The atmospheric spacey melodies of Air, a French outfit known for their ethereal electronica, are back in (admittedly delicate) force on his album which is the soundtrack for the re-issued 110 year old George Melies movie, Le Voyage Dans la Lune.
A colour version of the film is about to hit the world festival circuit, after being found in 1993 and painstakingly restored, and Air, who have some history scoring movies with Sofia Coppola among others, have contributed this music to the re-issue at the request of the film’s restorers. It’s a perfect marriage. The movie, which was directed by Melies as a comedy, does have darker themes to it too – the intrepid astronauts of the film fight with Martians and even take one hostage – so Air’s ability to meld dark and light into one piece of aural magic complements the film’s tone, and sounds as if it were always part of the cinematic masterpiece.
The music throughout this album is quite beautiful and sounds like the perfect accompaniment to your day dreams. Evocative day dreams at that. It is lush, rich and almost symphonic, and it feels as if you should be wafting above the ground as you take it in. “Lava” with its choral overtones being a case in point. It is all quite apropos since it is, after all, the soundtrack for a space-themed movie.
In that vein, it is a soundtrack full of blips, beeps and sonic playfulness. “Sonic Armada”grooves and soars in that breathy way that Air have raised to an art form. So too “Cosmic Trip” is also jam-packed with bouncy drips and plops – it’s the only way I can adequately describe the jaunty sounds they have woven into the fabric of this song – and zips along, sounding dark and haunting, and joyfully exuberant all at once.
Quite a feat but given Air’s pedigree, it’s not really a surprise at all. They are two very talented men, and inspired by an equally clever Gallic predecessor, have crafted a body of music that is likely their finest yet. This is a worthy addition to their canon, and the perfect accompaniment to the whimsy and genius of George Melies.
The Artist is one of the best movies I think I have ever seen.
Granted, that is always a risky thing to say since I will no sooner declare that and another immensely creative, well-acted, beautifully shot and realised movie will come along and I will be in love all over again. But I think it’s going to take a while to surpass the sheer delight of this film.
Set in the late 1920s, and into the 1930s when the Talkies are about to revolutionise cinema, and the Great Depression is cutting a swathe of destruction through rich and poor alike, The Artist has much to say about pride and downfalls, the old guard and the new, and the ceaseless march of time that spares few people.
But even though it has some highfaluting philosophical ground to cover, and cover well, it is at heart the story of two people in love, who want each other, need each other, and end up saving each other. It could be trivialising this wonderful film to say it’s about love, true love, because that would make it sound like a cheap knockoff romantic comedy, but it is the love story between George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) that anchors this story, and gives it its emotional core.
The story starts with what is known in the movies as a “meet cute”. George Valentin is at the height if his popularity, the star of silent movies, charismatic, funny, a dashing leading man that everyone adores. He plays to this adoration every chance he gets and it’s at the premiere of his latest movie, A Russian Affair, that he meets Peppy Miller who falls out of the crowd when trying to retrieve her purse and into the path of a shocked, then bemused, then, when he realises that everyone is waiting expectantly for his move so they know how to react, his laughter.
There is an instant spark between the two, and though neither really acts on it in any tangible way, their subsequent interactions – including a memorable one when she is an extra on his next movie, A German Affair (see Hollywood was just as unimaginative then!), and he uncharacteristically forgets what he should be doing next – speak of a deep, unshakeable connection that lasts through the years, and ultimately saves them both.
But on their way to mutual salvation, Peppy becomes a massive star in the new Talkies movies, while George slides into penniless oblivion, rejecting Talkies as a fad, and thrown out by how voice (with whom he is also unable to communicate properly). Ignored by the fickle masses but not forgotten by the people that truly matter – Peppy and his driver, Clifton (James Cromwell) – George is too proud to reach out for help. He is left alone in his small apartment, pawning his goods, drinking alcohol and smoking like there is no tomorrow, and then when it all becomes too much, and he is alone watching his movies one night, a sad lonely audience of one, he breaks down, screaming at his image on screen that he is a loser, and setting fire to all his films.
