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The Artist, Hugo Pay Homage to Classic Films

Two new flicks honor silent movies with magical results.

“You've tried to forget the past for so long, but it has caused you nothing but unhappiness. Maybe it's time you tried to remember.”

Those words were spoken by the wife of a famous filmmaker in Martin Scorsese’s magical “Hugo.” Her husband had long abandoned his life as a director and she is trying to get him to watch a print of one of his old pictures.

But in reality, she was also talking to Scorsese, whose film pays homage to an extremely important era in film history that’s now mostly forgotten: silent films.

Sure, we all know who Charlie Chaplin is, but how many of us have actually sat down and watched one of his films? Seen the Tramp bumble his way through the factory? Or seen the waif-like sleepwalker Cesare emerge from the shadows? Or seen that ill-fated baby carriage fall down the Odessa Steps?

I know I wouldn’t have except for a few undergraduate classes where I learned names like Lumière, Méliès, Eisenstein and Griffiths, the pioneers of silent cinema.

Now, in a cinematic landscape dominated by green screen, explosions and four-letters words, silent movies are something to be studied in academia rather than viewed for fun.

But this winter, two films have emerged that pay homage to the beginning of cinema: Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” Both are enchanting movies that bring a seemingly dead genre to life, but both go about that feat in very different ways.

Review: The Artist

“The Artist” does so by recreating the genre in painstaking detail. It’s in black and white and almost completely silent (note the almost. I won’t spoil it here, but the addition of sound in a few key scenes is nothing short of brilliant).

It stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a Douglas Fairbanks-esque silent film star who’s at the top of his game until this newfangled thing called the “talkie” threatens to bring down his career. It does work in the favor of beautiful ingénue Peppy Miller, though, played by Bérénice Bejo. The story is simple, but filled with precisely choreographed comedic set pieces, bright music and the cutest damn dog you’ve ever seen (between this and “,” 2011 has been a good year for Jack Russell Terriers in the movies).  

This silent film is so touching and lovingly created, it’s just a pleasure to watch, especially those scenes where Dujardin shows off his nimble physical comedy chops. The movie’s best asset, though, its lack of dialogue, also works against it at times. Because of the silence, the story is unable to go beyond simple communications and basic interaction, leaving the 100-minute running time slugging. We want to care about these characters, but they just don’t quite support the running time. This could have been an extremely lean and charming 45-minute short.

While “The Artist” comments on silent film by recreating it, “Hugo” does so does by inserting their spirit into a 21st century production.

Review: Hugo

Based on the 2007 book  “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” “Hugo” is a magical, picturesque film that walks the line between fantasy, historical, family, action and comedy. It takes place in post-war Paris where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a grandiose train station after his inventor father died in a fire. He scampers around the hidden bowels of the station, like a cute Hunchback Of Notre Dame, fixing the station’s clocks and watching the travelers and shopkeepers. In nearly silent sequences, we meet two lonely dog-owners, a sweet flower shop girl and a security guard (Sasha Baron Cohen lovingly channeling any number of silent film comedians), who acts like a crippled, inept Inspector Javert. 

One day, Hugo is caught stealing by a stern toymaker (Ben Kingsley) and begins to work for the man. He also meets the man’s adopted granddaughter Isabelle (a plucky Chloe Grace Moretz), a precocious pre-teen longing for an adventure like she reads about in old novels. She gets her wish when Hugo discovers a mysterious link between his father’s pet project, rusty automaton, and the heart-shaped key worn around Isabelle’s neck. The mystery leads them to a secret about the toymakers and the discovery of the magical world of cinema.

“Hugo” is a gorgeous film to look at, photographed with breathtaking detail and clarity. Even the 3D, a medium I generally dislike, works amazingly well and feels like an integral part of the cinematography rather than a cheap, throwaway gimmick.

On face value, “Hugo” seems like a big departure for Scorsese and, besides the opening tracking shot, it is. But it’s clear that this is a deeply personal project for him, an exploration into film history and the magic of cinema. 

Like “The Artist,” “Hugo” wants us to look back at the beginning of moviemaking. But both also connect to the present. When the talking picture burst onto the scene, it changed the technology of filmmaking, causing studios to change all their equipment and theaters to close or completely redesign. It is no coincident that the movie was produced in a climate when digital and 3D are changing the way we make and watch movies.  With “Hugo” that becomes even more evident as Scorsese uses that latest technology combined with silent film style.

History has never been so entertaining. 

What I'd See This Week

  • For some drama —  “My Week With Marilyn"
  • For some whimsy — "Hugo"
  • For the family — ""

New On DVD This Week

Denise morris Curt December 11, 2011 at 03:05 PM
Hugo is a visual feast for the eye and spirit lifting hopefulness. A grand film of beauty, the rapture of Paris and gentle snow caressing your face in CD, a happy ending which is a welcome finale for the child in all of us. "Anonymous" for its magnificent ancient music, plot, acting, lavish costuming, locale, a gorgeous thought provoking movie. Denise m. C.
Art Feldman December 18, 2011 at 03:14 PM
Why aren't the reviews of The Artist and Hugo signed?

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