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Posts Tagged ‘Sacha Baron Cohen’

Well, the Christmas blockbuster season is descending upon us as usual, and it’s interesting to consider how it compares to its larger summer cousin: fewer films, obviously, perhaps slightly more aimed at a younger audience (not that many summer movies aren’t utterly juvenile), sometimes more of an aura of quality (no doubt due to the overlap with the release of Oscar-bait movies). But apart from that the big Christmas releases aren’t that different from the summer ones – there’s the usual reliance on sequels, series, and big-name properties (skewed more towards the traditionally literary than comic books, though).

Which makes Hugo a bit of an anomaly, in some ways – while this is a big, lavish movie with virtually an all-star cast, it’s based on a novel that I’d never heard of (and I suspect most other people haven’t, either). So what are the makers relying on to draw in the crowds? Well, it seems to me they’re relying on something rather unusual – not just the use of 3D, which is not the novelty it was even last year, but 3D in the hands of a master director, an acclaimed film-maker not usually associated with what is – let’s face it – still a gimmick.

The man in question is Martin Scorsese, someone with a stellar reputation but not much associated with family entertainment. Parents need not fear: no-one’s head is put in a vice, no pimps are executed, and no-one gouges one of their own eyes out with a knife. What we get instead is the classically-told tale of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the main railway station of Paris in the late 1920s. Hugo is the last of a family of clockmakers – his mother died when he was very young (i.e., off-screen), and his father (Jude Law, briefly) in a museum fire. Now in the nominal care of his boozy uncle (Ray Winstone, even more briefly), he is maintaining all the clocks, while trying to avoid the station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and repair the automaton (a clockwork man who basically looks like Maria from Metropolis‘ grandad) he and his father were renovating when he died.

Hugo’s quest for parts for the automaton leads him to meet the proprietor of the station toy booth (Ben Kingsley) – well, basically he steals clockwork toys. The old man, when he learns of Hugo’s obsession, is inexplicably appalled, and confiscates Hugo’s notebooks about the mechanism. Hugo is forced to ask the old man’s god-daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) for help, and together they set out to discover the secret of the automaton and its connection to the toy store owner…

Well, as you possibly tell, there’s not a huge amount there that screams ‘big movie potential’ – but if Hugo proves anything, it’s that it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it. In almost every department this is a film made to the highest possible standards. Scorsese demonstrates his usual utter mastery of composition and camera movement, John Logan’s script is dense with imagery and detail, yet still always unfolds cleanly and clearly, and the production values are faultless.

The actors are all impeccable too, for all that there is something inescapably odd about a film set in Paris, featuring an almost exclusively British cast, who all speak in an American idiom (so ‘figure something out’ rather than ‘work something out’, ‘get mad’ rather than ‘get angry’, and so on), but this is only a minor distraction most of the time. Possibly more of an issue is Sacha Baron Cohen’s very broadly comedic performance – very much Basil Fawlty meets Inspector Clouseau – which seems to have wandered in from a rather less subtle movie.

There is real strength in depth amongst the supporting cast, too – popping up here are the likes of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and – a total surprise to me – Christopher Lee, as potent a screen presence as ever (and still obviously knowing his own mind: he’s the only person present who actually does a French accent).

And what about the 3D? Well, it’s an integral part of the conception of the movie, as far as I can see, but the strange thing is that after a while I barely noticed it was there. The even stranger thing is that, for me, if 3D has a future then Scorsese has shown us the way to it – not intrusive or gimmicky, but considered and understated. It’s a fundamental element of the movie – the opening sequence of this movie is a stunning piece of work, and nothing that follows quite matches it – but it is only an element, rather than the sine qua non of the film.

The 3D is also pertinent to one of the themes of the film, which is the story of the birth of cinema – Scorsese is using cutting-edge 21st century movie technology to illuminate the earliest history of 19th century films. A number of these very old films are referenced in the course of the narrative, which will doubtless please other movie geeks. Then again, already being aware of the massive achievements of the first great movie directors, I was perhaps more ready than most to indulge the film in what at times feels like a slightly didactic and digressive commentary on the subject. Certainly the second half of the film, though finishing strongly and satisfyingly, lacks the involving narrative drive of the first.

