Friday, December 9, 2011

Review: Hugo (Scorsese)

I saw the children's film Hugo, oddly directed by Martin Scorsese, on Tuesday. I thought it was fair to good. Not Excellent, not solidly good, but fair to good. I did enjoy it.

Hugo is film based on the extremely popular children's graphic novel by Brian Selznick called The Invention of Hugo Cabret and I think part of its mere fairness is partly caused by the transition from book to movie. The biggest problem with it was that it didn't fully hang together. Someone mentioned that it did have a "first half" and a "second half" and while they were tied just about enough to work as a whole film there was a definite divide and sense of disjointedness between these dual stories.

But first, the good...

The way the movie was designed was quite pleasing, although quite stylized colourfully-- the old blue and yellow was back, although red, white and the occaisional pale green had been thrown in to make you think it wasn't a blue and yellow movie. (But I'm on to that!)

The script was tight; the film didn't show us unnecessary scenes and instead asked us to fill in the gaps and make assumptions, which I know is something I get very uppity about.

I also liked that it was in some ways a love letter to old film; in the first half, I wondered why Scorsese had taken on the film, but it became very clear as the movie developed into this more film-centric plotline. I liked that connections were made between life and the films and once we got into that early film based section the movie came alive.

This will contain some extremely mild spoilers:

As I said above, the major problem with the film is the disjointedness. I got the sense watching it that there were several quite separate stories tucked into one.

First thing you have to know is that the more important story of the film (not the story of the boy but the story of the man) is a True Story. Going in knowing this would actually definitely have affected the way I perceived the story. True Stories are never as well tied up as ones that have little to no requirement to match up with reality.

This True Story is actually a really lovely one and I know why Scorsese and Brian Selznick (the writer of the book it's adapted from) chose it. What the problem is, and this may be a problem with the book as well, is that the titular boy Hugo actually is largely a conduit through which we can get to this other character's story. Yes, the boy has a story of his own, but it's very much as a supporting role-- at least in the movie.

Now, this is fine as a concept. I actually really like it. The trouble is that the film actually doesn't really fully realise it. One of my favourite quotes from a film maker is from Sidney Lumet who talked about a good film being the product of people who were all making the same movie. This means that everyone is onboard with a single vision. All the parts work together perfectly to tell a single, or set of matching, stories. Hugo doesn't quite pull this off.

The movie is centered on the train station, partly because of the True Story, but this is used to make it a convergence of stories. There is a line in it somewhere along the lines of, "This is a train station. People are either getting on trains or off them. Nothing else goes on here." Clearly, the movie says, it does. To an extent, the stories pulled together but maybe an inch more cohesion, a tiny bit more woven together at any point in the movie, would have really pulled this story together.

As it stands there were a few loose threads that I thought were a little too loose.

First, Sasha Baron Cohen. Cast for humour and within his own story, he was quite good, but as part of a cohesive whole he was in a different film. Part of this is the fact it was Sasha Baron Cohen, and there is something a little too satirical about him. The rest of it was simply that I'm not sure Scorsese really knew what to do with him. He was also the only villain in the film but lacked any real convincing villainy. He was simply there to get in the way when the film was getting a little too easy for the characters. It would have maybe been good to have him connect more with the early film plot through some more obvious device and also connect with Hugo through something slightly less simple.

Secondly, the tug of war between Hugo as the main character and Georges was a bit unstable and unbalanced. I would have liked to see more of the early-on story lines converge on or (perhaps more subtley) circle arond Georges. The use of a montage to establish the relationship between Hugo and Georges was especially weak. A single strong scene probably would have done a better job. Perhaps Georges should have been more visually and philosophically part of the train station, even if it wasn't immediately obvious that this was the case.

Thirdly, the girl was I felt a decidedly weak point. She was a tool with character traits, not a full character. I nearly guffawed at some of her more cliched lines and actions. I suspect that this is a flaw of the book rather than simply of the film or the actress. She could have been more key to the story (if you've seen the film, pun intended). Given she was at the station frequently, she could have provided the central character between Georges and the disparate station characters, and clearly did interact with them (teaching all the children to dance), but never became the rounded and full character she could have been.

I may be showing my feminism a little, but I fear part of her problem is not simply that she is a bit of a tool between Hugo and Georges and nothing more, but also that she's a female character in a book about two male characters, by a male writer, made into a movie by a male director. Very little about her rang true for me and I feel this was a significant loss of what could have been a crucial glue that would hold the story together. In fact, as I write this I am becoming more and more convinced that more than anyone she is the most important character in the story and as such should have been much more fully developed and this is a huge problem for the story that she isn't. After all, it's her who creates the mystery by uttering the fateful paraphrased line, "Pere Georges won't let me watch movies, and I don't know why."


Lastly, where the girl should have been the literal and central person linking Georges and Hugo, Hugo's invention should have been the philosophical/emotional link. These two people share something very important that is represented by the invention, and we never really got that sense. Partly, I think, because Scorsese was playing his Georges cards very close to the chest, but also because the focus became on early film. The original title suggests that there was also this other key part of Georges-- encapsulated in the invention-- that actually represented him as a person so much so that it was the object chosen to cause [/i]the whole plot to happen[/i]. And yet, it was the film that got centre stage and all the glory. It should have been the invention!

This last problem is possibly/probably an artifact of the movie being filmed by Scorsese, who is clearly and perhaps inevitably more interested in the early film aspect of the story.

What a shame! This was one of these films/stories that was so close. However, I think it used to people and objects as just tools, rather than full developing them. It needed a woman's eye looking at that girl and punching the male writers before pushing her further into the plot to provide more glue between the different parts. It needed someone to remind Scorsese that the story is first about the invention, not about the films.

1 comment:

Mitchell Gerskup said...

This is a truly excellent review.