Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

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(The original title, jokingly because I couldn’t think of a good title, was “Steven Steal-berg”.)

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a vacationing screenwriter working on a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. That a screenwriter would have this notion seems about par for the course, as Hollywood has almost completely turned itself into just that: a nostalgia shop. Comic books, toys, cartoons, amusement park rides, old movies and now even board games – it’s all fair game for a cinematic rendering in a way that didn’t exist, or at least not with any real quality, a decade ago.

Gil, of course, magically goes back in time and visits his favorite writers in 1920s Paris, falling in love. For most of today’s directors, it’s not nearly as far a journey. Many just can’t get past how rad the ’80s were, or get over how wizard the ’70s were, when Steven Spielberg made their favorite movies. But in these re-tellings, the memories they are reshaping are too often secondhand themselves, memories that directors like Spielberg, George Lucas, the Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) or Martin Scorsese originally got from the B-movies, serials and television of their own childhoods. Like the ever-worsening quality of a cassette tape, the further down the generational line you get from the original, the more fuzzy and shapeless things get.

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Christmas Crazy: Blast of Silence – Allen Barron (1961)

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It’s a few days before Christmas as Frankie Bono (Allen Barron) arrives in New York on some special business. He arrives by train, born through the darkness of Penn Station’s arrival tunnel as simply “Cleveland” to the business partners he has come to meet. They don’t need to know his name, and he doesn’t need to know theirs. Neither wants to know, because their business is murder.

The timing is coincidental, but New York is at its busiest during the holiday season, so it affords a man who wishes not to be seen even more anonymity on theory. Frankie hates Christmas, and tries to draw some of that feeling into the building tide of hate that he needs to build up in order to carry out the hit he’s been hired to do.

Troiano (Peter Clune), who he has been hired to kill, is a middling syndicate boss who has been getting in the way of his rivals lately. Frankie doesn’t care about that either. It’s just a job, one that pays, he notes, enough to put him in the top tax bracket, able to afford the kind of big, showy suburban house and life that Troiano enjoys.

But for man who hates Christmas, he sure has a way of letting it get in his way. While he is waiting for the gun he’s purchased from the creepy, lowlife, rat loving Big Ralph to be delivered, Frank strolls along the glow of Fifth Avenue to a chorus of Silent Night. He passes the made up window displays and the tree in Rockefeller Center. If nothing else, the picture offers a brilliant display of what Old New York was like, Harlem and Midtown, the bridges and roads, the old skyline, the grit and grime that went hand in hand with the glitter and gold, men when they were still men. But the film offers plenty more anyway, the sightseeing is just a bonus.

Though it was made in 1961, there is a large parallel to be drawn with another New York mob boss, Paul Castellano, who had all the same problems as Troiano, and ultimately ended up in the same bloody heap on the ground. Baron, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s, probably knew a lot of these guys, back when it actually was like the first act of Goodfellas.

When Frankie ducks into a Midtown bar for a drink to pass the time after window shopping, he runs into an old friend he grew up with in the orphanage, Petey (Danny Meehan), and his sister Lori (Molly McCarthy), who Frankie had a crush on back then. Against his better judgement, he shows up when they invite him to a Christmas party, and the old feelings push their way to the top, no matter what the Narrator (Lionel Stander) says to try and convince him to remember what he’s actually in New York for.

There is a deep, choking violence in the gruff, relentless voice of Lionel Stander’s, whose narration (written by Waldo Salt) acts almost in the role of hypnotist, goading Cleveland along the path to murder when his instincts seem to be telling him to pull out, whenever Baby Frankie and his old crush threaten to ruin everything.