Save one, The German Affair, which he is found clutching when he rescued from the fire. His rescue is thanks to the other great star of the film, his dog, Uggie, who acts in George’s movies, and is his constant faithful companion, and who alerts a policemen to George’s plight. It takes a while but George finally realises that Uggie, and Clifton, and Peppy have all stayed close to him even though he had descended into a morass of self pity, and have all played a part in saving him from his pride-filled self.
The Artist is emotionally rich, beautifully shot (the use of silent era credits and the diffused light that made them look slightly fuzzy is spot on), exquisitely acted, and a visual delight. I was so absorbed by the movie that the rest of the cinema faded into black, and the only world that mattered was this totally silent one before me.
Silent it may have been, but The Artist has a louder, more pure creative voice than any other movie you’re likely to see for some time.
There is hell, and then, as this show posits, there is Suburgatory.
It is a name so perfectly apt, I desperately wish I had come up with myself. Along with the overly-manicured setting, Stepford Wives-like personalities, and the preternaturally clever teens who trade sophisticated witty lines like they imbibed dictionaries, not milk, as babies.
It is the most witty, spot on look at the suffocating bonds of conformity at all costs that I have seen in some time and laugh-out-loud funny into the bargain (the scene where everyone is watering their lawns in unison in exactly the same way is comedy gold, and also deeply unsettling at the same time). But somehow in the midst of all the razor sharp satire, and dialogue so sharp you may cut yourself on it if you lean too close to the TV, they manage to retain little touches of humanity that stop the show from descending into one-joke parody.
The relationship between the protagonist, Tessa Altman (Jane Levy), who is uprooted to the weirdness of suburban life by her single dad, George Altman (Jeremy Sisto), is a case in point. While it’s fraught at times, it is ultimately warm and affirming, without being cloying and sentimental. It’s a nice balance, and one of the most believable father-daughter relationships I have seen portrayed in an American sitcom for some time.
Underwhelmed. Tessa expects a car and gets a… bike. Hmm…
Sure, they have their differences – in this episode their argument, as witty and clever as any other discussion they had in the episode, centred on how much Tessa should confirm to the plastic ideal around her. She was resisting mightily while her dad, out of concern for her acceptance in her new community, wanted her to try harder. In the end they compromised somewhat but it wasn’t some mushy harps-and-strings touching moment but a frank and honest recognition of what mattered to each of them.
Way to go Emily Kapnek, creator and writer of the show. It is refreshing to have humour spring from reasonably authentic relationships especially given the setting, by necessity given it’s a satire, is hyper real. The colours are super bright. The lawns cut precisely and luminescent green. Everyone is coiffed and tailored like newly minted store mannequins on Rodeo Drive. It’s eerily perfect and this is what unsettles Tessa, uprooted from the gritty imperfection of cacophonous Manhattan, so much.
And it’s why her attempts to make some sort of peace with her new home don’t go smoothly at all. It’s partly her reluctance to given an inch and partly the suspicion on behalf of everyone she meets that she’s a lesbian (she wears non-heterosexual shoes, according to her school “buddy”, Dalia Royce – Carly Chaikin – the most popular girl in school, and Tessa’s rival). That perception, which isn’t accurate by the way – her school counsellor by contrast, Mr Wolfe (Rex Lee) is as gay as they come – is a fun recurring joke through the episode and serves to underline that even the tiniest difference doesn’t go unnoticed by the good folk of Suburgatory, and is immediately seized upon as some sign of extremist behaviour. (It explains the current race for the Republican nomination for President and why extremism is more the currency of debate than good reasoned common sense.)
The cast (including Alan Tudyk, far left, as George’s dyed blond, spray tanned friend from college days)
The episode finishes off though with Tessa making a small but important accommodation with the new paradigms around her. She accepts, with much reluctance, a pink frilly bra from Dalia’s mum, Dallas (Cheryl Hines), only to admit to herself that “it is by far the prettiest thing I own.” It is one tiny step but a significant one. I don’t expect Tessa will yield much of what makes her distinctive because that’s not who she is, and we need her outsider’s view of things to stay undiminished.
