Hugo (2011)

hugo1“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around, this is where they’re made.” – Ben Kingsley as George Melies

Hugo is the most curious of Martin Scorsese movies in recent memory. Nowhere within its frames do we see Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. There is a complete lack of profanity or violence, and yet it proves wholeheartedly that he is a masterclass filmmaker -– one of the best that we still have the pleasure of observing.

In this case, he took the story The Inventions of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and transformed it into a visual feast of turn-of-the-century Paris, while also crafting a love letter to the very roots of cinema.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is now an orphan and spends his days scrounging for food and trying to befuddle the stickler of a station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who is intent on sending all stray children to the orphanage. This is Hugo’s life as he fixes clocks living inside the labyrinth above the train station, and trying to rehabilitate a mechanical automaton that his dad was determined to salvage before he died suddenly.

hugo2Aside from the inspector, the station is full of a wide array of charming individuals who generally exhibit temperaments far more personable. However, the local toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) is rather an odd fellow, who keeps to himself, but Hugo is wrong to cross him. He’s not a bad man, but he makes the boy work for all the things he has purloined.

Hugo also gains a friend in Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an inquisitive girl who also happens to be Papa George’s goddaughter. The intrepid pair is intent on having an adventure and so they do. The automaton opens them up to the world of Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin, Fairbanks, and the like. Hugo used to go to the cinema with his father, but he’s incredulous that Isabelle has never seen a movie picture. Her godfather would never allow it, and that’s where the mystery of this film lies.

hugo3Hugo is a beautifully magical melding of the old with the new –- the mechanical and the visceral. Extravagant colors make Scorsese’s canvas pop. It works together like clockwork.

Asa Butterfield’s charm lies greatly in his piercing blue eyes that have a certain innocence as well as a degree of sadness. Chloe Grace Moretz has a twinkle in her eye and her lips are ripe with elaborate language. Literature and poetry rain from her mouth as someone who finds enlightenment in books just as Hugo finds a special place in movies.

These are children who seek adventure in the everyday, find purpose in the tides of life, and discover magic in the world that surrounds them. That’s what gives life color and vibrancy. It could be Paris circa 1931 or right in your own backyard right now. All that matters is your perspective and donning a pair of new eyes – leading to awe in all things whether big or small, extraordinary or mundane. Looking at the world with the wonderment of a child.

In the redemption of George Melies, we truly do see that out of the ashes and fading strips of celluloid beauty still manage to rise again. This is a beautiful, intimate, and innocent film. In an age when a lot of these things are lacking, it’s a breath of fresh air.

4/5 Stars

Review: Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's_List_movieWhat is there to say about Schindler’s List except that it is necessary viewing for its depiction of Shoah, suggesting that, literally, out of the ashes beauty and hope will rise. It would be rather callous to call Steven Spielberg’s film pure entertainment. True, he comes with a pedigree that includes such escapist classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. However, Schindler’s List is a far different creature and it is arguably his most significant film. It is so moving on a heart-wrenchingly beautiful level. Because great films are more than entertainment, pure and simple. They are affecting, tapping into some deep well inside of us that causes us to laugh, to cry, and have feelings.

Schindler’s List shows us the horrors of the Holocaust without dumbing them down. We see those getting shot. We see the naked bodies. We see the mass graves and the billowing ashes. It can be hard to watch. Abrasive in its content, but not in its form. The film itself is beautifully cast in black-in-white with the most moving of compositions by John Williams and poignant performances by many. But permeating through all of this is, of course, the tragedy, but with the tragedy comes the hope which is crucial to a story such as this.

Spielberg’s reference point is one man named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who not only was a war profiteer and womanizer but a member of a Nazi party. He’s not afraid of ingratiating himself with the right people to make a pretty penny off the imminent war because in his mind it’s all good business acumen. And aside from his affiliations, what’s not to like about him? He’s well-groomed, a gentleman, and charismatic. It still would be a far cry to call him a hero, at least not yet.

With his main motive still being money, he makes contact with a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who not only has the bookkeeping abilities he is looking for but also connections to the black market and Jewish investors. So as the ghettos in Poland fill up to the brim, Schindler is quick to capitalize, offering the Jews more practical resources in exchange for their money. They get something, but he’s the big winner. He begins to set up his factory for the production of pots and pans which proves to be a lucrative business, especially with most of the bigwigs on his side. At the same time, he takes on Jewish laborers since they’re cheap, and Stein is able to save them from a fate of a concentration camp or being shot.

