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Hugo (2011)

 

Through various accidents based on geography and the lack of an opportunity to see Hugo before the Oscar ceremony, I’m in a position to offer explanations of why it failed to win the Oscar for Best Film yet did manage five other Oscars. What was it that The Artist had that Hugo did not? We have to start with the amazing coincidence that two films should emerge in 2011 to bring us news of the silent era in film-making. When we talk about nostalgia in the cinema, we’re usually referring to some old star who’s been persuaded into returning to the screen one last time (even if only in a cameo) or some ghastly farrago of mawkish sentimentality about children and an animal set at some time in the past. It’s inconceivable a director would make a silent film (ignoring the music and the occasional sound effect) or would focus on George Méliès, a man whom many would consider a pioneer of special effects in the silent era. Yet that’s exactly what happened and both films ended up head-to-head on the red carpet. Sadly, the “French” dog was not CGI which explains why Hugo prevailed in the visual effects department. Hugo also had great sound (no contest then), fabulous cinematography and clever art direction. So the Academy got it right. At a technical level, Hugo is a masterpiece. As a film, it dies just after the halfway point and never recovers — Lazarus is reputed to have offered script-doctoring advice, but the feet of the venture were already encased in concrete with the project sinking fast into deep water.

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley do tricks

 

Let’s move on with a piece of philosophy (not). Some upstart playwright once offered the opinion that, “All the world’s a stage. . .” This halfwit scribbler casts the human race as mere actors who perform as the script dictates. That’s what the better informed call determinism, the philosophical notion that stuff happens because of the interdependency between people, things and events. We’ve got no choice because the world is nothing but a big machine. Every human is a widget that sprongs or a sprocket that makes a noise equivalent to cowabunga because the axel turns or a switch changes state from on to off. So Martin Scorsese offers us a world in which every member of the cast has a precisely fixed role and, when the automaton finally passes on the word from Hugo’s father (or, if that was not God Himself, the man who made the machine or, if there’s no God, John Logan who wrote the script) the machine that is the world will turn and remake the roles of the cast. So what was broken will be fixed, e.g. sadness will become joy, failing relationships will be restored, obstacles to relationships will be overcome, and leg joints will be repaired. All that’s needed for all this to happen is a key in the shape of a heart must be inserted into the back of the automaton and turned just so.

The automaton writes notes on acting for Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz

 

Now as a piece of fantasy, this is a superb prospect and, in more or less every other context you could devise, the aftermath of the automaton writing the message would have continued the magic. For, make no mistake, the set-up in the first half of this film is remarkable for its beauty and sensitivity. It’s completely captivating and more or less unsentimental (rare in a film by an American production team). It’s also good to see a first-class British acting crew. Ben Kingsley is entirely credible as George Méliès, Sacha Baron Cohen is just on the right side of camp French, and there are wonderful cameos from Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory and Ray Winston. The two children Asa Butterfield (it will be interesting to see him as Ender Wiggin) and Chloë Grace Moretz are sincere which is as much as you can ask of them in such roles. The three dogs beat the French film with their more dynamic barking and the Doberman Pinscher’s speed around the railway station. Except. . .

Sacha Baron Cohen looking vaguely threatening

 

Except all this is wasted because the film then stops being a delightful fantasy and becomes a rather plodding documentary about George Méliès. I blame Martin Scorsese who was obviously fixated by the idea of making a film about George Méliès and sacrificed pace and dramatic development to recreate the man, his stage performances, his studio, the shooting of some of the more famous film sequences, and so on. There’s even a chance to include some stock footage of fighting and despair in the Great War and the sight of some moulds as Méliès’ filmstock was melted down to make the heels for women’s shoes. It’s a tragic loss of momentum. Although there’s an effort to get us moving again with the chase through the station and the recreation of Harold Lloyd’s clock stunt from Safety Last!, the magic has gone. We were all waiting for a giant clockmaker’s hand to come down and wind up Paris using the Eifel Tower as the key and all we got was a sentimental feel-good ending with all the cast assembled in George Méliès’ apartment. The look-alike Django Reinhardt and his Hot Club quintet play as romance blossoms and Asa Butterfield does card tricks.