But for her to survive in this brave heavily-produced land, she needs to cede some ground, and given she doesn’t have a mum, it makes sense it would be to Dallas, who, again refreshingly, isn’t some plastic cliche but a fully fleshed out human being.
This show is extremely promising – it is funny, so cleverly written, with actors who know how to deliver the lines perfectly, and a setting begging for more and more satire. I can’t wait to see what is pilloried next and I have no doubt that I will be laughing all the way.
Is there such a genre, in this ever more musically fragmented world, as Rastafarian-Funk-Tribal? Because if there is, then Jinja Safari should own it hands down.
Not that that is the dominant sound on this wholly unique album. It also possesses some Bon Iver dreaminess, or the folk sensibilities of Mumford and Sons, or the rich melodic strains of Coldplay. But even with all these stellar influences, this is an album that treads its own alternative path and makes its own much welcome statement.
It is, to use a completely subjective term, gorgeous. The harmonies alone, on tracks like opening number “Sunken House” or “Mud” are sublimely beautiful and a delight to listen to. They don’t necessarily craft what you’d call conventional pop songs and that is the album’s greatest strength I think. Not that conventional pop songs are a bad thing per se; I love them but so many other artists are doing them to greater or lesser effect.
Jinja Safari’s often otherworldly floaty melodies, which flirt with equal mix of tribal funk and electronic sweeps, are a sound all their own, and in today’s ADHD world where attention spans are measured in nanoseconds, you definitely need to be your hoist your own colours to the flagpole and make sure everyone sees (or hears) them. But I don’t get the sense that Jinja Safari have done this as any sort of deliberate strategy to stand out from this cacophonous cyber melee.
Rather, they sound gloriously authentically themselves with a sound that sounds organic, natural and better still, consistently strong through the album. That may be seen as weakness by the gods of eclecticism who crave artists who dash from one experimental rhythm to another with frenetic urgency but it’s anything but for this clever band.
They have been blessed to find an alternative sound all their own that is rich, packed full of delicious harmonies and melodies, and contagious beyond all reason. You will dance, sing-a-long like a deliriously happy madman, and always to a sound that is wholly Jinja Safari’s.
And for that in a musically fractured world of copycats, and instant memes, they should be congratulated.
I know it is much easier to tear down than build up, and people are often too cowardly to voice a differing opinion when the inflamed mob is of one brain-addled mind. Even so, it is like people have gathered together the cyber equivalent of an angry mob with flaming torches, and pitchforks, and have come to destroy the beast that threatens the joy of their idyllic pop existence.
And I am at a loss to work out why. Lana Del Rey, once Lizzy Grant, is hardly the first artist to rethink her musical direction, reassess and reinvent and boldly march off into new uncharted territory. Or possibly territory thoroughly explored by others, but determined to place her own unique stamp on it. Possibly she is a corporate construct as some allege, but again, she would hardly be the first.
So why the vitriol? Why has the pack mentality so completely taken over in the case of an artist who has simply tried to do something different to what she had done before? As Kristen Wiig cleverly said when impersonating Lana Del Rey on Saturday Night Live:
“Based on the public’s response, I must have clubbed a seal while singing the Taliban National Anthem.”
The real Lana Del Rey
Now I am not sure about the seal, but the Taliban National Anthem is most definitely not on the album. But what is on there is a collection of sultry songs that while they may suffer from perhaps a little too much production at times, are passionate slow-burning paeans to lost love and the hard times of life. While “Video Games” does certainly tower above everything else on the album – no other song really matches its goose bump-inducing melancholia – this is not the sonic dirge that many critics allege it to be.
Is it wildly innovative? Not especially (but then not every album can be, or has to be from any artist). Is it in the same league as Amy Winehouse’s smoke and whisky musical tour de forces? Again, no. But Ms Winehouse was a genius, whose like we shall not see again for quite some time. But does this diminish this album by comparison?
