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Emily Mortimer

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A Clockmaker’s Fable.


In the opening moments of Martin Scorsese’s ambitious, expertly-crafted, and, alas, strangely sluggish Hugo, we are transported to a snowy winter’s evening in 1931 Paris at the Gare Montparnasse, where an orphan boy (a Frodo-ish Asa Butterfield) named Hugo Cabret watches the train station crowds from behind a clock face. He eyes the station guard (Sasha Baron Cohen), the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), the socialite (Frances de La Tour), her potential paramour (Richard Griffiths), the ancient bookseller (Christopher Lee). And as flakes of snow whirl about in three dimensions and a haunting Howard Shore score perfectly evokes the melancholy elegance of Parisian yore, we see young Hugo eventually hone in on the toy stand of a despondent old man (Ben Kingsley.)

Who is this old man, and how his fate bound up with Hugo’s? That is the question that drives this historical fairy tale (formerly Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.) What follows is a child’s adventure story, a fantastic and whimsical tale of movie history bound up in the love of film itself, and an exercise in 3D innovation forged by a master craftsman with clockwork precision and…ok, let’s take a breath here. At the risk of opening myself to charges of pearls before swine, can I actually just confess to being a little bored by Hugo?

Mind you, I’m not happy about it: I love movies, i like historical fantasy. By the syllogistic principle, I should adore a historical fable about loving movies. In addition Hugo is an exceedingly well-made entertainment, and I presume it works reasonably well as a family film for Potter-inclined children of a certain age and temperament. (Although, frankly, I could imagine a lot of kids being bored too.) And every time some new character popped into the story, it was almost always an actor or actress — Chloe Moretz, Ray Winstone, Michael Stuhlbarg — that I’m fond of watching. But it’s a plain fact that, however entrancing Scorsese’s second- and third-act invocations of Georges Melies — the cinema’s first imagineer, as it were — I watched Hugo feeling mostly disengaged from it.

In the interests of full disclosure, while thinking over the reasons for how this clinical distance might’ve happened, it occurred to me after the fact that I have felt much the same about almost every other one of Martin Scorsese’s films. I’m not saying the man’s a hack or anything — He’s clearly an exceptional craftsman and a deservedly historic figure among American directors. But from his early classics (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, all of which I saw on VCR years after they came out) to Goodfellas (which, to be fair, I caught after The Sopranos) to his recent run of films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Departed), I’ve had almost the same reaction in the end to every one of his films: Well that was well-put-together, but not very emotionally engaging. (The one major exception here, and my favorite Scorsese movie, is The Last Temptation of Christ, although I also quite like Casino and The King of Comedy. Update: And Kundun, After Hours, and The Age of Innocence as well, now that I think more on it.)

The other issue at work here is the issue of the Third Dimension. Over the course of its run, Hugo — a movie which eventually discusses the earliest days of the cinema — not very subtly makes a case that we are witnessing a similar birth of a new art form right now, with 3D technology. (After showing us the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 film of an arriving train, which scared audiences untrained in film-watching into thinking they’d be run over, Scorsese recreates the scene at the Gare Montparnasse using 2011’s finest 3D tech.) Now, I know that saying things like “3D movies are just a fad” is exactly the type of statement that will leave one ripe for ridicule down the road. (re: “Talkies will never catch on,” or “Why would we ever need color?“) Buuuuut…I’m still not entirely sure the current 3D boom is anything more than a fad.

Here’s the thing: I’m glad visionary directors like Scorsese, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson are pushing the envelope and the technology on 3D. (For what it’s worth, Cameron says Hugo is the best 3D photography he’s ever seen. I’ll reserve full judgment until I’ve seen The Hobbit at 48 frames per second.) At the same time, it seems to me that, at least at present, 3D is mainly being used as a way to push audiences to continue seeing films on the big screen instead of watching them at home. In other words, it’s a filler technology being used to paper over the gaps at a transitional time for the medium, and its recent embrace has more to do with the business of movies than the art of them.

So, my skepticism about 3D at the moment isn’t really about being a Luddite. If anything, the technology isn’t advanced enough yet. When audiences can see the effect without wearing the damnable headache-inducing glasses, or we move past screen projection to full three-dimensional projection, not unlike the holograms in Star Wars, then I might start to agree we’re in Lumiere or Melies territory. But making movies look vaguely and unnecessarily like pop-up books, or having a ginormous Sasha Baron Cohen head jump out at you rather than the usual arrows and projectiles or whatnot, is not really a game-changing use of the medium, and it seems a bit hubristic to suggest so.

I still submit that the most groundbreaking use of 3D I’ve ever witnessed was in the concert film U2 3D, which layered completely separate images into one field of vision, and thus suggested an entirely new form of cinema syntax. Unfortunately, neither Cameron nor Scorsese have opted to explore that route as of yet. Instead, Scorsese has given us here a fine example of how standard story-telling can be slightly enhanced by 3D. I just wish it wasn’t so ponderous at times. Your mileage may vary, of course, but when I was having reactions during the movie like, “Oh Lord, we’re about to get another ten minutes of Sasha Baron Cohen playing the martinet,” that is just not a good sign.