It’s always been a curious thing to me that hit men come from somewhere, that they don’t just accumulate one day with a silenced .45 in their hand and the knowledge to use it. But hit men were little kids, once, and had best friends with sisters they wanted to marry and have babies with. They lost peanut pushing contests, and in Frankie’s case was probably beaten by the pre-Vatican II nuns in the Orphanage. Like Baron, I grew up in Brooklyn with a lot of kids that, when I think of it now, seemed to have very little conscience to their being, especially the altar boys, who were a special breed of disconnected, thieving, fighting hoodlums — probably because they couldn’t sleep in on Sundays like the rest of us. I kid, I kid. Frankie has that disconnect, and more, to be able to kill, or try to take advantage of Lori, who invites him over for a quiet dinner so he isn’t alone on Christmas. Baron is not that world’s most gifted actor, but through the world he creates as director — the tight, squeezed in darkness that blots out much of the landscape, the angles, the low camera – he is wired right into the character of Frankie and brings us along. The Narrator seems to be speaking to us as much as Frankie.

There turns out to be little need for that Devil’s Advocate, though, when Frankie finds out that Lori already has a boyfriend — that she was stringing him along, in his point of view — and that pool of hate that he needs starts to spill over the brim, and it has Troiano’s name written on it.

The finale, filmed during an actual hurricane that hit Long Island in 1960, is a brilliant piece of noir filmmaking. Francis Ford Coppola always says “if there is weather, shoot the weather”, and this is why (even though, again, this film pre-dates my thoughts by a few decades). It lends such a surreal aura to the picture, something that million dollar Hollywood films could never achieve even with the best effects men. Thank God Baron only had twenty grand to shoot it.

Christmas Crazy: The Thin Man — W. S. Van Dyke (1934)

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“The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I’ll kill them,” says a recovering Nora Charles as the well-wisher leaves the room. I know how she feels, but I could never say it with half as much charm as the sparkling Myrna Loy does in this psuedo-Christmas detective film from W. S. Van Dyke, based on the Dashiel Hammet novel.

So what’s Nora recovering from anyway? An afternoon bender. My kind of girl.

Nora and her husband Nick (William Powell), are a couple of California socialites back in New York for a holiday vacation with their dog Asta. The dashing, also-charming Nick used to be a detective in the Big Apple before Nora inherited a few companies from her father which brought them to California to stake their claim. By accident, and against his wishes, he is drawn out of retirement to figure out where the missing Cylde Wynant has gone.

Nick wants nothing to do with the case, however. He’s retired from dick work, and made himself a respectable man out in California, where he runs several of the businesses that Nora’s father left them. Also it would interfere with his drinking. Nora tries to goad him into it because she wants to see her man in action, but he is steadfast until the case becomes too interesting and dangerous to pass it up.

The plot is really secondary to these wonderful characters, though. Nick and Nora light up the screen with their quick and easy chemistry. Powell and Loy together are about as perfect an onscreen couple as you can get, and Nick and Nora Charles were the roles of a lifetime for both, exquisitely tailored to the both of them like a glove. Loy is witty and beautiful as Nora, the kind of girl girl with hair on her chest who can take a right hook just as comfortably as she can sit around in a mink coat with a highball. The couple play coy with to the new level, quipping and sniping, flirting and pretending they don’t care in the same breath. They do care, of course, but it’s more satisfying in some cases to learn how loved you are by how much you can get away with and there seems to be nothing that these two can’t get away with when it comes to each other.

Powell and Loy played these characters for over a decade through five films, and a long with their other pairings, such as Manhattan Melodrama, give a visual testament to the fact that they were one of classic Hollywood’s perfect couples, though their named surprisingly didn’t stay in the spotlight in the same way that Bogey and Bacall or Gable and Lombar’s names did. Maybe because they were never an actual couple. But maybe we should count our blessings for that, since Bogey and Bacall’s real life relationship limited them to only four films together, while Powell and Loy finally made fourteen.

Happy Ero Christmas – Lee Geon-dong (2003)

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There are certain types of people in the world who tend to over-sentimentalize the holidays, especially Christmas. Based on the dozen or so movies he’s made, you’d have to expect that Cha Tae-hyun would be one of them — or at least his characters are. So it’s entirely fitting then that that’s exactly what happens in Happy Ero Christmas, a romantic comedy set in a small spa town as Christmas approaches.