Of course it doesn’t. Lana Del Rey has crafted a set of songs that speak longingly of a hope for a better life. Slow sultry songs that do what these types of songs do best – decry the paucity of the human condition as we long for a better world we suspect isn’t possible, but which we desire with an aching urgency that it paralyses us at times.
Maybe her debut album won’t set the world on fire (although I am sure, like any artist, she is hoping it will). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable piece of music with some value. If anything, the hype that build up around the extraordinarily good “Video Games” probably doomed this album from the start since nothing on this earth can really live up to the vaulting hopes and expectations of consumers craving that new and exciting something or someone. And it’s highly likely that Ms Del Ray’s marketing team should not have promoted her to the hipsters first and then the mainstream record buying public second. It’s the former group that have turned on her, accusing her of being a corporate creation with minimal talent and not many prospects.
“Video Games” was released last June as part of a calculated strategy to establish her as a major talent-to-watch via viral marketing. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor especially new. In face, viral campaigns are now de rigeur for aspiring artists in any field. But should she have gone this route? That is now open to question given the backlash she’s encountered.
Still, flawed marketing strategies aside, what you can’t really hold her responsible for is people proclaiming her, which they effectively did on the basis of magnificent song, as the great white hope of musical innovation. Yes she started a marketing campaign to raise her profile, but she was not responsible for the mania that grew up around her as a result. That is entirely the creation of the hipster masses craving their next exciting pop culture fix.
Masses, who it should be noted, then proceeded to turn on her like rabid dogs when what they expected wasn’t delivered exactly as their fevered minds had conjured it up. That isn’t Ms Del Rey’s fault, its the pop culture addicts jonesing for their full length album fix.
So maybe the album isn’t a world beater, or a defining pop moment like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Was it really meant to be? It is her first major musical statement as this artist, and perhaps she, like many artists before her, needs time to grow into her art. Or like many other young pop ingenues before her, shake off her misguided Svengalis and sculpt her career the way she wants it.
Maybe then she won’t attract the ire of those who feel they have been sold a lemon, musically wise, and can concentrate on expressing herself the way she wants to, authentically and true to herself. But regardless of where she goes from here, I think the arbiters of pop culture taste need to ask themselves why they react so angrily to one artist releasing some music, because really that is all she did, and she doesn’t deserve the hatred of the screaming banshees she has attracted.
It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds, trust me. Well ok sometimes it is torturously awful, like every last gram of life force has been sucked from you molecule by molecule. You despair of ever gaining back those hours lost to entertainment so vapid, it makes some of our bimbo and himbo celebrities look like Nobel prize winners.
But occasionally, oh so occasionally a Hollywood blockbuster comes along that draws you in, suspends all your belief so comprehensively it’s like it never existed in the first place, and takes you on a ride so unthinkingly fun that you will never truly enjoy mere rollercoaster rides again.
Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (MI4: GP) is just such a movie, and what a thoroughly engaging ride it was, even with Tom Cruise occupying far more of your retinal time than is recommended by health authorities in most Western liberal democracies.
In fact, and I daresay I could be drummed out of the Cynical Moviegoers Club for even saying this – it wouldn’t matter much since I am an occasional member at best, usually when a recurrent meme amuses me – I actually enjoyed Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. He managed, quite against my expectations, to be vulnerable and real, in a movie which usually called for him to be brave, hung-ho, fearless, [insert stoic leading man quality here]. He was, yes, I must say it, quite good.
Now I have made that searing confession, in all seriousness, this was a brilliant action thriller. It was a consistently rewarding return to the blow-em-up, bash-em-up, chase-around-the-globe action thrillers I remember from my younger days. Movies which like Die Hard, Under Siege, and any one of the Schwarernegger movies. Movies which defied any reasonable grasp on reality, rolled like a pig in mud in a great messy pile of cliches and stereotypes, were chock full of characters with so much bravado they were just as likely to burst all over their enemies as slay them, and yet… and yet… they were absolutely brilliantly entertaining.