Our primary villain, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is ordered to start a new camp and just like that the ghettos are closed and the Jews are forced out. He is a despicable creature and a sadist to the max, exemplified by the many people he shoots from his balcony in the mornings. There’s no provocation for it. He just does it because he can. He is not the type of man you can seemingly deal with normally, and yet being a man with immense charisma, Schindler does just that, all in the name of business.

But Schindler too sees the chaos, destruction, and killing that is going on. He can not try to underplay it now since he has seen it all firsthand. But there is a point in the film where his focus slowly evolves from a desire to make money to actually saving Jews from complete annihilation. The most obvious moment occurs after he sees the little girl in the red coat lying in a wagon, dead. Moments earlier he had seen her scampering through the streets, an innocent beacon of color amidst the chaos. What is the world coming to when a girl such as this can be killed for no apparent reason? It begs for a response from Schindler. He can no longer be a passive observer and so he does take action.

With the aid of the ever faithful Stern, Schindler is able to construct a list of over a 1,000 Jews to save from the concentration camps. As the war is going poorly for the Germans, Goeth is ordered to transfer his prisoners to Auschwitz, and although Schindler almost loses all his workers, he is able to save them by literally buying all their lives from Goeth. He spends his entire fortune to save them as well as ensuring that his armament plant does not actually make any working shells. It’s bad business, but it is all in the name of one of the greatest acts of humanity he could perform.

In one final word to the people, Schindler protects his Jews one last time, daring the Nazis working at his factory to kill them or go home to their families as men. They silently choose the latter, and he flees the camp as a war profiteer.  He breaks down looking at the few possessions he has left suggesting that more Jews could have been saved with them, but the Jews in front of him, represented by Stern, point out the great good he did. They bestow upon him a ring with the inscription: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

He is gone now and the story of Schindler’s Jews is not yet complete, because they do not know where to go, but they head out with purpose making their way towards the future. And it is in this moment that their story stops being a memory and breaks on into the present. It is a wonderfully powerful device from Spielberg that evokes an overwhelming flood of emotion. In a line of solidarity, the Schindler Jews walk forward toward the grave of Oskar Schindler. Nothing can quite explain the feelings pulsing through the body as we watch actors and their real-life counterparts laying stones on the grave of this man, much like the Israelites laying stones down in remembrance of what their God did for them.  In one final moment, Schindler’s wife lays one final stone and Liam Neeson lays downs a final rose and we see his imposing but solitary silhouette off in the distance. It’s magnificent, to say the least.

Out of the many scenes that become ingrained in the mind, there were two that especially resonated with me. One of them occurs when the children were trying to evade capture and imminent death. In such a life or death situation they willingly resolved to literally swim in the urine of the outhouse. Another scene that got an immense reaction from me was when all the naked women, with their hair now cut off, are herded into the showers. Both they and the audience think this is the end of their lives so it is almost a cruel trick when water begins flooding from the shower heads. I’m not sure the last time I have felt so much anxiety as an observer. It’s hard to discount.

There are so many great performances big and small, but Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are both superb. We always love a good anti-hero or at least a complex one, and Oskar Schindler fits that bill beautifully. Also, we love the same in our villain, and I must say although I absolutely despised Goeth for all his evil, I must admit that somehow I still felt sorry for him. He was only a cog in the machine, a lonely man who was really so insignificant, in spite of what he wanted to believe. He shoots Jews, beats them, and yet can have such a twisted and somehow intimate relationship with his Jewish maid Helen.

For over 20 years this film has been a beacon of hope and fragment of truth from a period of history that contains so much darkness. Hopefully, it can continue being that touchstone to the past so that there is never the danger that anyone would forget these catastrophic events, but also the heroes like Oskar Schindler who through their actions were able to do a great deal of good.

5/5 Stars

Schindler’s List (1993)

This film is one of the best biographical films and it highlights one of the monstrosities of humanity in the form of the Holocaust. It may be hard to watch and it is overpowering but the fact is the types of events depicted actually happened and must be recognized. The characters of Oskar Schindler and Ammon Goth further make the story come alive serving as a sharp contrast to each other.

From the beginning this film opens in black and white making you realize there is something special here. With Speilberg behind the camera, Liam Neeson takes on the role of Oskar Schindler. Historically, this German industrialist aided over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. Neeson skillful portrays his character revealing the turmoil and peril Schindler faced. The cast is rounded out nicely by Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes. The film effectively moves the viewer to ponder humanity and also causes us to praise Schindler. Fittingly the movie closes with many surviving Jews laying flowers on the grave of their savior.  

                                                         5/5 Stars