Saturday, December 31, 2011

What I Liked and What I Didn't about Martin Scorsese's "Hugo"

  • The opening shot took my breath away and the first scene is the best example of over-the-top cinematic Francophilia since Moulin Rouge. I wasn't even paying attention to the plot or characters at first -- I was just luxuriating in the art direction and the 1930s atmosphere. That train station! That café!
  • As far as I could tell, every bit of printed text in the movie (signs, books, posters) was in French. Amazing attention to detail and I appreciate that they resisted the temptation to make things easier for an English-speaking audience.
  • Two of my favorite time periods, in terms of art and aesthetics (and I think this is true for a lot of people) are the Art Nouveau fin-de-siècle and the Art Deco 1920s-30s. Hugo has a plot that accommodates both periods, and is set in Paris, the epicenter of both of these movements, to boot.
  • Hugo is the second 3-D movie I've ever seen (Avatar was the first) and IMO it used the medium very, very well. By the end of Avatar, I was kind of over the 3-D, but Hugo kept surprising me with innovative ways of employing it. At the same time, it knew when to hold back and revert to a flatter picture plane, e.g. for the more intimate scenes in Papa Georges' house.
  • Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as two late-middle-aged folks striking up a tentative romance in the train station. This plot has no purpose other than to be charming and delightful, and it delivers. It's even more charming if you saw and admired these talented character actors in The History Boys -- I was so happy to see them working together again.
  • My friend Stuart saw Hugo last week and posted on Facebook that it made him "think a lot about Marissa Skudlarek as there is essentially a character who is her (tall, big vocabulary, wears a beret)."  Ha!  He was referring to Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl who befriends Hugo. She's a type of character we've seen in other movies -- spunky, bookish, romantic, precocious. In the scene in the bookshop she reminded me so much of Disney's Belle And when Hugo asks Isabelle why she's helping him, I could predict Isabelle's response before she said it: "Because this is an adventure!"  So she's not the most original character, but she's an archetype that I enjoy. And even if she is a 13-year-old girl, she's one of Scorsese's few female characters that it's OK to be compared with. I may have just found my Halloween costume for next year (and if I do dress up as Isabelle, I will carry the vintage 1930s edition of Les Miserables that Stuart gave me for Christmas).
  • Early on, I was convinced that I caught a glimpse of someone costumed and made up to look like James Joyce. Sure enough, "James Joyce" is listed in the credits. So is "Salvador Dalí" but I guess I missed him. (It could not have been as memorable as Adrien Brody's portrayal of Dalí in Midnight in Paris!)
  • I also enjoyed playing "spot the cinema reference" throughout the movie. E.g., I'm pretty sure that an allusion to Vertigo was intended during the final scene with Hugo in the clock tower.  Making Hugo the second 2011 film that owes a debt to Vertigo, after The Artist swiped Bernard Herrmann's music for the climactic sequence.
  • Another similarity to The Artist: the fake-out dream sequence in Hugo is very well done.
  • Innuendo that would only be mildly amusing in an adult movie is somehow made funnier by being in a kids' movie, where you know it will go over the heads of the children in the audience.
  • Throughout the whole movie, I was convinced that Olivia Williams was playing Mama Jeanne, Georges' wife. Turns out that the role is played by Helen McCrory, an actress I was not familiar with before. She gives a lovely performance.
  • I had a teenage crush on Jude Law and he is still an incredibly good-looking man. (He appears in a flashback as Hugo's father.)  Hey, this movie is all about cinephilia, and one reason we love the movies is that they let us stare into the faces of beautiful people whom we would never have met otherwise.
  • I'm not sure it was a good idea to have the character of the Station Inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, function both as the movie's principal villain (chasing Hugo through the station and threatening to send him to an orphanage) and as its principal comic relief (in his amusingly awkward flirtation with a pretty florist played by Emily Mortimer). While I appreciate the desire to depict the Inspector as a real person with some complexity and some heart, as opposed to an incarnation of evil, we can't take the Inspector seriously as a threat to Hugo if he is also a harmless buffoon.
  • The first part of the movie hinges on an Idiot Plot. When Papa Georges discovers Hugo's notebook, accuses him of stealing it, and demands to know who drew the pictures in the notebook, why does Hugo remain silent instead of saying "My father did those sketches"? I know that Hugo is a cautious, scared little boy who is still mourning his father, but he never promised to keep the notebook secret, and would it have hurt anyone if he admitted that it was his father's?
  • Much is made of how Hugo likes to "fix things" and how his repairing the broken automaton parallels his healing the broken and depressed Papa Georges. Yet I never got a sense that Hugo genuinely loves fixing things and playing with clockwork and gizmos. He repairs the automaton because it is his last connection to his dead father, he fixes the train station clocks because he sees it as his duty... but I never felt that he took sheer delight in mechanical things for their own sake. The character of Isabelle is on hand to supply plenty of wide-eyed wonder, but I could have used some of that from Hugo as well.
  • When Hugo uses the word "panache," the script missed an opportunity for Isabelle to respond "Panache! Just like Cyrano de Bergerac!"  I may have been the only person in the theater who would have appreciated this joke, but I would have loved it SO MUCH.
  • The little boy next to me was very bored by the movie and began sucking noisily on the dregs of his soda until I had to tell him to knock it off. In fairness, his parents shouldn't have taken him to the 8:30 show and they shouldn't have bought him the industrial-size Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, if this is a "family film," it should not bore children. Even I thought that the movie moved too slowly in parts and contained a few too many scenes of Hugo being chased through the train station and Hugo fiddling with clockwork.
  • Now is the time to mention that the international terminal at the San Francisco airport currently has an exhibit of vintage French automata on display (was it timed to the release of this movie?) and if you're there you should check it out. I stumbled upon it last week on my way to Portland and even got to talk with the exhibition's "registrar" (its caretaker) who happened to be unlocking the glass cases and inspecting the automata at the time.  It was super cool, but it also made me realize that the automaton depicted in Hugo is a bit of an exaggeration.  The automata in the museum display can do nifty things, but nothing nearly as elaborate or complex as the automaton in Hugo. And, all right, it's a movie, we can't expect it to be 100% accurate, but it annoys me that the filmmakers felt that the automaton had to be even better than it would be in real life, when real automata are plenty amazing on their own. In fact, the same goes for the portrayal of silent cinema in Hugo -- Scorsese makes it look even more exciting than it actually was by using brief snippets, concentrating on Meliès' special effects, showing several films that were hand-tinted rather than black-and-white, and 3-D converting some of the Meliès films. Will a child who wants to see a silent movie after watching Hugo be bored by the real thing?

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