IM4: Ghost Protocol had all of those qualities. It was bombastic. Hyperbolic. Gloriously deliriously over the top. And it was a total delight to watch with some added post-modern touches to add to the classic action movie gloss.
The bad guy for instance, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyquist), wasn’t some pantomime cliche, over-explaining his elaborate scheme mere moments before Ethan Hunt foiled him. I mean, he was even Swedish for goodness sake! These are the people who bring you snow bound pine forests, ABBA and IKEA (to draw on a few random cliches of my own), not potential nuclear armageddon.
There were lovely touches of humour too in a movie which its bad ass credentials in a chunky gold chain around its neck with matching knuckle busters on its bulging right hand. The source of pretty much all of it was Simon Pegg, who reprised his role from Mission Impossible 3 (2006) as Benji Dunn, but this time as a field agent, something that initially catches Ethan Hunt off guard. But he managed to be funny and restrained at the same time, and once again the producers of the movie, which included the incomparable J. J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Star Trek reboot), don’t go overboard, and Benji is allowed as much credibility as an agent as he is the fount of comic goodness.
The rest of the team too were allowed their brief emotional moments in the sun. They were as well-rounded as you can reasonably expect of any character in any action movie, especially secondary characters. Naturally Mr. Cruise got the lion’s share of Significant Emotional Moments but the team weren’t neglected and the movie was all the stronger for it since a lot of what the team did after that made much more sense since you believed they were, you know, a team.
If all that wasn’t enough, the movie even had a reasonably believable narrative. The idea that someone could gain control, with frightening ease, of a nuclear weapon, launch codes and a satellite isn’t all that 1960s James Bond-ish fantastical anymore, and while it was thwarted (like that’s a spoiler – of course Ethan wasn’t going to leave the world a smouldering ruin!) with a little too much ease, you didn’t mind because everyone played it straight. Even swept up in all the nonstop full-on action, the story had some degree of authenticity and so the suspension of any disbelief didn’t spend the entire movie desperately trying to stay aloft.
Yes, this is a classically good action movie, updated with a good heaping’ helpin’ dose of post modern sensibility, emotional gravitas, reasonably well rounded characters and a plot that actually had a modicum of consistency and believability to it. That meant that you totally bought the Kremlin blowing apart, or Ethan plunging 100m down a car park in a BMW (oh yes there was product placement – a whole garage of Beemers for instance) or abseiling 113 floors above the desert floor of Dubai. Well… mostly.
Build an over the top action movie like MI4: GP with a foundation of truth, or at least truth as Hollywood perceives it, and the crowds will love it. At least the one I was in did even in occasional downpours of rain (Open Air Cinema, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney). We didn’t mind getting Blockbustered one bit, and I suspect neither will you.
Zola Jesus, or as her mum calls when she’s angry, Nika Rosa Danilova (from oft cold and frigid Wisconsin which explains the Icelandic sensibilities), is a woman who, like Kate Bush and Bat For Lashes, treads her own musical path, heeding not the siren song of mainstream ordinariness.
And that my friends is a very good thing for all of us.
Her music, which dares any one genre to come and call her their own, possesses a haunting pop-influenced spirit that is almost more art than music. But even so, it’s not pretentious or precious; just heart-achingly beautiful.
It is entrancing music. It is anthemic in parts, moody and obtuse in others, but always rich, full and powerful. Listening to it, you can imagine her standing on a mountaintop, drums in hand, hair flying wildly behind her, calling out to the gathering dark. Yes, much like a weird Ukrainian Eurovision entry with the strange grandmother and her pet goat who walks on at a completely narrative-challenged point. But with music that is so good, so unusual, so pagan and tribal, that it connects with something inside of you that wants to join her on that windswept snowbound mountaintop.
