Alternate Title: Lights, Camera, ...
One sentence synopsis: An orphan boy and the goddaughter of the first filmmaker try to solve the riddle of an automaton connected to silent films
Things Havoc liked: Martin Scorsese is the great film director to ever live. That's not a statement I make lightly, but there you have it. I have literally never seen a film of his that I disliked, even if some were, of course, better than others. And while this movie was not what one might normally expect to see from him, such is his draw in Hollywood, that he contrived to pull an incredible cast together for the purposes of it. Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, and Sascha Cohen (yes) among others are in this film, and, as one might expect, every one of them turns in an excellent performance, even Jude Law, who almost never does. Particular acclaim should go to Ben Kingsley, who plays Georges Meliers, one of the world's first real filmmakers, now an embittered old man selling magic tricks and toys from a train station shop.
But the two stars of the movie are actually the kids, specifically Asa Butterfield as Hugo, an orphan who lives in the work spaces of the Montparnasse train station in Paris, evading security guards, stealing food, and keeping the clocks in working order (for reasons that actually make a degree of sense), and Chloe Moretz as Isabelle, adopted daughter of Meliers, who befriends him. I've been a big fan of Moretz since both Kick Ass and Let me In, both awesome films in which she stole the show as something you wouldn't normally see a kid doing. As to Butterfield, I've never seen or heard of him before, but if anything, he does even better than Moretz. Both kids hold their own in this movie, and when you're doing that while Ben Kingsley is on the screen, you know you're doing something right. Neither one is the steriotypical cute kid, and both do awesome jobs, including scenes with real dramatic requirements that both of them (particularly the boy) sail through effortlessly. Forget stars in the making, these kids are simply stars.
Nothing about this movie looks or feels like a Scorsese picture, but that's not a bad thing. The shots are gorgeous and full of whimsy and life, without lapsing for an instant into fantasy. Paris is one of the world's great cinematic cities, and whatever the CGI involved, it definitely shows in here. The film is set vaguely in the early 30s or so, but there's no Depression era nonsense involved. It's a gilded age of a gilded city shot lovingly by a spectacular director who knows how to establish every shot.
The story is nothing tremendously special, but that's because it serves as an excuse for the real subject of the film, a loving tribute to the wonder of film, via an examination of one of its earliest advocates. Georges Meliers, for those who've never heard of him, was one of the first people to use film to create stories and art, rather than just a sideshow penny arcade attraction. His films, of which there were nearly five hundred, invented everything from practical effects to narrative storytelling through shot selection. Everyone from DW Griffith to Sergei Eisenstein were inspired by Meliers, who practically invented an entire form of artistic expression. Scorsese is plainly using this movie to pay homage not just to Meliers, but to the medium of film to begin with, and this love for film and its magic infuses the movie so much that there's no need for overt fantasy, for the whimsical sense is there between the shots. This movie was a love story to its own medium, and it shows.
Things Havoc disliked: The story in this film is pretty forgettable, due to the fact that it's not the main purpose, but merely an excuse for Scorsese to have his love affair with early cinema. This isn't my problem. My problem is the pacing.
The pacing in this film is awful.
You might think this is a bit of a nitpick. It's not. The entire first half of the film is so slow that it verges on absolutely unwatchable. NOTHING fucking happens. So much time is taken in establishing shots that the movie looks like a travelogue. So many subplots and extraneously un-necessary characters are brought into the mix that the film risks collapsing. The same damned chase scene occurs at least five times, and some of the characters, particularly the station agent played by Cohen, are given huge blocks of time to establish themselves. Normally that would be a good thing, but nothing fucking happens there either, and the character is not established further, simply placed on screen to act weirdly over and over again. Half an hour into this film, I was on the verge of walking out, something I didn't even do to The Last Airbender.
Now, granted, the film did get better as it went on, but never did it fully escape the almost unbearably slow pace that it had established. When I finally left the theatre, it felt like the movie had run for about two and a half hours. The real runtime was ninety minutes. Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is too short, and no bad movie short enough. This one feels like it's actually never gonna end. The pace is so slow that great stretches of the movie are simply... well... boring. No matter what effort the actors put in or how sweeping the imagery or lovely the idea of the movie, it fails to entertain. No failing is ever as bad as this one.
Final thoughts: I really don't know where to go on this one. A movie I threatened to walk out of is definitionally not a good movie. And yet looking back, I don't feel any ill-will towards it. The parts of it that work really work, and there's something inescapably charming about the whole thing. The last couple days have softened my view on the thing somewhat, and while I wouldn't call it the masterpiece that most critics seemed to, I'm coming around to the idea that it wasn't as bad as I originally thought. The pieces are all here for a great movie. It's just a shame that Martin Scorsese forgot to make one.
Final Score: 6/10