by Steve Habrat
If you are one of the individuals out there who suffers from coulrophobia, a crippling fear of clowns, you should stay far away from Álex de la Iglesia’s hectic foreign art house flick The Last Circus, a bloody allegory that is a visual fiesta and resembles something from the minds of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. For all its visual gifts, The Last Circus falls apart slowly and by the end, is a giant lumbering mess of a film. The load grows heavy with too many characters serving no purpose but to fill up a frame and populate the circus that is the main setting. The Last Circus does succeed as a bizarre genre mash-up, at one moment it’s a horror film, the next second it’s a dark comedy, the next moment it’s a romance film, and the next it’s a perverse action film. Experiments like this don’t always work (Take a look at the western/science fiction action dud Cowboys & Aliens for obvious proof) but The Last Circus balances it quite nicely. Good thing since this film is already walking a swaying tightrope.
The Last Circus packs as much content as it can into its hour and fifty minute runtime. It saddened me to find that there are quite a few slow spots in what promised early on to be a nonstop rush. Beginning in 1937 and using the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop, a guttural militia group drops in to a local theater where a sad clown and happy clown are performing for a cheering group of children. Just outside, bombs fall and shake dust from the ceiling onto the clowns. The militia leader is looking for any help they can find and they need every able bodied man to join their ranks. The happy clown is forced into service, handed a machete, let loose on the National soldiers, and in a frenzied attack, the happy clown lays waste to an entire platoon. He is soon captured and placed in a military jail, forced into labor and waiting out a death sentence. His young son vows to free his father and almost succeeds. The film then fast-forwards to 1973, where the son, Javier (Played by Carlos Areces) has now grown up and gotten a job working as a sad clown for a local circus. He is paired up with the happy clown Sergio (Played by Antonio de la Torre), who is married to the striking and beguiling acrobat Natalia (Played by Carolina Bang, who wears multiple wigs throughout the runtime). Javier falls in love with Natalia, who appears to share the same feelings. Sergio is abusive and unwilling to let Natalia out of his site, as he suspects she is cheating on him with another man. Javier and Sergio soon clash with each other for her affection, a clash that escalates into a violent stand-off between the two men. Murder, savage beatings, self-mutilation, graphic sex, and sinister figures from the past all emerge as the two fight to the death for Natalia.
While the only way to describe The Last Circus is a truly bizarre work of art, the film seems unsure what to do with everything crammed into it. Characters get lost in the shuffle or are unrecognizable due to ever changing physical appearances, the ending is too CGI heavy, and the constant grotesqueries mar what could be a thought-provoking event. I’m sure the film is more rewarding for the Spanish audiences, who are the ones who will be able to piece this allegory together. The film also has some cool use of stock footage that was incorporated smoothly throughout the journey. Yet I found glaring problems with the storyline, mostly in the sudden mental collapse that Javier undergoes. Why has he suddenly just snapped? Was he that close to the breaking point? The film never gives a clear-cut answer to this question. The only hint we get is the constant harassment from Sergio. Even this explanation I do not buy, mostly because Sergio isn’t that terrible to Javier in the first place.
The performances in The Last Circus are all quite good; the best is easily de la Torre’s Sergio, who looks like Heath Ledger’s alcoholic stunt double from The Dark Knight. He endures a beating so brutal, it’s amazing he isn’t dead. He looms in the shadows watching Natalia, all of these scenes resembling images out of a comic book. Areces does a fine job when he’s completely lost his marbles but he is astonishingly uninteresting as the sane Javier. When he is randomly firing his machine guns in a small diner, you’ll find yourself developing coulrophobia with each bullet fired. Bang’s Natalia is all deceitful smiles and suggestive lip licking, cleaning blood from her oozing nose. She’s masochistic and does more flip-flops than I ever thought possible. At one second she is shrieking at Sergio’s mutilated mug and the next second she can’t get enough of him. I am still trying to figure out if she was sincere in her interactions with Javier.
I would recommend The Last Circus for it’s Baroque settings and macabre make-up effects. Someone get this crew to the set of J. Edgar and fast! The action is disorienting in the first ten minutes of the movie and then it maneuvers into tedium by the final fistfight. A figure from the past is wasted and would have been a far more lasting villain than Sergio. But for all the smarts this film has, and trust me, it is very clever, it consistently looses site of what it is trying to achieve. At times it felt rather preoccupied and more concerned with its visual stimulants. Sure, I like a film to look pretty and have some nifty sets, boast a crisp picture, and have an aura of impulsiveness, but The Last Circus left me unaffected, the furthest thing from traumatized, dismayed, or charged up politically. I turned it off thinking about how pretty it looked in HD and how disturbing clowns really are.
The Last Circus is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.