 

So Hugo is magnificent to look at and, for the first half, it lives, it breathes, it has a soul. Then it just gets mechanical and we all wish we could go home.

 

For the record, Hugo has been shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.

 

Contagion (2011)

September 8, 2011 1 comment

Consider the following list of names: Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Elliott Gould and numerous others you will recognise on sight — and all directed by Steven Soderbergh. Now here come two separate questions: how do you define retirement? how do you define entertainment?

 

Some months ago, Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from filmmaking. Various reasons were suggested, the most recent being that he would like to become a painter. Yet these noises, repeated while he was directing Contagion (2011) (which first appeared at the Venice Film Festival), seem to have meant little or nothing since he’s also mentioned other films he wants to direct and is currently filming Magic Mike.

Gwyneth Paltrow blowing for good luck

 

An entertainment is an activity or event designed to amuse or provide enjoyment. On the face of it, a film with a stellar cast directed by a top name should provide enough fireworks to keep us interested. Yet, it seems retirement is too strong a lure for Soderbergh. All he’s done is give us a documentary drama and, to be honest, I’ve seen better made for television. There have also been a number of epidemic/pandemic films where we’re given the chance to admire the scientist as hero. It’s an unsubtle form of propaganda designed to lull us into a sufficient sense of security so we can sleep well at nights. When a real world threat like SARS comes around the next time, we’re supposed to feel reasonably safe, stronger in the belief there are protocols in place to keep as many alive as possible. Except this film doesn’t seem intended to serve that purpose. Its too flat and factual to have any kind of inspiring or reassuring effect. It’s a mostly dry step-by-step investigation into how the virus gets started with one or two more dramatic bits thrown in.

Matt Damon as a stoical survivor with a daughter in his wake

 

I hesitate to start with a spoiler but, to save you waiting for the last frame of the film, I’ll tell you it was the bat wot done it. I hate to spoil murder mysteries by crassly giving away the ending but, in this case, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be long past caring. I suppose you know that, if an epidemic is suspected, the World Health Organization and local medical authorities invest a remarkable amount of effort in trying to identify exactly where the outbreak began. Well, this is no exception and, as the body count rises, we follow the attempts of the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they try to work out who first passed the disease to whom. This is more than useful information because, if there are several possible vaccines, knowing how the virus came to infect the first human can swing the decision. Except this is really boring. Worse, the fact we do learn that a bat infected a pig shows the futility of the entire tracking exercise. No-one would ever find out how this virus got started. Soderbergh does his best by casting Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon as the couple of interest but she’s mostly in flashback before she dies, and he’s just stoical. As an aside, it’s not at all clear how this couple could ever have met each other let alone married. They are completely mismatched. The plot is also unclear as to why Matt Damon survives when looters are rampaging through his neighbourhood shooting everyone who might have food.

Jude Law making absolutely sure he does not fall ill

 

So here goes with a summary which I will do by actor names rather than characters because who everyone is is not very relevant. Gwyneth Paltrow is at ground zero and brings the virus back to the US. She infects her son and both die in short order. Husband Matt Damon proves to have natural immunity. He therefore represents our Everyman who must survive with his daughter until the crisis is over. Laurence Fishburne is still channelling CSI and running the CDC effort to contain the outbreak. Marion Cotillard goes to Hong Kong from the WHO to investigate ground zero. Kate Winslet goes from the CDC to Minneapolis to investigate contacts where Gwyneth landed.

 

In all this, the only really lively thread is provided by Jude Law who beautifully captures a conspiracy nut with a heart of greed. This is a wonderfully judged performance showing a blogger determined to become a millionaire by promoting a homeopathic cure for the virus. Then, of course, a couple of researchers break the rules and come up with solutions. Strange just how clichéd that’s become. Oh, yes, and Lawrence Fishburne tells his fiancée to get out of Dodge before the National Guard shuts it down. Good to see he has human failings. And not too many millions die.