Cha plays Seong Byung-ki, a well-meaning but hapless young cop that gets no respect from anyone in town, not even his fellow officers. Byung-ki grew up in this small town, which is seemingly run by gangsters, and they’ve been giving him a rough go of it since he was a a child. He’s been dead set on cleaning out the gangsters ever since one of them, Bang Suk-doo, threw him into a scalding hot bath when he was too small to fight back. But given his low position in the police force and the clout of the gangs, he’s unable to do so. He spends most of his time trying to get the attention of Min-kyeong (Kim Seon-ah), the shy, loney bowling alley clerk who doesn’t seem to have any interest in him. Byung-ki initially tries to downplay his interest in Christmas, but is unable to when he discovers that it is also Min-kyeong’s birthday.

Suk-doo himself, who has grown to become boss of one of the warring gangs, is just recently out of prison and extremely lonely when we meet him. Instead of running his business with the iron fist normally required of such a profession, he whiles away his days watching Shunji Iwai’s snowy, sentimental Love Letter, wistfully hoping he could find a girl like that one day too. His underlings, faced with a rival gang moving in on their territory — headquarted in “the Sexy Palace” — don’t understand his new outlook, which seems to forbid the violence they crave. He just doesn’t want any of them to spend Christmas in prison like he did.

Naturally, when Suk-doo finds a girl to fall in love with, it’s Min-kyeong, who he only notices when she accidentally spits on his head. It’s fate, he says, because it would have been too difficult to spit on his head if she were really trying. Min-kyeong, for her part, is afraid of Suk-soo at first because of his gangster ways, but softens her stance on him somewhat when he reveals his gentle side to her, lavishing her with gifts and flowers. Byung-ki becomes desperate to keep her out of trouble when he finds out about Suk-doo’s full court press on her, and installs a police box in front of her house, vowing to never be more than three minutes away from her should she be in trouble and need him, but his still bubbling rage over Suk-doo dumping him into the hot spa as a child turns him into the monster that she ends up despising.

Happy Ero Christmas was directed by Lee Geon-dong, one of the many Korean directors that, as far as I can tell, has only directed one film. It’s not hard to figure why. The film is truly a mess, a funny-violent Korean slapstick put together in the same style of an ensemble piece like Love Actually, but without the technical efficiency or slickness of Richard Curtis. The comedy is often glacially-paced, and many of the story strands are only peripherally connected to the main story of Byung-ki and Suk-doo’s rivalry. Of these, there is one brilliantly funny sequence during the 18th Annual Mrs. Spa pageant, but verbalizing the joke would only ruin it.

The movie is flawed, but not fatally so. It stays afloat through the flaws because of chemistry between Cha Tae-hyun and Park Yeong-gyoo, who are great foils for each other. In fact, much of what you feel about this film will lay squarely with how you feel about Cha Tae-hyun. Like a lot of Westerners, my first experience with South Korean film was seeing Cha deal with a drunk, passed out Jun Ji-hyun on a subway platform in My Sassy Girl, and Cha plays basically the same role here. That’s the persona he has cultivated since My Sassy Girl, playing the sweet, if a bit goofy, nice guy. Despite being nice guys, his characters are prone to bouts of righteous indignation, and even violence, though he usually ends up taking the brunt of it himself. He takes it so well, constantly popping up with an undefeated smile through the pain, that I find it hard to believe anyone could not like him. He’s not quite as endearing in Happy Ero Christmas as he was in My Sassy Girl or even Speedy Scandal, but he’s got just enough charm here to make it work anyway.

Christmas Crazy: The Man Who Came to Dinner – William Keighley (1942)

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Monty Woolley stars as an unwanted house guest who comes to take over the lives of his hosts, and Bette Davis as his put upon assistant in William Keighley’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, a testament to the kind of quick-paced one liner that only the British (and really only Armando Iannuchi & Co) seem to get right these days.

While on a winter speaking tour of the Midwest, Sheridan Whiteside (Woolley, who originated the role on Broadway) is set to dine at the home of the Stanleys, a well to do Mesalia, Ohio family whose money comes from Word War II defense contracts. Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke) is thrilled that a little culture is coming through her small town, but Mr. Stanley (Grant Mitchell), playing a sort of later day Eugene Pallette (The Lady EveHeaven Can Wait) role as the uncouth husband who happens to find himself moneyed and isn’t all that comfortable with it, is a wholly unwilling participant to the idea of “society”.

