Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Scorsese's HUGO reviewed

The much lauded Hugo arrived to British cinemas only after a couple of weeks, or so, after its release in the USA. Is all that praise deserved? Well, yes, or at least most of it is, in my opinion.

Hugo, based on a children story by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the screenplay having been written by John Logan, a departure in Martin Scorsese's oeuvre, admirably captures the illusion of the grain of life in an enclosed environment such as a busy Parisian train station just after the Great War. As such, it is an old fashioned children story, like those we told to our children when putting them to bed, as once upon a time we had the time and energy to do so (if this was ever true I do not know, but it is nice to hold to the idea that it was), told using cutting edge 3D cinematic technology. Has Scorsese advanced the range of this technology for artistic use in contemporary cinema? The jury is out on this one, although I have my doubts. I do think that Hugo could well had been shot in a conventional 2D format without any detrimental effect on the quality of the story telling. Perhaps, it could had worked even better, as I felt that on occasions the technology got on the way of the story itself, almost as if Scorsese, like a kid playing with a new set of coloured pens, got so enthralled with 3D for its own sake that he overlooked the story. 

The film follows the story of a boy, the above mentioned Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, whom we saw in The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas), who lives in the railway station after been taken in by his uncle after the death of his father in a fire at the museum where he worked. The uncle, a drunkard, also disappeared one day, and Hugo keeps with the task of keeping all the clocks of the station running on time, that was his uncle's job, as he fears he will be taken to an orphanage if he is discovered by the awful station master (a rather magnificent portrayal by Sacha Baron Cohen), a war veteran with a penchant for grabbing street urchins.

The key of the film, and I am playing with words here, is a key he needs to unlock the mechanism of an automaton in his possession, as he believes that it will write a message from his father, who left it to him after his death. The search for this key sets Hugo in a sharp collision with Georges Méliès (a rather cartoonish portrayal by Ben Kingsley, a bit of a rehash of his performance in Gandhi), an old gentleman who owns a toy booth in the station. After his father's sketchbook falls in the hands of Méliès, who suspects that Hugo has been nicking bits and bits from his stall, he manages to enlist the help of Méliès' granddaughter, young Isabelle (a fabulous and sensitive performance by Chloë Grace Moretz), to recover the book, as he needs it to bring the automaton back to life. Isabelle is also an orphan, being brought up by Grandpa George and his wife after her parents died in an accident, jumps in aid of Hugo, as she is screaming for adventure and danger, as most children at that age living a sheltered life do.

Hugo the film is also an ode to cinema itself, to the beginnings of cinema (Scorsese is also being known for funding the restoration of old and forgotten films, as my DVD copy of Wojciech Has' marvellous and intriguing The Saragossa Manuscript in my videoteque testifies), as we all find, including Isabelle, that Grandpa George is one of the forgotten pioneers of early cinema, having developed his career shortly after the Lumière brothers showed to the public the first movie performance, directing, producing and acting in hundreds of films, a career cut short by the war. Unable to restart it, he bought the toy booth for a living, and to raise Isabelle. 

Hugo is also one of those rare films which appeals to the young and the old, as it does work on several levels. I suspect that subsequent viewings will bring additional riches to the fore both on the story itself, its background, and the performances.

The performances of the kids is exceptional, Asa Butterfield conveys the intensity of the desire of a child to unlock not only the automation but also his own life, his own destiny, whilst Chloë Moretz' nuanced performance of Isabelle (I understand that she managed to fool Martin Scorsese in believing she is actually English during the audition) living in Paris, a girl eager for adventure, yet who is also a loving and sensitive grand daughter, gets at the heart of her role with an extraordinary breadth and depth of characterization.

Special mentions have to go to all those who constructed the sets and worked in the CGI effects, which created a picture of a Parisian railway station which is both credible and yet still firmly belonging to the realm of story telling). I have to say that I am not still convinced by the 3D technology which, in spite of Scorsese's efforts to tame it, felt too often as no more than gimmick, distracting me from the humanity of the story itself.

However, in spite of my persisting reservations about the technology itself, Hugo has gone into my long list for the 10 best films I have watched in 2011, being not only old fashioned story telling at its best, but also an ode to cinema itself, admirably realized and with an enthralling performances by Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz.

To see the making of Hugo, please click HERE.

Text revised on 15 December 2011.

Monday, 5 December 2011


We cannot be murderers and victims at the same time.

Villain, based on the Japanese best selling novel of the same name by Shuichi Yoshida, who co-wrote the screenplay for the film, casts an eye on the loneliness of existence in an ordered society, where everyone and everything has a place, where there is a place for everyone and every thing, the loneliness of dating sites, an escape for young people whose existence oscillates from monotonous life at work to monotonous life at home, every day becoming undistinguishable from the previous one, or from the one which is to come tomorrow.