Steven Soderbergh with a health warning

 

Don’t get me wrong. This is an impeccably made film but it’s almost completely uninvolving. I really didn’t give a damn about any of the people portrayed in this dry sequence of events. It’s a documentary drama without the drama. It’s a tragedy to see so many talented actors wheeled out in front of the cameras in an episodic narrative sequence that doesn’t require any character development. More or less anyone competent could have done as well. Indeed, it’s probably slightly distracting to keep seeing all these memorable people wander into and out of shots. It would have been better to have a cast of unknowns. So Contagion (2011) is a bit like a real-world disease. You fear its arrival, suffer while you have it, and are profoundly relieved when it goes away.

 

The Assault or L’assaut (2010)

When I was young, there was an experimental movement in film-making that we can now authoritatively call cinéma vérité. Both in true documentary and fictional forms, the director’s intention is to maximise the capture of reality on the screen. Some have believed the best way to do this is to hide the cameras. This would mean everything on the screen is unscripted and unrehearsed. All would, of course, be filtered through the director’s eye when it comes to cutting the raw images together and adding a soundtrack. But it would be “real life” on the screen. To a greater or lesser extent, other directors have moved away from this purist position depending on the extent to which they believe the known presence of the cameras affects the behaviour of those being filmed. Today we have “reality” shows on television where cameras follow groups of people in their “everyday” lives. We have been taught how to suspend disbelief given that many of those “captured” are behaving in a surprisingly uninhibited way. Ignoring the game-show formats, some of the more interesting are like Jersey Shore in which we watch people caught in an artificial situation. It’s a form of voyeurism albeit without the more overtly sexual content. Think of it being a voyeurism that breaches the usual presumption of privacy.

Vincent Elbaz as Thierry, a tired soldier stepping into the front line again

 

One of the features of all forms of reality filming is the use of the hand-held camera. This technique now appears in straight fiction where the intention is to heighten awareness of movement, to make the action feel more dynamic, if not real. One of the most interesting early examples of this style is The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which Gillo Pontecorvo made the film in the style of a documentary. Mostly shot in black-and-white, it’s considered one of the best of the early attempts to create a newsreel style portrayal of real events. Continuing in the theme of the conflict between Algeria and the occupying French, we now come to The Assault or L’assaut (2010), a recreation of the Christmas crisis in 1994 when four Algerian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 8969 with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

 

There are several features which make this film by Julien Leclercq rather interesting. First, he knows his film will be compared to United 93 (2006) in which Americans were invited to confront a piece of their own history in the story of the real-life events on one of the planes hijacked on the 11th September. Both films carefully avoid sensationalising these events of national significance. What we might call melodrama has been limited. But, unlike Paul Greengrass, Julien Leclercq took the decision to include real newsreel footage. This takes us into the same territory occupied by Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Michael Winterbottom uses both real and faked footage to enhance the sense of realism. The question, always, in this kind of film, is the extent to which it’s legitimate to fictionalise history. By definition, the moment you write a script, you are editorialising, deciding what to include or exclude, what emphasis to place on different events and characters. It’s so easy to lionise one side and demonise the other when it comes to stories about terrorism.

Aymen Saïdi as a man who passionately believes he is right

 

On balance, I think Julien Leclercq does a good job as director and joint scriptwriter with Simon Moutairou. The decades of conflict between France and Algeria showed both sides at their worst. That this film, as a French film, emerges with any sense of balance is a testament to the ability of a modern film-maker to forgive the enemies of his country’s past and to embrace both sides as warriors worthy of respect. I say this despite the lack of any background context for these events. I lived through this history with the Organisation de l’armée secrète’s campaign to destabilise the French government and frustrate the movement to independence eventually leading to the Algerian attacks on mainland France. I’m not sure whether this film would have benefitted from two minutes of historical introduction. Modern viewers are rather thrown into this story at the deep end knowing nothing of the background nor of the role of the French intervention force called GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale). Although we are now used to the idea of hijacking planes both to force governments to release political prisoners and to crash them into iconic buildings, I suspect a short introductory summary would have enhanced understanding of these events.