From Mars to the Arctic (to your hands), Life.

In the trailer bin of late (along with the Bat, the Spider, and the Forelock):

  • Gwyneth Paltrow has more than just a few Coldplay albums to answer for in the scary-impressive trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, also with Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, and Elliot Gould. This goes right next to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of my most-anticipated films of the fall.

  • Taylor Kitsch braves the deserts of Mars, Peter Gabriel by way of Arcade Fire, and some of the earliest fanboys going in the teaser for Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (formerly of Mars), with Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, with Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe. That’s a great cast, and I like the period look on Earth, if nothing else.

  • Real-life couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz discover their new family home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Dream House, also with Naomi Watts. With such an A-list director and cast, this film probably deserved a trailer that didn’t give away a key plot point — I suggest not clicking through here if you’re one to avoid spoilage.

  • Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reunite for a second installment of Holmesian shenanigans in the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with Noomi Rapace tagging in for Rachel McAdams and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. This looks…pretty bad, but the first one turned out better than expected, so who knows?

  • Jude Law also takes time to disappear, and thus set up a grand adventure of magic and self-discovery for his son, in the the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, with Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Michael Stuhlbarg, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour, Helen McCrory, and Emily Mortimer. Like Dream House, I’m more interested in the pedigree than this trailer. But we’ll see.

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead really never should have gotten involved in this particular Norwegian research project in the trailer for Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing, also with Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Ulrich Thomsen, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Unlike most fan-folk, I’m perfectly fine with a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, just because it’s one of the scarier horror premises going. Let’s hope van Heijningen makes the most of his shot.

The Island of Arkham.

Well, at the very least, I’ll say this: Martin Scorsese’s fun but flawed gothic-noir Shutter Island is much less of a disaster than the other big budget, mid-February dumping of late, The Wolfman. True, despite a smart and engrossing first hour or so, Scorsese’s film eventually wears out its welcome, and its (very-telegraphed, even in the trailers) Twilight Zone-y ending goes on for several beats too long. Still, it’s an unsettling and reasonably entertaining mind game for awhile, and probably worth a rental if you weren’t among the many visitors to the Island this past weekend.

Admittedly, the opening moments of our tale are more than a little creaky, as Scorsese — as per his 1991 remake of Cape Fear — perhaps over-telegraphs the fact that we’re in noir-homage territory here. The year is 1954, and as a rickety ferry chugs along beneath an ominous, very cinematic-looking gray sky, a seasick US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo di Caprio) fills his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) in on all the requisite exposition. To wit, these two seafaring gumshoes are checking out a mysterious disappearance on a creepy Island for the Criminally Insane. Teddy’s beloved wife (Michelle Williams), whom he still sees in visions, has passed on account of smoke inhalation after an apartment fire. And — wouldn’t ya know it — one of those Gimongous Storms that fill the nearby Gloucestermen with dread is bearing down on this remote Massachusetts madhouse, right at about the time our two heroes will disembark.

This is all rather ungainly revealed in the first ten minutes or so. But, when our two fedora-topped detectives are met by the officious and strangely aloof deputy warden of the complex (John Carroll Lynch), Shutter Island starts to find its nightmare-at-Arkham groove. It helps that we then meet a few old pros to move things along in that regard. First, the benevolent-seeming Man of Science running the asylum, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). And then his avuncular, hail-fellow-well-met, and vaguely sinister colleague (old pro Max Von Sydow), who happens to have a Teutonic tendency toward slipping consonants. And that, coupled with the waifish cheekbones of the missing patient (Emily Mortimer), sets off all kinds of unpleasant memories for Teddy of W-W-eye-eye, and the liberation of Dachau…

It is in this first seventy-five minutes or so where Shutter Island really works best. For awhile there, with its melancholy remembrances, plush smoking rooms, fifties detectives, and lurking horrors, the movie is a real triumph of atmosphere. I felt like I’d settled into a really good noir text-adventure like Deadline, Suspect, or even Maniac Mansion, where the crimes are sordid, the suspects range from kindly to malevolent, the atmosphere is gothic through-and-through, the backstory is ever-so-slightly overripe (there may be Nazi-style experiments funded by HUAC going on), and the environment is finite and well-bounded — Nobody’s getting off the island in this here Storm of the Century. And there’s a nightmare at one point, involving Dachau and Ms. Mortimer, that set my teeth on edge as much as anything I’ve seen this side of the Grady sisters. (Some borrowing from The Ring here too, quite frankly.)

