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Hugo, The Descendants et al

March 2, 2012 21 comments

 

Hugo has, for a considerable portion of its swiftly elapsing running time, a grand alchemy about it, as though Scorsese has bottled this up for a while and unleashed it as his last word. That’s how it often feels: a conscious fulcrum, a summation, a tribute to an art form. It’s also great fun: Asa Butterfield sneaks, sprints and scurries amid the unseen byways backstage at a Paris railway station, jinking impishly along forgotten corridors and clattering up dusty stairwells to fulfil his inherited and diligently preserved clock-keeping role. Ben Kingsley as George Melies nowadays runs a toy shop at the station, and the two become crucially embroiled, via Melies goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, best thing in the film), some stolen items pertaining to a coveted silver automaton and, of course, the serendipities and compulsions of fate and narrative arcs that are the stuff of movies. It doesn’t seem fair to quibble, but Scorsese is perhaps too close to this for it to breathe as much as it might’ve. There isn’t a frame that feels scruffily spontaneous, and some of the thrills seem crushed by zealous propriety or immaculate orchestration. This is a mounted and polished effort, which somehow seems strangely at odds with the frenetic, boyish Melies (Kingsley in great form) bustling around his chaotically wondrous sets, grandly recreated here.  Scorsese obsessively throws images of clockwork and clicking geometrical precision at the viewer and the effect is hypnotic but perhaps too freighted with insistences of legacy and wilful prestige. Regardless, there’s plenty of magic here, largely due to the great child leads.

The Descendants is a gently scathing return (overdue: he’s not Kubrick painstakingly assembling Napoleon each time, is he?) from Alexander Payne, which never quite hits his previous heights, and has George Clooney wrestling with two kids he barely knows after his estranged wife ends up in a non-returnable coma following a waterskiing accident. Cue unwelcome revelations of the adulterous sort and a troubling, sizeable family legacy he has potentially party-poopering final say over.Hawaii’s hardly an apt cinematic place in which to plonk beleagured characters that might evince maximum empathy, regardless of Clooney’s voiceover suggestions that ‘…paradise can go fuck itself.’ This isn’t hard times in Skidsville: Clooney is an affluent bumbler with a paunch whose job consists, like so many in film, of having a sprawling desk laden with teetering stacks of important looking documents you can scarcely see the protagonist recalling the import of. He also co-owns a large chunk ofHawaii as well. But money isn’t everything: inevitably reconnecting with your family is, as well as being a nice guy and forgiving your cheating, soon-to-die wife. The film, in any case, possesses some genuine belly laughs, is great fun and Clooney as slob is impressive enough. Robert Forster, though, who is barely in it as Clooney’s father-in-law, delivers the more memorable of the performances as a codger with a decent rabbit punch.

Certified Copy is much touted, possibly because it contains an awful lot of supposed intellectual extemporising and concomitant tortured air, maybe because it’s so deliberately unwelcoming (other than the majesty of the largely ignored Italian countryside – these people are serious), or even, perhaps, as it purportedly interrogates notable matters – authenticity, idolatry, existence, identity through art, etc – and isn’t deterred by piffling troubles such as being particularly compelling. The script is probably worth getting hold of. As a film, Certified Copy is admirably difficult but divulges nothing and bleats an awful lot. It’s the kind of film you wouldn’t want to deter in any way, but actually watching this one is often tedious. And Juliette Binoche tries too hard to appear unactorly and ends up looking graspingly odd.

The Guard is a bleakly hilarious romp, set on the Irish west coast, which is gleefully determined to draw shock-laughs at which it plentifully succeeds. Brendan Gleeson is great casting exemplified as a conventionally unconventional small town Garda firebrand of aimlessness suddenly given more to do than he’s entirely happy about as murderous drug-smuggling thugs, including the ever superb Mark Strong, head to town and snuff out another local copper (would they really require the services of more than one in this part of the world?) as pretty much an afterthought. Gleeson’s gruff quipper is soon thrown in with square black FBI suit Don Cheadle, ample script opportunity to tease out guffaw-worthy racist humour and subsequent cantankerously chortlesome ripostes. It’s a tremendous effort that’s simultaneously hard-edged and benevolent and unsurprisingly broke Irish box office records.

Cowboys and Aliens is an oddity: completely standard western meets alien interlopers on the one hand. Well, as standard as that premise could get. And as uninteresting as you could possibly render such a potentially outlandish scenario. Lots of uninspired CGI clogging the screen, explosions and wide-eyed gun-toting and very few characters you’re too engaged as to the fate of. Plenty of widescreen frenzy behind which you can almost feel the presence of blue screen and weary mouse-pointers swooping about. And yet someone forgot to tell Daniel Craig, who won’t have any of it and puts in a performance that really makes a mockery of the film, so tenaciously commited is he. Harrison Ford is also in it, and is in a lazy comedy bad mood throughout. He doesn’t even phone it in: he scribbles it on a scrap of paper, rolls it up into a ball and tosses it over the fence on his way to the pub.

The Rum Diary was disastrous for the 45 minutes I lasted. I do have a soft spot for the Hunter S Thompson novel, though, so my being infuriated at the pernicious liberties taken with the source dialogue perhaps clouded a correct and fair appraisal. Badly cast, shot, scripted, with a horribly uneven, capering-then-sober-then-hey-how-about-some-wig-comedy tone, terrible locations, nil dramatic interest and lifeless exchange following drab, surreally uninvolving scene. Totally misjudged.

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