Yes it’s animalistic . But it’s also passionately beautiful music. It’s been described by some as electro-industrial-pop-punk which is the world’s way of saying we couldn’t categorise you if our lives depended on it but we like your music more than we can say. “Seekir” is the song that most categorically sits in the pop firmament. It starts off with a sparse, almost ghostly chant before building to the sort of beat that would be happily at home on a retro dance floor. Granted a song that houses two such discordant musical directions should sound like some Dr Moreau-like sonic abomination but it doesn’t, and it is testament to the giftedness of Zola Jesus that it is captivating beyond reason.
In contrast, but just as much a delightfully odd melange of pop and otherworldly darkness, “Hikikomori” is all softly pounding synth beats, with Zola’s powerfully yet almost voice fracturing through the melody like a mourning spirit seeking solace by calling out its pain. It is starkly poignant and yet beguilingly poppy.
And that is what sums up Conatus perfectly. It defies genres, skips merrily between remote but accessible ice-cold melodies and almost danceable pop, and possesses an elegance and grace counterbalanced by more raw animalistic sensibilities. It is a glorious cocktail of contradictions, and one of the most unique albums you will ever own.
Your music collection will never be ordinary again.
Women on the 6th Floor is a movie obsessed with class, race, money and power.
But wait, it’s not as grim as that sentence makes it seem. In fact, the movie is a delight focusing on the great changes that many Western societies saw take place in the early 1960s, when the movie is set.
While most film makers shy away from issues like class or race, especially in what is ostensibly a comedy, not so writer-director Philippe le Guay. His semi-autobiographical tale of a young Spanish maid who quite by accident upends a set-in-its-ways upper class Parisian household manages to weave a whole host of thorny untouchable topics into its story, and do so without being patronising or relying on superficial stereotypes. That’s quite an achievement.
It would have been so easy to rely on cliches, and plenty of movies have done that constructing movies that coast along on cheap laughs, and lightly constructed characters who are essentially one joke wonders. But Women… charts a different course, touching on the cliches of course since it’s impossible to avoid them, but using them to construct a clever and engaging portrait of a society, and a family in upheaval.
The family in question is that of the Jouberts, headed by pedantic stockbroker, Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini), who is desperately bored with his existence, though he doesn’t know it yet. The barometer of how good his day will be is how well his boiled egg is cooked in the morning, which sounds petty but means the world to him in his suffocating sclerotic world.
His relationship with his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a mere shadow of its former self, and her world is filled with exhaustion, ennui and endless shopping trips. Her life in particular has become so predictable that Jean-Louis is able to tell her at one point exactly what she did when, simply because he knows what day it is. It is emotional intimacy so much as it is over familiarity.
Their relationships with their sons is equally emotionally distant with the boys away at boarding school most of the time. Even when they are at home, the family is at odds with itself, with no one party really knowing the other, or if the truth be told be told, caring to know.
Into this fossilised existence comes the bright force of Maria Gonzalez (Natalia Verbeke) who arrives in Paris to join her aunt and a host of other Spanish maids, who are now in vogue as domestic helpers among the idle rich of early 60s Paris. She moves into the 6th floor of the Jouberts’ building, which they have owned for seeming millennia, where laughter and camaraderie are plentiful but the toilet is broken and other amenities are few.
Thanks to the departure of the Jouberts’ old maid from Brittany, who leaves in disgust at the family’s coldness towards the death of the family matriarch, Maria quickly scores a job, and thanks to her winning ways with boiled eggs, scores the approval of Jean-Louis and his family.
But while she is a force for change in the Jouberts’ lives, she is no Mary Poppins, and harbours secrets, and sadness, of her own. Even so she and Jean-Louis, begin to see in each other the person who might be the key to the expression of the unspoken longing for a better life that neither can quite articulate.
It is however a long road to the realisation of change and involves upper class Jean-Louis growing closer and closer to the maids on the never visited 6th floor. It is not necessarily an attempt to gain the attention of Maria; Jean-Louis is, at heart, a decent caring man who treats the maids as equals to the surprise of those around him.
The joy of the movie is that no character descends into the murky depths of stereotype. Yes Jean-Louis’s wife is drifting aimlessly through life, and emotionally estranged from her husband, but when both she and Jean-Louis realise what changes are unexpectedly in train, she doesn’t revert to a ‘bitch’ stereotype. Her feelings and responses are treated with just as much validity as the more sympathetic characters like Jean-Louis and Maria, which is a rare thing indeed.