Unfortunately, the increasingly aimless Island doesn’t manage to sustain this splendidly eerie vibe throughout its run. Instead, it starts to pile incident upon incident, until the rotting manse of cards eventually tumbles over. When Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley turn up as horribly scarred prisoners of the complex an hour or so in, I thought, ok, this could be creepy. When Patricia Clarkson pops up as a haggard escapee half an hour later, I was thinking ok, but it’s a bit late in the game to be introducing all-new characters like this. And by the time Ted Levine of Monk gets his turn as the exceedingly weird Chief Warden who, in this day and age, would probably relish gladiator movies and the Discovery Channel, I wondered if Shutter Island was actually building toward anything at all.

The answer is, yes, but it too takes awhile. [Some spoilers ahead.] As you may well have expected going in, there’s a Shyamalan-style ending to the case that takes us in a new (but not entirely unforeseeable) direction. The problem is, this ending takes about 25 minutes to play out when it should’ve taken five, including a long digression into a past event that we have fully pieced together on our own by now. I wouldn’t call this ending a cop-out, really, although several earlier scenes (and most notably Ruffalo’s behavior in them) don’t make a lot of sense once we’re privy to the new intel. The problem is more that, like an aircraft taxiing to the gate, it just takes far too long to close the story once this final act is set in motion.

Still, as I said, Shutter Island has its moments. As far as exercises in noir cinema go, I’ve definitely sat through worse than these two and a half hours of Scorsese playing with his haunted mansion playset. If nothing else, you can tell that Marty has a deep and abiding love of the crime-noir genre. And, for at least a good hour or so, his madness is contagious.

Shuttering Calm.

In the trailer bin, gumshoe Leonardo di Caprio seems to be going slightly mad at the Massachusetts equivalent of Arkham Asylum in our first look at Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, also with Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Max von Sydow. Hmm…Scorsese Gothic could be interesting.

Point of No Return.

It’s a good time to live in New York: Not only are the Knicks suddenly playing winning basketball again, but Match Point is, as rumored, a return to form for that consummate Manhattanite (and unabashed Knicks fan), Woody Allen. Mining the same misanthropic vein as Crimes and Misdemeanors, the movie nevertheless feels — aside from a few nods to Allen’s usual high-culture influences and the occasional Annie Hall-ish quirk by Emily Mortimer — unlike anything Woody’s done in years. Gone are the Upper East Side setpieces (we’re in London this time) and that quintessential Allen stammer. (Heck, Ewan Bremner, a British Allen analogue if there ever was one, is in this movie and even he’s not doing it.) Instead, we’re left with an increasingly dark amorality play about ambition, adultery, and the considerable, if not terrifying, role of blind luck in organizing the universe.

Unfortunately, Match Point suffered from one of those three-minute summary-type trailers. If you’ve seen it, you probably already know more than you want about the story. If you haven’t, here’s the abbreviated version: Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, more believable as a tortured soul than a romantic lead), a former tennis pro who gives lessons at the club by day and reads Dostoevsky by night, befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) one of his more dissolute upper-crust students, and, over opera and cocktails, wins the heart of Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Soon, with his good graces and acquired cultural literacy, Chris has managed to seduce the whole Hewett family, including Tom and Chloe’s father (Brian Cox, surprisingly not chewing the scenery) and mother (Penelope Wilton, surprisingly — to me — not chewing on flesh.) But, trouble arises in the second set when Chris meets a kindred spirit in Tom’s fiancee, the vampish American Nola (Scarlett Johansson, better-than-usual). Soon, Chris finds himself laying his new life on the line in order to get closer to Nola, with potentially disastrous results…

As the paragraph above attests, Match Point is in part a tale of scheming class climbers skulking about London’s higher social echelons, a conceit that still paid dividends in Henry James’ day but may seem relentlessly dated now, at least as it’s presented by Allen. And, indeed, what with the high-culture name-drops (Strindberg, Sophocles) and all the old-money accoutrements favored by the Hewetts, this often seems like London by way of Merchant-Ivory more than any real place on the globe. But, I think this stylization is forgivable, particularly since, ultimately, Woody is hunting bigger quarry than class and its pretensions anyway. Giving away the details of the third act would be a crime, but Allen aficionados won’t be surprised to find that Chris eventually finds himself wrangling with an — or the — existential dilemma. And it’s with this final act that the film itself leaps a notch and joins the upper ranks of Allen’s oeuvre. Who knows? Perhaps Woody just got lucky this time. After all, chance favors the prepared mind…or are we all just fortune’s fools?

Vamps of all kinds.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has a fatal attraction problem with Scarlett Johansson in the new trailer for Match Point, directed by…well, someone unexpected. (By way of Listen Missy.) Also in the trailer bin are looks at the “remake” of Broadway’s The Producers (What? No Larry David?) and Underworld: Evolution, the unnecessary sequel to a truly terrible film. Seriously, if everyone just sent Bill Nighy $10 rather than seeing this latter flick, the world would be a better place. Catsuit-Kate notwithstanding, he’d be the only reason to sit through this drek.

Pink Slip.

The trailer for Steve Martin’s Pink Panther remake is now online. Oof, this looks even worse than I imagined. Remember the days when Kevin Kline only appeared in good films?

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