity lacking in movies like Transformers. Daniel Craig (looking ripped, god bless him) plays an amnesiac bandit who apparently has successfully fought off the aliens with their own weapon, a metal wrist corsage that shoots laser blasts (but only when it needs to). He’s posse’d up with the local oligarch (played brutally at first by Harrison Ford, later cuddly as a kitten) to hunt down the aliens who are stealin’ our gold and rapin’ our women. (Actually, it’s not clear why they take people — one of many plot holes best ignored if you wanna get through the film.)

Director Jon Favreau added much-needed humor into the Iron Man movies, an element all but absent here, but cinematographer Matthew Libatique more than makes up for it with gorgeous landscapes and moodily underlit tableaux. Craig is well-suited to the craggy, silent loner: He’s brimming with testosteronic swagger … at least until the clusterfuck finale, a convoluted mess that overwhelms everyone involved, including any sense of logic in the storytelling.

Until then, though, it’s a kick-ass summer film with excellent production values — War of the Worlds with six-shooters and arrows.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens