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Extraordinary Voyage, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A.K.A. The Real Hugo"
4 stars

After watching "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's extraordinary love letter to the earliest days of the history of cinema in general and the work of pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies in particular, it is almost certain that every viewers, regardless of age or whether or not they liked the movie as a whole, came away from it with a powerful desire to see "A Trip to the Moon," the 1902 Melies work, generally regarded as the first true science-fiction film, that was at the center of "Hugo" and which has been a landmark film from the moment it first unspooled before disbelieving eyes more than a century ago for its ambition, scope and then-revolutionary special effects magic. Alas, while most everyone has certainly seen the iconic image of the face of the man in the moon with a rocket ship messily lodged in its eye socket, watching a decent-looking and reasonably complete version of the full 15-minute film has been more of a challenge. Originally shown at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the program "The Extraordinary Voyage" not only affords viewers a chance to see a restored version of the film in its most complete version ever--complete with a restoration of the hand-tinted coloring found in some of its original prints and a new score composed by arty French pop duo Air--as well as an hour-long documentary chronicling the history of how the film came to be and how it came back from the near-dead.

Through clips from "A Trip to the Moon" and other surviving Melies films and testimonials from the likes of Costa-Gavras, Michel Gondry, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michel Hazanavicius and, of course, Tom Hanks. The first half of Serge Bomberg's film offers up a brief but informative look at both the earliest days of cinema and how former magician Melies seized upon the possibilities of the medium to create one visual astonishment after another until a combination of cruel business practices (he was one of the first to suffer mightily from the crime of film piracy, at the hands of no less a person than Thomas Edison) and a shift in audience tastes from the fantastic to the realistic left him near-broke and running a toy kiosk in a Montparnasse train station with his films falling into ruin until a rediscovery and reappraisal of his work led to the uncovering of nearly 200 of the 500 films he is thought to have made. The second half of the film chronicles the rediscovery and two-decade-long restoration of an exceedingly rare and already degrading original color print of the film, a painstaking process that required slowly and carefully separating and removing portions of the film in order to photograph and digitally capture the images on the frame. This time-consuming effort (which paused for several years to wait for the necessary leaps in technology needed to complete the project) ensured that those images would live on even as the actual print was irrevocably destroyed as a result.

As a whole, the documentary portion of "The Extraordinary Voyage" is a bit of a mixed bag. When it focuses on the history of the film and Melies' contributions to the art of cinema, the film is deeply fascinating (especially in the ways that it reveals that the true story was, perhaps not surprisingly, somewhat darker than the version presented in "Hugo") and the interviews with the likes of such latter-day French fantasists as Hazanavicius, Gondry and Jeunet show the obvious love and respect that that they have for the man's work and the influence that it has had on their own films. Even better are the brief bits and pieces from other Melies films--while they may not be as familiar to modern-day viewers as "A Trip to the Moon," they still offer up a delightful array of images and proves beyond a doubt that Melies was more than a one-trick pony. The stuff involving the restoration, on the other hand, is something that will come across as much less interesting to most viewers--the nuts-and-bolts look at the process may be of interest to the tech-heads in the audience but most other viewers will no doubt regard it as being along the lines of one of those dry-as-dust Blu-Ray featurettes that they never quite get around to watching all the way through. Of course, the presence of "A Trip to the Moon" at the end of the program makes the whole thing worthwhile--this is one of those rare "classic" films that still hold up beautifully today as a work of pure, unbridled imagination and knowing all the effort that went into it--both in its original creation and its later restoration--is to appreciate it all the more.

No doubt thanks to the resurgence of interest due to the success of "Hugo,""The Extraordinary Voyage" has been playing in art-houses and museums across the country (it is now opening a week-long engagement at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center of the Art Institute) and for fans of that film and of the history of silent film, it is highly recommended. However, if you don't happen to be living near a city where it is playing, this week also sees the Blu-Ray release of "A Trip to the Moon: Limited Edition" (Flicker Alley. $39.95), a package including the restored color version of the film with the Air score, the documentary, the black-and-white version with three additional audio options, an interview with Air and two other lunar-inspired Melies works--1899's "The Astronomer's Dream" and 1907's "The Eclipse, or The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon." However, there have been some reports of the audio being slightly out-of-sync with the color version--kind of ironic considering that it is a silent movie--and those interested should check up on that before definitively purchasing it. Regardless of whether you see it at home or on the big screen, the chance to see "A Trip to the Moon" in all its glory is definitely worth making at least a fraction of the effort to see it as it has over the past 110 years trying to be seen as it was meant to be.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23679&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/12/12 17:38:21
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Directed by
  Serge Bromberg
  Eric Lange

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