If I had to describe Hugo concisely, I would have to say that it rather reminded of a live-action Studio Ghibli movie. This may sound strange, but this movie has had the same meticulous attention to detail lavished upon it, it has the same eye for the baroque and mildly grotesque, and the same classic narrative virtues. It also has virtually no trace of an American sensibility beyond a few idiosyncrasies amongst the dialogue – not in and of itself a good thing, of course, but refreshingly different from most films of this size. But then this is a refreshingly different, very well-made, and consistently interesting and enjoyable film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 28th 2002:

[Originally preceded by a look at that year’s Academy Awards.]

It seems rather perverse to follow a look at the most racially significant Oscars in nearly 40 years with a review of Mark Mylod’s Ali G Indahouse, but that’s never stopped me before. For those of you unfamiliar with Ali G (exclusively those based outside the UK, I’ll bet) he’s a comedy character created by Sacha Baron Cohen, the joke being that although Ali G is a white middle-class man from a quiet London suburb, he dresses and acts like a black gangster from South Central LA. The distinction that he’s making fun of white people who behave like they’re black, rather than black people, isn’t immediately obvious, which has led to some controversy over here.

Anyway, having started life as the presenter of hoax interviews on a late-night satire show, the character went on to have his own (fairly uneven) series, and now, ominously, headlines his own movie1.

As the movie opens we find Ali (Cohen) hangin’ with his equally pathetic homeboys in the not-especially-mean streets of Staines. But his life is plunged into crisis when the local leisure centre is threatened with closure. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon) orders his deputy (Charles Dance) to find a new, in-touch candidate to run for office in the Staines parliamentary election. For his own reasons, however, Dance wants to find the most useless, incompetent idiot possible for this job – who on Earth fits that description…?

I did laugh quite a lot while watching the film, although it’s extremely hit-and-miss. There’s potential for political satire here, but the writers (Cohen and Dan Mazer) only make a token attempt at this, opting instead for – how can I put it? – a ceaseless flow of puerile smut. The movie is quite staggeringly filthy. No gag is too broad to be included, no double entendre too obvious, no joke too crude. (The film opens with our hero being fellated by his dog, but quickly abandons this level of sophistication.) The sheer brazenness of this is sort of impressive and there are some very funny lines – none especially quotable, alas. But the laughs dry up whenever the plot (yup, there is one, of sorts) rears its head – the movie never quite manages to be funny while advancing the story.

God knows what Michael Gambon and Charles Dance are doing in this sort of thing, but they play along gamely. The supporting cast is stuffed with familiar faces off the telly: Kellie Bright, Martin Freeman, and Rudolph Walker, for example, plus cameos from various TV journalists (some of whom even get their names spelt right in the credits). And my fellow Doctor Who fans will be glad to hear that Dalek operator extraordinaire John Scott Martin gets a funny one-line part.

But ultimately, I can’t help but have misgivings about the whole thing. No doubt the makers will claim that Ali G is a satirical character, and the film is meant to ridicule him and by extension his racism, sexism and homophobia. It seems to me, though, that Ali’s been adopted at face value as a spokesman by the same group he’s supposed to be satirising, and the writers seem happy to go along with this: Ali has, after all, recently released a hit single, a semi-serious collaboration with Shaggy (sample lyric: ‘Me Julie/Me loves you truly/From me head down to me goolie’). For much of the film the audience is encouraged to laugh with him rather than at him. He’s too unironically presented as the hero for his homophobia – to pick a trait at random – to be defensible as satire.

I found the presentation of female characters in the film particularly troubling. On the one hand, there are a large number of extremely attractive young women in the film, most notably Rhona Mitra as Dance’s sidekick, and they’re unfailingly portrayed in a leeringly exploitative way which is clearly unacceptable. But on the other hand, there are a large number of extremely attractive young women in the film, most notably Rhona Mitra as Dance’s sidekick, and they’re unfailingly portrayed in a leeringly exploitative way – fantastic! It’s a bit of a dilemma and no mistake.

Is this taking a low-brow, gross-out comedy a bit too seriously? Well, maybe, maybe not. I laughed while watching Ali G Indahouse, but felt distinctly uneasy about it afterwards. Would I recommend it? Well, put it this way – it’s like an Austin Powers movie, but without the wit, invention and charm, and clearly made on a tiny budget. If that sounds like your kind of film, by all means go ahead and see it. I’m off to type Ms Mitra’s name into some search engines (don’t worry, I’ll feel suitably tarnished doing it). Boyakkasha!

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