Whiteside is an erudite New York radio personality, critic and writer, made in the mold of Alexander Woollcott, whose fellow Algonquin Round Tablers lit up the radio waves and gossip rags in the 20s. He is quick witted and sharp-tongued, just like the real Woollcott (who really took over playwright Moss Hart’s estate one weekend), and the Stanleys are not ready for such a whirlwind personality, not even Mrs. Stanley, who looks positively crestfallen that Whiteside isn’t a perfect gentleman. Sherry, as his friends call him, suffers fools and hicks very badly, I’m afraid, and his acerbic tongue finds plenty of both to whip to the borderline of tears when, after taking a tumble down some icy stairs, he is stranded, wheelchair ridden, in the Stanley’s home under Doctor’s orders.

If that set up sounds familiar, it’s because Rodney Dangerfield stole it in the late 90s for his woefully bad (but still kind of funny — respect, Rodney!) Meet Wally SparksThe Man Who Came to Dinner was penned by Julius and Philip Epstein (2/3rds of the Casablanca fame, along with Howard Koch), based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. As great as Rodney as his writers were at one liners — and both movies really are vehicles for the one liner — they don’t match the Brothers Epstein, or Woolley, who is so perfect for this role that you will spend half of the time hoping he doesn’t look through the screen and start unleashing on you too.

Despite appearances, Sherry’s — who really isn’t injured, by the way — life is something of a house of cards being held together by Maggie (Bette Davis), his personal secretary, confidant, sounding board and punching bag. Davis rolls along with every punch and insult that Whiteside throws at her, perhaps seeing the insecure teddy bear underneath the gruff, bearded maniac persona he gives off. In fact the only thing that threatens to throw Sherry’s life into disarray is her leaving him — something she probably knows all too well — which threatens to come true when, looking for an interview with Whiteside for his small newspaper, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) comes into her life and rather clumbsily sweeps her off of her feet — literally, on ice skates, and figuratively with a conversation about his play over a roasted sweet potato. Jefferson is the kind of role that Jimmy Stewart would have played if it wasn’t so small in comparison to Whiteside. He is the consummate unassuming charmer, all good-looking gee-whiz naivete, the kind that movie dames always go shaky at the knees over. They need to be mothered as well as loved and the girls, even the smart, tough-as-nails ones like Maggie, are happy to do both. Lucky son-of-a-guns.

Everything comes to a head on Christmas, though. Sherry has employed the considerable sexual prowess of gold digging actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to charm her way into Bert’s play, thus cutting the last strands of love between Bert and Maggie and retaining her secretarial services. Maggie — smart as a whip, as I mentioned — sniffs out Sherry’s evil plan, though, and throws up a few roadblocks for Lorraine along the way, and Sherry, with the help of Banjo (Jimmy Durante — based on Harpo Marx), must figure out which is really more important: the order to his life, or Maggie’s happiness.

It’s entirely surprising that joke-a-minute film like this can retain its freshness and relevance after 60 years, but it does. None of the jokes feel dated, and even the cornier lines are delivered with such a snap by Woolley that they seem to almost draw blood from the recipient. Durante’s Banjo is a hit of crystal meth injected into a cocaine-paced film, and it’s not entirely welcome, introducing a song-and-dance from nowhere, and a new big personality into a frame that can only hold one at a time. The film belongs to Whiteside, and Banjo takes away from that as he gnaws on the scenery and reduces Woolley to a temporary spectator, but by the time he’s introduced the film has already sunk it’s venomous fangs deep enough into you that it can be forgiven. There are some conveniences to the plot that land with a thud, but can also be ignored because of the dazzling skill and pop of the jokes.

Much like The RefThe Man Who Came to Dinner is a Christmas film for those of us not entirely enamored with the holiday. In the book Christmas at the Movies, H. Mark Glancy calls it “Hollywood’s most cynical Christmas film,” and, really, what holiday doesn’t need a cynical film, especially one as hilarious?

