Tag Archives: 3D

Hugo (2011): review

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)

We’ll never know for certain whether the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph audience really were so terrified by a moving image of a train entering a station that they screamed and ran for the door. It’s an enjoyable urban legend though, and one that appeals to our idea of cinema as an immersive, perfect illusion. Martin Scorsese stages the moment twice in Hugo (2011) and by doing so makes a fair case for the story’s veracity. After all, this is a 3D film, and the savvy 21st-century viewers of this film may well have been flinching and ducking at stereoscopic images of barking dogs and speeding trains – and even the terrified patrons of the Grand Cafe – bursting from the screen.

There is more to Hugo than such cheap shocks, though. Scorsese mostly uses his 3D technology not to reach forward but to create a deep stage, as Georges Méliès so often did, pulling the scenery away from the centre of the frame to reveal more fantastical images within. Hugo‘s astounding, wordless opening sequence plunges from the Paris skyline into a train station clock, where a small boy, our hero, is gazing out at the city – we then follow him through staircases, ladders, corridors and across the concourse in one breathless swoop. It’s at this point that I knew I would want to watch Hugo again – it’s a giddily beautiful shot, and would persuade the hardest heart that there is a place for the intelligent use of 3D in cinema.

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)

Inevitably, the pace drops after that, and the first half of Hugo is really rather a sedate, downhearted affair – particularly for a children’s film. Hugo (played sweetly by Asa Butterfield) is orphan. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, and he is adopted by his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone with a very slippery accent) – whose job it is to wind the clocks at the train station. When the uncle staggers out one day, never to return, Hugo decides to stay in the station winding the clocks and hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) so as to avoid the authorities. He steals food, and also scraps of clockwork to fix a melancholic automaton his father salvaged from the museum where he worked – sentimentally, Hugo believes that when the robot is working again, it will write him a message from his father. It’s a fond, foolish hope, made more metaphorically adorable still when we realise that the machine won’t work without a key: a heart-shaped key. However, the film is saved from treacly sentiment by the appearance of a young friend for Hugo, the bookish, restless Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and an enemy too: Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly toymaker, Papa Georges.

So much plot – and so many adorable flirtatious sub-plots among the station’s café-owners and stallholders – just to get us to the moment, about halfway through, when the automaton works, and we find out who Papa Georges really is. Now, the pulse of the film finally starts to race as the children voraciously explore the history of silent cinema, and the magical trick films made by Papa Georges in particular. Of course, Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (subtly played by Kingsley), and that’s no spoiler for readers of this blog. Scorsese’s recreation of Méliès’s studio is among Hugo’s most enjoyable sequences – the sugary colours, the pyrotechnics and lo-fi effects could be quaint, but these scenes are rendered with such love and attention to detail, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp cinephile thrill. For once, however, I am tempted to complain that this adaptation shouldn’t have been so faithful to its source. Brian Selznick’s pencil-illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a really gorgeous book, but its thin narrative feels even flimsier on the big screen, and spends a good hour pushing Scorsese away from the subject matter that is closest to his heart – and ours.

Hugo (2011)
Hugo (2011)

That said, Hugo has plenty to indulge a silent film aficionado – or to educate a young film buff. Harold Lloyd himself, dangling from the department store clock, and Hugo’s own, less jolly, homage; glimpses of Méliès at work and plenty of his films; the aforementioned Lumière moments; passing references to zoetropes and hand-tinting; even a clip reel of silent highlights. There’s also Baron Cohen’s broad slapstick, a nice sense of early 20th-century history and so many gorgeous movie posters in the background that you’ll want to leap up and freeze the projector. Hugo‘s biggest surprise is that the 3D enhances all this retromania. Whether or not we remember that the Lumières were aiming for 3D effect with that very first train movie, or that they subsequently reshot it with a stereoscopic camera, Hugo‘s look has a freshness and novelty that suits its subject matter. A switch of focus, a camera rushing along the station platform, a series of stepped cuts all look different in 3D – it’s as if we’re seeing these tricks for the very first time.

Hugo (3D) is released in the UK on 2 December 2011. And if you want to see some of Méliès’s films on the big screen – the Cine Lumière has two screenings planned for the weeks following the release.