Where their whole existence is encompassed by the high road of just another town in the middle of nowhere, primary school, secondary school, work, home, as Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu, whose powerful and nuanced performance won her the Best Actress Award at the 2010 Montreal International Film Festival), one of the protagonists muses to Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whom she has met through a dating site, in a love hotel, its décor being as ubiquitous as those chain stores mushrooming in town after town, city after city, country after country, the ghost of Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima, who seems to be getting out of her usual roles of a girl who cannot decide anything in her life, although she still plays, quite convincingly, the role of a victim here) lurking on Yuichi's head.

Dating websites become not only their way to get some excitement in their lives, as Yoshino tells a girlfriend when she was asked if she had slept with a man she just had met through the site: “That's why I met him”, but also gives them the possibility to find someone with whom to share their futures, or, find their deaths, as it is the case in Villain. For Yuichi, the man is question, his beloved powerful sports car is also what gives him the chance to escape from the dreary fishing village where he lives, and from his job as a demolition worker in his uncle's company; the haunting cinematography portraying those roads at night, the beams of the car lights drilling through the layers of realities which soon join the darkness surrounding him, the beams of that car mirroring in the beam of that lighthouse from his childhood, shining beyond the horizon, where he returns when he is in the run from the police, after having killed a young woman on a solitary dark road under those same beams. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, shot mostly in crowded interiors, in the car, close ups, where the wide exhilarating landscape is always seen through the framing of the car screen, or the mullions of windows, is suddenly smashed, and opened up, on that scene on the lighthouse, where the horizon suddenly fills not only the cinema screen, but also their eyes as they watch, mesmerized, the sun set – for once, the visual cliché being also broken.

Yet, that car, and those dating websites, are paradoxically no longer liberating, but have become part of that suffocating entrapment of their lives, from which they desperately try to escape, as we see a shot of Mitsuyo back to her monotonous job in a clothes store at the end of the film, just as we saw her at the beginning, or the roadside shrine to Yoshino, where her zest for life ended: The ultimate entrapment of all? Or, the ultimate liberation? It is for you to decide, and to ruminate on the truly shocking end of Villain.

Lee Sang-il and Shuichi Yoshida have used the format of a crime thriller, and a road movie, to explore this enclosed world, where there is a place for everyone and everything, succinctly portrayed in a scene in which the police drags from a minuscule capsule hotel a young man on the run, as he felt he would be blamed for Yoshino's murder, his room being not much larger than a bed, the headroom making impossible to stand up; or on Mitsuyo's conversation with the taxi driver as she also went to Yoshino's shrine to leave flowers: “If he killed someone, then he must be a bad man”. The powerful and gripping character study, we really delve under their skins, and the haunting cinematography, have sliced open the underbelly of this world, and exposed to our eyes the frustrations and despair lurking under apparently ordered and well mannered lives in an apparently trouble free society.

Villain opens with a bunch of young women having a night out, the giggles and banter soon being replaced with the darkness of the night as one of them, Yoshino, goes to meet with her date for the evening, Yuichi, yet she ends up getting into another car. This is the last we see of her. A couple of days later Yuichi, a very introvert character, drives into Nagasaki to meet Mitsuyo, whom he has also met through the online dating service. Their desire for human companionship soon overtake their initial reluctance, and the pair fell in love. However, they are soon on the run from the police, as he is suspected of murdering Yoshino.

The DVD contains an excellent and enlightening feature on the making of the film, plus a clip on a conversation between the director, Lee Sang-il, and his star, Satoshi Tsumabuki, theatrical trailer, and the usual set up controls.

Trailer and images © The Producers and Third Window Films

DVD UK release Date: December 5th, 2011

DVD Specifications: 5.1 Surround Sound, Anamorphic Widescreen with Removable English Subtitles
DVD Bonus Features: 1 Hour Long 'Making Of', Interview with Satoshi Tsumabuki and Lee Sang-Il, Theatrical Trailer

DVD released by

Villain can be bought from your local store, or from Amazon HERE.

Original Title: Akunin
Country: Japan
Year of Production: 2010
Rating: 15
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 140 mins
Original Language: Japanese
Dir: Lee Sang-il
Writer: Shuichi Yoshida, Lee Sang-il
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Eri Fukatsu, Masaki Okada, Hikari Mitsushima, Kirin Kiki


Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a construction worker who has lived his entire life in a dreary fishing village. With no girlfriend or friends, he spends his days working and looking after his grandparents, with no enjoyment in life other than his car. Meanwhile, Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu) also lives a monotonous life pacing between the men’s clothing store where she works and the apartment where she lives with her sister. When the two lonely souls meet using an online dating site, they immediately fall in love with each other. But there’s a secret Yuichi had been keeping from Mitsuyo: Yuichi is the one suspected of killing the woman whose body was found at Mitsue Pass only a few days before...

As Yuichi and his new lover try to elude the police, the events that led up to the murder and its aftermath are revealed. We learn the stories of the victim, the murderer, and their families - stories of loneliness, love hotels, violence and desperation, exposing the inner lives of men and woman who are not everything they appear to be.

Who is the true “villain” here?