Christmas Crazy: The Ref – Ted Demme (1994)

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Once again, we find our story beginning  on Christmas eve as jewelry is stolen from the rich, but what was a beautiful dame purloining a single bracelet in Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night becomes a home burglary by a surly, black-clad, Van Dyke-sporting Denis Leary in Ted Demme’s Christmas caper film.

In it, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis player Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur, warring suburban Connecticut spouses whose marriage is long past the sell-by date. After Gus’s (Leary) big score goes sour when he gets greedy and ends up tripping the alarm, he takes Lloyd and Caroline — and eventually their son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.), a young criminal learning the baby steps by blackmailing the principal of his military school — hostage so he can hide out in their house, avoiding the town curfew and manhunt, until he can make contact with his getaway man, who sped off when he heard the alarm.

Leary is at his madcap best here, ranting and raving through this Christmas kidnapping adventure, yelling all the things at the bickering Chasseurs that we’re thinking, only better, funnier. Gus is a blue collar Boston guy who could never manager to get ahead. The only talent that he ever nurtured was a skill at thievery, which he seems to be good at, if irresponsible with the fence money. There does seem to be a bit more to Gus than the surface introduction we get to him provides. There is an intriguing moment when he comments on a painting hanging by the Chasseur staircase. He identifies it right away as a Chagall, and gets rightly pissed off that Caroline doesn’t appreciate the treasure hanging on her wall. You’re never quite sure, though, if he knows Chagall because of a frustrated artistic past, or because he was involved in an art heist (like the heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990).

In Lloyd, we find the seeds of Lester Burnham being planted in this walking corpse of a man whose life of quiet desperation is punctuated by the financial neutering by his excessively wealthy, excessively overbearing mother, Rose (Glynis Johns), and the emotional neutering by Caroline, who is fed-up with the situation their lives find them in, which she thinks he caused. Llyod is hardly innocent in this quagmire, of course. Their vanishing point goes back to the early 80s when they ran an Italian restaurant together in New York that Lloyd hastily decided to close down after a single bad review, something that caused Caroline to lose all of her respect for him. They got the money to open the restaurant from Rose, who has been squeezing them dry on the vig ever since.

Rose has the whole family on tenterhooks, as we see when she shows up for Christmas dinner with dopey Gary (Adam LeFevre), her other son, his controlling wife, Connie (Christine Baranski, who is wonderful as that waspy mother that you want to punch in the face), and their spoiled kids (Ellie Raab & Phillip Nicoll). You can almost see Leary’s eye twitching as he wades through this miserable night with this miserable family, pretending to be Lloyd and Caroline’s Therapist, Dr. Wong, as to not cause suspicion until he can finally make his break for it.

Of course, nothing goes smoothly, and after Caroline and Lloyd have a cathartic bust up in front of the family, Gus is found out by Rose, whose meanie spirit and chastising has managed to bring Lloyd and Caroline, and even Jesse, around to Gus’s side.

If you’re looking for heart and oozing sap, you won’t find any here. Any shred of a cheerful, hopeful ending is shrouded by a deep forest of Denis Leary the cynic, getting the aggression that had been building up for 35 Christmases out of his system. It seems to be his goal to beat up Christmas in this movie, and it’s very welcomed to do so. It’s the same aggression most of us have built up over the years but swallowed down with our egg nog. We wouldn’t be half as funny as Leary anyway.

Christmas Crazy: Remember the Night – Mitchel Leisen (1940)

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It’s Christmas eve in New York City and a fabulously well-dressed woman is trying on a bracelet in a 5th Avenue  jewelry store. It’s beautiful and shiny, mesmerizing to the eye, but she’d like to see another one, she tells the clerk, and as soon as his back is turned, she’s gone — and so is the bracelet.

Written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchel Leisen,Remember the Night was made in Hollywood during the time of the Hays Code, and as such, the woman, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), is caught red handed only a few blocks from the scene of the crime, where she is trying to hock the bracelet at a pawn shop.