Similarly the maids are not treated as simply Spanish peasants come to the big city to make good. While they are presented as the ebullient antidote to the Jouberts’ joyless existence, they are not portrayed as celebrating simpletons, unaware of the dark complexities of life. Their lives are shown to be as complex and layered as anyone else’s in the movie and they are never simply caricatured foils for their Parisian employers. They ‘rescue’ Jean-Louis in a great many ways it’s true, but he also goes to great lengths to change their lives too, and their interactions throughout are those of equals who simply happen to be from different countries and societal strata.
But this is no preachy movie despite the lessons learned. Yes it is about class, race, money and power. But it’s also funny, touching, and heart-warming in that non-syrupy sweet way that Europeans seem to manage so effortlessly. Above all you will appreciate that regardless of the differences that divide, that it is basic humanity that, in the end, will always out and that binds us together.
And you will laugh while doing it. You can’t really ask for more.
Hugo, by famed director Martin Scorsese, is first and foremost a creation of great beauty.
Filmed in 3D, which is used to great effect to draw us into the magical world of 1920s Paris, and specifically the Gare Montparnasse, where an orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) scurries around, sight unseen fixing the clocks which dominate the massive railway station. Naturally he is pursued at every opportunity by a nemesis, the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose entire sense of self worth is invested in discharging his duties as the upholder of the law. For both of them, the Gare Montparnasse is the beginning and the end of their worlds, the place they’re safe, after both have suffered traumas that have caused them to retreat from the world of large.
Of course, in a movie that looks and feels like a fairytale sprung to glorious technicolour life, their small flawed worlds don’t stay that way for long. For the station inspector, this revolves mostly around wooing the flower seller, Lisette (Emily Mortimer) but for our protagonist, Hugo, the tableau opens far wider, and far more gloriously, after what seems to be a disastrous development – being caught thieving from the shop of George Melies, once an innovative and legendary film maker, now simply a shopkeeper selling small clockwork toys.
While the man, who is simply called Papa George for much of the film, immediately brands Hugo a thief, and takes away a beautiful notebook that Hugo guards with his life (the only thing he has left of his father, played by Jude Law, along with an automaton they were both fixing when his father died), this traumatic event opens up a whole new world of possibilities for both characters.
This happens largely through the intense friendship Hugo develops with the girl who is revealed to be Papa George’s god daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). She agrees to help save the notebook from the fire, but only if Hugo takes her on a grand adventure.
It turns out to be the grandest adventure of both their lives. Secrets are revealed, lives are restored to their full glory, and people who were searching for a purpose and a sense of who they are, find that happy endings are possible. It’s all done though in a way that isn’t mawkishly sentimental, or so corny you can make popcorn from it; rather the emotional interactions are believable, the discoveries poignant, and the redemption of flawed and broken people heartwarming.
Best of all, it is told in a style that is utterly engaging. You are drawn fully and completely into the small busy world of Gare Montparnasse almost from the start as one continuous camera shot takes you along a platform, bustling with passengers and then into Hugo’s furtive, hidden world, which opens up to reveal a station of people all searching for somewhere to belong. Scorsese, a master film maker if ever there was one, evokes a visual style that is lush and light-filled when it needs to be, and a closed and dark at others. But whatever the mood being evoked, it is never less than all engrossing, and you feel like you are walking through the world these fully 3D characters, in every sense of the word, inhabit.
It is world you are loathe to leave, so beguiling is it, but when you are forced to leave it behind, it is with a skip in your step, and a song in your heart, as all of the characters, through trial and tribulation, bravery and emotional leaps of faith, find some form of the happy ever afters that all of us, after all, seek.
Hugo is a delight and a triumph, both visually and emotionally a movie of great beauty and one that will delight anyone who believes life can snatch hope and redemption from the jaws of grim reality.