Mélanie Bernier, a victim of discrimination who still manages to tell the truth

 

The story takes three different strands. The first focuses on Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a senior member of the elite commando force called the GIGN. He’s under psychological pressure, finding it difficult to cope with his shoot-first, ask-questions-later role. The relationship with his wife and young child adds depth to the character. We then have Carole (Mélanie Bernier) who’s struggling under the appalling weight of sexist discrimination in the Foreign Ministry. She has done the research and understands the risks rather better than her complacent male bosses. But she’s also not wholly ethical, being prepared to offer money to one branch of the terrorist group in the hope this will encourage them to call off the hijacking. Then we have the four terrorists led by Yahia (Aymen Saïdi). They come over as committed but emotionally vulnerable. The scene when Yahia’s mother tries to talk him into giving up is particularly telling. In another place, at another time, these would be good men leading ordinary lives with their families. Because of the lack of historical context, we are left to guess at what would have driven them to engage in this grand gesture of defiance.

 

The film leads us through the initial stages of the hijack as the four terrorists pray together, then just drive on to the tarmac and board the plane. These were the days before airport security was improved. At first, the Algerian government refuses to allow the plane to leave but, when a French citizen is shot, the French government insists the plane is allowed to fly into France. Now the stage is set for the countdown to the assault. The majority of the passengers were Algerian nationals. The terrorists made no discrimination between innocent and guilty. Everyone on the plane was a hostage. Remarkably, most survived.

 

There are several features in the final stages of this sad event that remain unclear. Why was the plane allowed to move from where it was first parked in Marseille? Why did the terrorists not simply start killing all the passengers. Why did the GIGN not shoot the terrorists through the windows of the plane? Such questions do not detract from the power of how the operation was concluded. Insofar as anything can be considered a triumph emerging from such a tragedy, this is what happened.

 

I’m not convinced this is the most entertaining of films. It certainly has no Hollywood pretensions to lift morale and show the “good guys” winning. Shot for much of the time in a pseudo-documentary “black and white”, it desaturates both the colour and, to some extent, the characters so that we can focus on the events as they unfold. This is not about the people so much as about the immediacy of what actually happened. This gives The Assault or L’assaut a raw intensity of emotional power. It commands attention from start to finish. I emerged from the cinema feeling saddened that humans can do such terrible things but heartened that, sometimes, people respond well in difficult situations. For those who enjoy realism, this is as good a film in the style of cinéma vérité as you are likely to see for a long time.

 

For a more general discussion of what constitutes a documentary, see Should historical films be like documentaries?

 

Should historical films be like documentaries?

It seems we’re in an age where relativism prevails. Taking American Idol as our touchstone, no-one wants to be seen “judging” whether sensitive youngsters have a natural sense of rhythm and can actually sing in tune. In the cinema, the same problem persists. When it comes to other people’s cultural preferences, those of us who write reviews are allowed to think a film is rubbish, but we’re not supposed to say so. Paying customers have the right to queue up for dross if they choose. So, when it comes to reviewing films like The King’s Speech, we’re to look the other way when the history is rewritten. For the paying customer, it’s supposedly irrelevant that reality has been warped to fit the story the director wanted to tell. It’s like using a drone to take out a terrorist. All the collateral damage is an unfortunate side effect. In our case, the uninformed viewers will be even more misled if they believe what they see on the screen to be true. But what people think happened in the past is hardly important, is it? I mean, who cares if Lionel Logue’s major effort to help Bertie was not in a crumbling basement, but on a yacht taking the Duke to Australia where he was due to give a major speech. It’s far more dramatic to have it appear Logue’s primary input was to build Bertie up to make “the” big speech to rally the Empire for what was to become WWII. Indeed, the need to maximise the drama, on its own, makes the rewriting of the past all right. After all, no-one gets hurt in any real way.

 

Except, Colin Firth’s magnificent performance could have been used to tell any story where the “cure” was to be put to the test. Any major speaking event would have sufficed to give us the feel-good factor when he was able to speak with some fluency. For example, The Blind Side (2009) offered us an inspirational Sandra Bullock steering Michael Other towards his selection in the NFL draft. It achieves its effect without being mawkish and by being relatively low key. Contrast The King’s Speech where the director felt the need to introduce all the complications of the Abdication and the politics of the build-up to the declaration of war. Unfortunately, he was then faced with major time constraints. There was no room for any of the historical detail. As time was compressed, even the daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, stayed the same age although the years were passing. The result was a superficial mess where reality was subordinated to the need to have Logue arrive slightly late and breathless at the Palace to be able to coach Bertie for his big moment. What rubbish! Or is it?