Fearing a softening of the human heart in the jury pool during the Christmas season, as well as at Lee’s pretty, doe-eyed face, the New York DA sends his most handsome, most charming assistant, John Sargeant (Fred MacMurray), to prosecute.

MacMurray’s John Sargeant is a little too slick for his own good, and it’s his heart that goes all gooey and gives way to the burden of guilt for sending this pretty lady to the slammer for the holidays. He arranges to have her bailed out for the holidays, but the bailbondsman misconstrues his motives and has her delivered to John’s custody just as he is about to leave to visit his mother in Indiana.

Remember the Night marks the first of the Stanwyck/MacMurray pairings, and they show a level of instant easy comfort with other here that would be repeated most notably in Billy Wilder’sDouble Indemnity. Stanwyck is a real old screwball dame, shapely and gorgeous but sharp witted and sassy, the last vestiges of a tomboy childhood spent in pants, climbing trees. Sturges’s script feels a little too constrained by the Code and is not as cohesive here as you would expect of him, but still contains passages that hold up with any of his best work, like Sullivan’s Travelsand The Lady Eve. Part of the thing that gets in the way of the writing is that no one on Earth could mistakes Stanwyck’s Brooklyn accent for anything but that. She isn’t miscast for the character, but the character is forced as being from Small Town Indiana, and it’s a bit of a hard Cannoli to swallow when she reveals that her hometown is only a few miles from John’s. But swallow you must, for he takes her along with him on his holiday road trip to Indiana so she can visit the home she ran away from as a teenager before, as he says, he tries to put her in jail for as long as he can.

After the typical mix-ups with some Pennsylvania hicks, and an unfortunate cow-milking incident, they arrive at Lee’s home town, where the meeting with her mother does not go well. The film is, for the most part, brightly lit except for this scene, where Stanwyck, MacMurray and Georgia Caine are wreathed in a cold darkness that is reminiscent of the Manor House scenes David Lean’s Great Expectations, except that Miss Havisham looks like Mrs. Claus next to Lee’s mother, who would have been just as happy to never see Lee again.

It’s a devastating scene, and it makes everything John is to do for the rest of the film make perfect sense. What is a small crush on Lee until this point becomes a protective love to John, who is very much in the mold of the Gary Cooperesque strong, dependable male here. MacMurray is not my favorite actor, but he makes it work all the same, taking a fairly weak screenplay (sorry, Preston!) and churning something memorable out of it. It was never destined to be a classic, but is a charming appetizer to the main course of Christmas classics that we all know by heart.

A Conversation About the Making of Friends With Benefits

“I’ve got it.”

“Got what?”

“I’ve figured out how to distract the audience from the fact we’re basically stealing a Seinfeld episode.”

“Oh? How?”

“We make fun of Seinfeld! We call it fake New York, touristy bullshit.”

“That could work. But what about all of those touristy bullshit New York scenes we have?”

“No, don’t you see? It’ll be defused by the fact that we’ve called out touristy New York bullshit and made fun of it.”

“Genius! But I’m a little worried that our pussy eating jokes aren’t as funny as Seinfeld’s were.”

“Hugo”, Marty, Papa Georges and 3D

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Being so busy last week, I didn’t get to see Martin Scorsese’sHugo until Monday afternoon, and I didn’t finish getting my thoughts in order until today. Initially, I was cold on the whole idea of Scorsese making a kid’s film, and in 3D.

3D?! Marty? Et tu Brute?

However, I stand corrected. I stand flogged with my own anti-3D conviction, honestly. I started to warm up to the idea of Hugo a few weeks ago and tried extremely hard to avoid every single review from the NYFF screening, and any subsequent screenings (despite dutifully gathering the links for the Roundup).

What I saw on that screen (and in front of it) was magic. The kind of magic to which you can only reply, “guh”, while sitting slackjawed in amazement. It was the same magic that Melies coaxed out of his camera 100 years ago, just in an extra dimension. How Melies would have loved this extra dimension. It was such a soft, deft, often subtle use of the medium, one that ran contrary to every other 3D film I’ve seen in the past. There was no shit flying in your face, despite many opportunities — none greater than the train stopping short of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield).

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