Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Stripped Gears

Film: Hugo
Format: The Glen Theater.

Martin Scorsese loves movies. I don’t mean that he’s into them as a director and thus has a deep respect for them. I mean that Martin Scorsese is a movie geek as much or more than anyone who keeps a movie blog. If Scorsese were not a director of film, he’d be a critic, or a teacher, or a faceless blogger dutifully worshipping at the altar of cinema like so many of the rest of us. It’s one of the reasons that Scorsese movies tend to be well reviewed; he knows what movie geeks want to see, and makes references to things that movie geeks will get.

So Hugo comes as no surprise. While some maybe prone to calling this a love letter to film, it is not; it is, in fact, an explicit missive to film. It is passionate and romantic, and at least tries to be dangerous. And it succeeds at times. And the rest of the time, it is little more than a pretty picture book without a ton of substance. It’s a fluffy pastry of a film, delicious going down, but ultimately not that filling, and prone to giving the person who ingests it a touch of indigestion.

Anyway, we have a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives inside the walls at the train station in Paris (the station that is now the Musee D’Orsay, if memory serves). Hugo’s father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker killed in a fire. His uncle tended the clocks at the train station and took Hugo on when the father died, and then essentially abandoned the boy. So Hugo lives on, tending the clocks and scavenging food, ever watchful of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who loves nothing more than turning orphans in to the police.

Hugo has a secret. He is the possessor of an automaton that he is trying to fix. To do so, he steals parts from a toymaker located inside the train station. The toymaker (Ben Kingsley) catches Hugo one day, and takes the boy’s notebook. He has a strange and terrible reaction to the intricate drawings in the book, and threatens to burn it, causing a great deal of strife to Hugo. We are also introduced to the toymaker’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is disturbingly precocious. She takes an immediate shine to Hugo, because there is great mystery around the boy, and she is attracted to this.

From here, the film is essentially a series of Dickensian coincidences. Isabelle’s godfather is connected to Hugo and to the automaton, and to virtually everyone else in the city of Paris by the end of the movie. And there is joy and redemption had by all by the time the curtain closes.

It’s a pretty film. I won’t fault it there. It is a truly extraordinary thing to look at on the screen. Many times, the shots look like paintings, and Scorsese is an old enough hand now that moving his camera perfectly is a matter of due course and a lot of planning. The close-up shots are radiant and beautiful, and used perfectly. I can find no fault here.

Sadly, I can find fault elsewhere. Let’s start with the running time. Hugo clocks in at a touch over two hours, but it feels like 150 minutes. This is in no small part because of the ending, which goes on and on. The film appears to end multiple times, with each ending simply summing up and resolving on of the major plot points one at a time.

However, all of this can be forgiven. So too can the fairly wooden performances. This will catch me hell from those more prone to buying the hype. But that can also be forgiven. What can’t is the fact that for a film that has all of the earmarks of a story swimming in magic and childlike wonder and magical realism,Hugo never strays far from bare, coincidence-laden reality. There are moments of magical realism here and there—the floating images from the toymaker’s trunk, for instance—but they never really go anywhere. I should have been almost overwhelmed by a sort of steampunk fantasy, but was instead placed in a world that was intricate, but nonetheless mundane.

Beyond this, there is a sense that Scorsese’s love letter to film is both too obscure and too constant for anyone but the biggest of film nerd to truly find captivating. We’re given glimpses into the world of silent films as the kids pour over a book on early film history. We see a dazzling display of clips from La Voyage Dans la Lune and a dozen others. I recognized Pandora’s Box, The Great Train Robbery, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Intolerance, The General and a few others. But anyone who is a big enough geek to spot these films would also be geek enough to know that the film that is so central to the narrative--La Voyage Dans la Lune predates almost all of these films, but is somehow encountered last in the book the kids read.

I appreciate what Scorsese is doing here. But in that theater today, I was probably the only one who had seen many of those films referenced. And based on the reaction afterwards of my extended family (we took up two rows of seats), not a single person in my group had the intention of seeking those films out, or was aware that many of them (especially La Voyage) could be found online.

Hugo tries hard to be sweet, but is ultimately misguided. So much time is spent on minor characters—a pseudo love story between railroad station regulars Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths—that the main thrust of the story gets bogged down.

Don’t get me wrong; this film will get some love come Oscar time, and people will sing its praises. But many who sing its praises won’t really know why, and many of them will do so for the wrong reasons.

Why to watch Hugo: Because it’s Scorsese.
Why not to watch: For a film that should be warm and inviting, it’s a bit cold and unwelcoming.


  1. I haven't seen this yet (won't come up in Sweden for several months), but I loved your observation about Scorsese as a film geek. Being such a geek myself I have the distinct feeling I'm going to like it, especially if Musee d'Orsay is appearing. It's probably my favorite art museum in the world, if nothing else because of the gorgeous building.

  2. I thoroughly agree with your sentiments Steve.

  3. Jessica--you may well love it. I fully expected to, and everyone I went with seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.


    Sam--Glad someone does. It seems like everyone is drinking the Hugo Kool-Aid.

  4. It really was inconsistent in the ways you point out, but the faults are so easy to overlook if you know the reference material which is being referred to. I really enjoyed it.

  5. I think that's a pretty normal response. I think film geeks are predisposed to like it, but are also predisposed to pick it apart. You and I are evidently on opposite sides of that divide.

  6. I heard you talking about this on the Lambcast and came over to read what you had to say. I agree with you that I don't think it sparked the type of curiosity about older films that Scorsese (presumably) hoped it would. Possibly because it was set as a kid's film, where people don't expect to have homework, so it probably never occurred to them. And perhaps because of the other fantasy elements in the story. My friend who went with me was convinced that Melies was only a fictional character until we got home and googled him.

    The good news is that I actually did go and watch Le Voyage Dans La Lune for the first time after seeing this, even if I was the only one!

  7. La Voyage really is film history--it's sort of a Rosetta Stone for film. It's worth viewing simply for that reason, because so much comes from it.

    In my experience, you are the only one. So maybe it just mostly fails.

  8. I'm one of the horde that loved this film, as you know from my comment to Siobhan. I agree that the film probably wouldn't work for children that well once the mystery was solved. I think only adults would appreciate the history of film presented here. And it is to that mind that the one thing I would say that bugged me a little was the character of the Station Inspector. He was a little too cartoonish for me, but he would have fit perfectly in a film for kids.

    Here is my review of Hugo, if you are interested. You actually may be more interested in the comments where someone takes me to task for not wanting to see the 3D version of it. It may be fun for you to see someone doing to me what I sometimes do to you. :-)


    1. Nah, I get no schadenfreude from that. I expected to be in the minority on Hugo. I won't deny that it's beautifully made, but I should've been entranced with the world of the film and I wasn't. And the history should have been consistent and it wasn't. I can't give problems like those a pass.

      I didn't want to see the 3D version, either. I don't like films in 3D. The glasses don't fit well over my other glasses, and I find the constant refocusing to be disconcerting.