I have had Muppet voices talking in my head for over 24 hours and I couldn’t be more delighted. After much too much time apart, I have spent quality time with the delightful icons of my childhood, and it was, without exception, every bit as good as I remember it.
I was a little worried, I’ll be honest. While there is no doubting the dedication of Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), one of the producers of the movie, and lifelong fanatical Muppets fan, to bringing the Muppets back front and centre into the zeitgeist, I wasn’t sure if it would be like old times. Sure, the reviews had been good, no great, so that inspired a great deal of confidence. But I had tried to go back so many times to re-visit cultural touchstones of my youth, to mixed results. I really wanted this to be one of those reunions I would place in the “It’s Good to Be Back” file.
Thankfully it was, and a whole lot more. Jason (who plays Gary in the movie) and his fellow producers have captured the sweetness and plain silly humour of The Muppets to dazzling effect. It was like meeting an old friend, and finding out that while they have largely stayed much the same, they have also updated in small and culturally relevant ways without sacrificing an iota of who they essentially are (Animal is a perfect example; he’s still Animal but undergoing that most modern of rituals – self help).
The movie is a joy. The opening musical number alone, “Life’s a Happy Song”, is worth the price of admission. It celebrates the joy of having someone special by your side to go through life with, and features some inspired moments of hilarity such as when Gary and his brother Walter (a Muppet, although no one really come out and says that till near the end) try to rhyme the next lyric with “fishes”, or when Gary, Walter, and Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams) get on the bus to Los Angeles, and the towns people, who have danced up a storm in the centre of town collapse from exhaustion and say “Thank goodness they’re gone!” (or words to that effect).
From that point on, the movie, which centres on Walter’s attempts to get his idols, The Muppets, back together again for one last show to save their now decrepit theatre from an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), leaps gleefully from a funny or touching song to hilarious sight gag (Kermit’s first appearanceto laughter-inducing fourth wall jokes (where The Muppets acknowledge they are in a movie) such as “travelling by map” (which is faster than normal travel) or the suggestion being made, and naturally taken quite seriously, that it would speed up the regrouping of the rest of the gang if they did by montage rather than rounding up everyone one by one.
Granted the humour isn’t postmodern hip and clever, but frankly, if it had been, I would’ve been disappointed. That type of humour, if cleverly written, works wonder for Shrek and Despicable Me. But this movie works because it doesn’t attempt to needlessly update The Muppets to make them “relevant”, and focuses instead of showcasing why Jim Henson’s creations were so popular in the first place. They are sweet and likeable sure, but they are just a little crazy in the best possible way, and even dare I say a bit subversive. They aren’t like everything that’s around right now and that’s just the point.
I think it was a masterstroke to play to The Muppets classic strengths. They are delightfully silly, joyfully daggy (to use a delightful Aussie term for slightly old-fashioned), and innocent in an age of porn and HBO, but that’s why people keep coming back to them. There is a tendency these days to update everything whether they need to be or not, but the thing is, The Muppets don’t need updating. Throw in a few up-to-the-minute meta jokes sure, but what works for this movie is playing The Muppets as they are.
Of course you can’t escape that they have slipped into a cultural irrelevancy of sorts with the younger generation. While anyone over 30 will remember them with fondness, the younger generation, if we’re honest, has little affinity for them. But that’s where the movie succeeds too. It acknowledges this decline in zeitgeist relevancy, plays on it beautifully as The Muppets have all scattered to the four winds, forced into seedy obscurity by a world that’s left them behind.
But it doesn’t then confront it by wilfully changing who The Muppets are, or making them the object of some sort of knowing post modern spoof. It simply lets The Muppets be themselves, and a world sorely in need of their whimsical humour embraces them wholeheartedly as the movie’s finale gloriously celebrates.
Yes folks, the gang is back together, they are still very much loved, and this movie is testament to the fact that classic characters never truly die. Especially, if you’re The Muppets. All you need is a wacka wacka here and mee-mee-mee there, and you’re back in gloriously silly technicolour as if you never left.