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Chaplin in 3D. Wait, don’t run away

Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)
Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)

The reviews are already in for German film-maker Uwe Boll’s latest venture, and it isn’t even ready to view yet. “Worst idea ever,” said Anne Thompson on Indiewire. Wretched and doomed,” tweeted Roger Ebert. Thompson’s Indiewire blogpost reports that a representative of the German distributor Kinostar has approached a “major studio” with a pitch for “one 90 minute 3D movie titled Chaplin 3D – Little Tramp’s Adventure.” The plan involves the conversion of several Chaplin films into 3D, which will then be compiled into one feature-length movie. Retro-fitted 3D is rarely a happy experience, so even if the idea of Chaplin drunkenly tumbling down steps and into your lap, or skating wobbily past your nose, appeals, this doesn’t bode well. When you consider Boll’s critical reputation, which is somewhere between “joke” and ”criminal” this project is beginning to look disastrous. Led, perhaps, by Ebert, the reaction to the story on Twitter yesterday was of near-universal revulsion.

The truth is, there is more to this Chaplin in 3D story than meets the eye. Or both eyes. Clarification and elaboration arrives courtesy of a revelatory post by film preservationist David Shepard on the Nitrateville forum:

Serge Bromberg and I are among the people involved in this project. The principals, a film company in Istanbul which has been operating successfully for more than 70 years, is run by people of integrity; their proprietary 3-D conversion process is far superior to any other I have seen. Even the folks at Association Chaplin were impressed.

L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna or Technicolor scanned our earliest generation nitrate negatives to 2K and have done the highest quality of frame-by-frame image restoration of which they are capable for THE IMMIGRANT, THE RINK and EASY STREET. The films will be presented in b&w, at 20 fps, with new large-orchestra scores by Robert Israel, but in 3-D.

Obviously, Chaplin’s films are about performance; they are not highly pictorial films like, for example, those of Maurice Tourneur; we think they will look and sound wonderful and that the 3-D conversion does them no violence. We hope they will be rolled out first as family concerts with live orchestral performance, moving later on to other platforms with the recorded scores.

Obviously the intended audience is not the readers of Nitrateville, although you will not be excluded from attending the shows to see them for yourselves. If this project is successful it will be expanded to other silent films that can also deliver excellent experiences to 21st century audiences. We hope it will promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar. Think of it as a solution for one of the performance arts (along with opera and classical music) for which the present audience is rapidly aging out, and for which something innovative must be done to insure their survival.

So, the precious films are in the hands of the experts, not a multiple Razzie-winner, and we can be fairly certain that they will look and sound great, due to the restoration and rescoring work. Those who share Mark Kermode’s aversion to 3D in all its forms will still have qualms, of course, but Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo (2011) may well be about to charm cinephiles into a newfound love of stereoscopy. Chaplin himself shot 3D test footage for The Circus (1928), though the fact that he dropped the idea may tell us as much as the fact that he attempted it. He was also known, of course, to retrospectively rework his films, such as when he added a voiceover and music to The Gold Rush in the 1940s.

It is a little saddening to think that the way to “promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar” is to change them so radically. However, the recent re-release of Giorgio’s Moroder’s Metropolis has reminded us of the unusual paths many people take towards an appreciation of silent cinema. Could a three-dimensional rendering of Chaplin movies create a new generation of silent film fans, just as his colourised, intertitle-free Metropolis did in the 1980s?

As for Uwe Boll’s involvement? A red herring, or perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that he has worked with Geraldine Chaplin in the past (on 2005’s BloodRayne). Remember that Suzanne Lloyd has endorsed the 3D conversion of her grandfather Harold’s most famous scene from Safety Last.

I don’t need to tell you that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and doubtless we all have opinions on whether this project is likely to succeed in pleasing either existing or potential silent film fans. The Tramp is not quite in the perilous position we feared, and for now I recommend keeping an open mind.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) – coming soon

First it was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a charming children’s book by Brian Selznick. Then Martin Scorsese got hold of it and now it’s Hugo (2011), a 3D movie starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen,  Jude Law, and Asa Butterfield in the title role. Now the trailer has arrived, we can really see what it’s going to look like – and how it pays tribute to a hero of early cinema.

It looks very much like  the film is going to stick very closely to the book’s story, which is simple, but rather sweet. Hugo is a Parisian urchin who lives in a railway station, and befriends a grumpy toymaker – who just happens to be George Méliès. Hugo starts to learn more about silent cinema and the magical films made by his new friend, and tries to persuade him out of retirement. There’s a blossoming friendship between the boy and Méliès’s grand-daughter and a magical element in the form of an exquisite clockwork automaton that appears to be passing messages to Hugo from his dead father. Perhaps, judging by the trailer, Scorsese has built up Baron Cohen’s role as the station policeman a little – adding some broad slapstick that will probably appeal more to the kiddies than to the silent film buffs who will make up a minority of the audience.

George Méliès in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret
George Méliès in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Continue reading Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) – coming soon