 

Some might argue that a film based on real events doesn’t have to be accurate. Thinking about the Oscars, accuracy would be a reasonable factor in the judging if there was an award for the best historical film. As it is, the process of making a film about real events is rather the same as adapting a book for the screen. When it comes to the Oscars, we’re solely interested in whether it’s a good film. How well the adaptation follows the book or historical reality is not the criterion. While I feel betrayed that a British team would so willfully misrepresent British history, others might say that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

 

I’m reminded of Anand Tucker‘s controversial Hilary and Jackie (1998) which supposedly tells the story of Hilary and Jacqueline du Pré. Many of those who knew Jacqueline were outraged and asserted the only reason it could be made is that you cannot defame the dead. This naturally leads me to ask whether film is ever capable of being a true historical record. Let’s start off by thinking about what history is. This is not a convenient bundle of facts we can pick up and examine. It’s a shifting mess of information that we continuously review and reinterpret for our own purposes. When you think about what happens to any individual during their lifetime, we cannot know everything. So we pick events that we say are significant and remember those. Except, the moment we start picking from the mass of facts and editorialising, we are inevitably remaking the past for our own purposes. This year, we choose to remember the good stuff about a national hero. Next year, it may be convenient only to remember the bad stuff about this terrorist.

 

If we call our film “fiction”, should the directors perhaps be allowed some latitude? Ah, but that’s the thin end of the wedge. Once we begin to offer different labels for our films, whether as historical fiction, as drama documentary or docu-drama, this changes the game. It becomes more dangerous because some labels are signalling a pretence of greater accuracy. For example, in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), Michael Winterbottom mixed real and staged footage in a faux cinéma vérité. Like many who make films, he was striving to create a sense of reality or credibility. If there was no actual film record, he created something that would “feel” right. When the events historically take place before the invention of cameras and we stage our version, everything is fictionalised. How the costumes are designed, the make-up is done, the scenes are lit, and so on: it all combines as our version of history. Similarly, when we see the label “bio-pic” or the phase “based on true events”, we should feel no greater confidence. At best, the life story is sanitised, omitting embarrassing details to protect reputations. At worst, key events are rewritten.

 

Slightly changing the basis of the debate, how should we react if the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) showed Anne being liberated from the concentration camp at the end of the war? Say the focus group thought the original ending too depressing so they reshot her being rescued by a smiling GI. Well, this is the well-worn SF trope of alternate reality. So Richard III (1995) has the King jump to his death rather than be captured, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) assumes the South won the Civil War, and Scott Free, the production company run by Ridley and Tony Scott, has announced its intention to make a version of The Man in the High Castle in which the Axis Powers win WWII. To my mind, all of this is fair game so long as you warn people in advance. This is no longer “historical” drama in which we see “real” people. Rather it’s a “what-if” drama showing how “real” people might have reacted had history turned out some other way.

 

It all comes down to how much faith people put in the validity of the labels. If people are led to believe a film is substantially accurate, then it should be. But if they understand that, for the purposes of making a “better” story, the director changed the facts to create more drama, they can have fun looking up the history to see which bits are fiction, i.e. they are not misled. To my mind, the failure to warn people of the extent of the historical revision is potentially dishonest. Hence this rather strange new phase, “Based on a true story” which we now take as a warning that the production company made up most of what we see on the screen. I think The King’s Speech should have carried a warning that major parts of the story were fictionalised. That would have played fair with the audience. Alternatively, the film should have been scaled down to show an ending with Bertie speaking in Australia. If a low-key approach works for films like Finding Forrester (2000), in which a shy young writer grows in confidence under the guidance of an established author, it would work for films about stammerers being shown how to speak in public. The King’s Speech doesn’t have to be an epic to be a success just as cinéma vérité doesn’t have to show real events.

 

My thanks to Angela-35 at imdb.com who prompted me to think about the issue and whose opinions are reflected in this piece.

 

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