Jan. 7th, 2012

Hugo

Jan. 7th, 2012 11:59 pm
sarcasticwriter: (MST3K)
I screwed my sleep schedule up over the weekend by staying up way to late Friday afternoon and then sleeping through the night.

But I got stuff done Saturday, if "going to see a movie" and "finding the perfect pillow that ties my living room furniture together" can be considered getting "stuff done."

Anyway, the movie was Hugo, which had some moments but was largely flawed.

(I'm starting to think that The Age of Innocence might very well be Scorsese's best movie. Yes, better than that one. And yes, better than that other one. I don't have a lot of tolerance for movies about "stupid man crap," as [livejournal.com profile] niobedancing once so brilliantly put it. Those guys should have all just gotten real jobs and taken care of their families and called it a life.)

Spoilers.

The biggest two problems with Hugo go right down to its foundations, character and plot structure. Because the titular character isn't terribly interesting. His circumstances are interesting; orphaned from his loving father, adopted by a drunk uncle and taught to run the complex time-keeping mechanisms of a Parisian train station, then orphaned again and left to run the station by himself, but the character isn't interesting. He's driven to complete the repairs to an automaton his father found, but again, that's more plot than character. Virtually every line of dialogue he speaks moves his plot forward; we're not sure who this kid is, except that he seems nice and wants to be loved.

Part of the problem, I think, is with the casting of Hugo and his character design. The kid who plays him is beautiful, with clear, milk-maiden skin and crystal blue eyes fringed with long lashes, his thick dark shining hair falling slightly too-long across his brow. I use the flowery language deliberately, because that's what the kid looks like. There's a glamor about him that isn't appropriate for a kid who's one cop away from becoming a Dickensian orphan. For all that he's crawling about in the attics, basements, and access passages of an old building, doing mechanical work, his nails are clean, his clothes are pressed, and his hair looks freshly combed and his skin just-powered.

One could argue, I guess, that his desire to continue living in the station means he must maintain a high degree of cleanliness in order to blend in when he walks the floor, but...it still doesn't quite track. Steam and dust are used frequently in the movie; steam floats up the grates of his attic living space almost constantly, and specks of dust drift through the platforms. But there's no sense that he's effected by the constant moisture or dust.

It also doesn't make sense that Hugo has been maintaining the station single-handed for months, without anybody noticing his uncle's absence. His uncle tells him that they are supposed to work unseen, but surely somebody would have noticed when his uncle stopped showing up on payday, wouldn't they? And wouldn't his uncle have introduced Hugo to the station staff as his apprentice, to avoid any misunderstandings if they bumped into each other in the maintenance halls? Once his uncle is gone, Hugo has to resort to stealing food, but why didn't he just go to the pay office and say his uncle sent him for his pay? They he wouldn't have had to steal at all. This is a children's movie, but it takes place in what is ostensibly the real world of Paris 1930s, utilizing real historical figures. Even in a "reality" that's a soft and golden fairytale, adults still show up for payday and introduce their apprentices to their coworkers.

We spend the first half of the movie following Hugo as he tries to complete his automaton and avoid being caught by the station master. Then, as Hugo gets to know the gruff owner of a toy shop in the station, played by a grumpy Ben Kingsley, the focus of the movie shifts from Hugo to the shop owner, who is revealed to be Georges Melies, the pioneer of fantasy and special effects in film's infancy.

As soon as the focus turns to Georges, the movie loses all interest in Hugo. There is a long montage/flashback sequence as Georges tells his story about buying his studio and making his first films, and seeing his process for creating incredibly sophisticated effects - the first effects, the first film depictions of moving fantasy, science fiction, and horror - is completely absorbing. He's the important character in the movie, brave, driven, a pioneer and an artistic genius. His mini biopic is the best part of Hugo, and that's a serious problem when the movie is called Hugo.

Because by the time the focus is dragged back to Hugo, in time for the conclusion to his emotional journey, we, the audience, don't care about him anymore and have kind of even forgotten he's there. Or worse, now we're annoyed by him. It's like standing in an endless line at Disneyland for the Monorail, having a friend hold your place while you walk straight on to Space Mountain, then going back to standing in line for the Monorail. Maybe if you'd stayed in line, you'd be excited to finally get on the Monorail, but not after getting a taste of Space Mountain. You can never go back after Space Mountain.

Where was I?

There are some great parts in the movie, as well. Sacha Baron Cohen as Inspector Gustav, the orphan-hating lamed station guard, is absolutely sublime. Cohen has only shown us the vicious side of his comedy acting before now, but he has a vulnerable and subtle side, too. His character's self-importance and obsessiveness is explained completely in a quiet, resigned line as he finally introduces himself to his crush, "My leg was injured in the war. It will never heal." And when he yanks Hugo off the track a second before the boy is killed by an incoming train, Gustav's concern for the boy is genuinely terrified. Here was another character that deserved his own movie, because his mix of deep vulnerability and officiousness is touching and funny. Beside him, Hugo's simple emotional journey seems tired and cliched.

It also doesn't make sense that when Hugo's uncle is discovered dead in the Seine, and Gustav realizes that Hugo is the one that has been professionally and flawlessly maintaining the clocks for months, like an adult, he doesn't just give Hugo the job. Hugo's probably 12 or 13 - old enough to work as an adult in the 1930s, isn't he? While the emotional journey of the film requires that Hugo be rescued by Georges, who Hugo rescued from obscurity and despair, it didn't have to be a choice between a Dickensian orphanage or a loving home. Hugo's admirable skill with mechanics and engineering had to count for something.

Again, these are the kind of questions that you're not supposed to think about during the movie, and I suppose many people would tell me that I criticize too harshly or refuse to suspend disbelief. But it's my contention that it's the responsibility of the filmmakers to not introduce these questions in the first place. Hugo could have been just as alone if he'd been picking up his uncle's pay and buying his food, instead of stealing it. Gustav could have still grown suspicious of seeing only Hugo and never Hugo's uncle. On that point, the movie still would have worked, if it had made a little more sense.

I know that not everybody is as analytical or articulate as I am (do I have to explain why that's not braggadocio?), but I'm convinced that people still subconsciously know when something doesn't make sense. I think when people dismissively say that a movie is "okay," that's what they're referencing. They know something's wrong with the temporary reality they're observing, even if they don't know what it is. They can feel when the truth doesn't ring out.

The truth doesn't ring out of Hugo, but the movie has some beautiful moments and at least one amazing performance. I just wish the rest of the film had risen to meet its high water mark.

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Christina

July 2012

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