Hugo (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Hugo (2011)

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A lot of people tell me that I'm too hard on films. They say that I'm too critical, that I hate movies. But Martin Scorsese doesn't hate movies. Martin Scorsese loves movies. He loves them so much that he's willing to bring his own film to an abrupt halt every thirty minutes or so just to remind you that he absolutely, without a doubt, thinks that movies are magical.

Most people will go into his latest film, Hugo, assuming that it's a family film. No, the great movie-lover Martin Scorsese has lured you in with the promise of something “fun” or “entertaining” so that he can give you a lecture on the magical wonders of film. Because films, as you know, are magic. If you're already tired of me saying the word "magical," you're beginning to understand what it's like to watch Hugo.

If a 'Train Pulls Into a Station' and no ones cares, is it magical?

Hugo is a mishmash of intertwining stories and forced attempts at whimsy, and only one of them is marginally interesting (and, hint, it isn't titular Hugo's).

But the first there's the story of titular little Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who keeps the clocks running in a Paris train station and his painfully precocious, book loving friend, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Hugo's trying to unlock the secrets of a discarded automaton that his late father discovered, all while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the station's inspector.

Or at least that's what the plot starts out as, but soon the dead father and robot are forgotten in favor of learning about the magic of cinema and the secrets Isabelle’s godfather is hiding (hint: they're also related to movies).

Hugo really is the story of Isabelle's Papa George and not Hugo, which doesn't work as Hugo is still the focus of the film. It feels like you're watching a film about a secondary character, rather than the actual protagonist, which I suppose is a unique idea, albeit an thunderingly uninteresting one.

It's a shame that Hugo had to be the central character of Hugo, because Ben Kingsley was really good as Papa George. It feels like the past few times I've seen Kingsley, he's been half-assing his way through some cinematic quagmire or other (Thunderbirds, Blood Rayne), and while I still didn't like Hugo very much, I found Kingsley's performance to be top-notch. As much as Scorsese tries to convince us that Hugo's world was filled with magic and wonder, I really only felt an inkling of that when Kingsley was on camera.

Menacing or comical? Neither, sadly.

I guess there's more, like the story of inept and occasionally evil Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). While I can take or leave a lot of Cohen's work, I felt pretty bad for him in this role. His character was so poorly written that I could never tell if I was supposed to hate him or laugh at him or just feel sorry for him. Early on he's just the Nazi-esque monster, stalking the halls and gleefully sending children off to the orphanage. Then, abruptly, they shoehorn in a scene of him trying unsuccessfully to woo a woman selling flowers (Emily Mortimer). Still later, he reveals the reason why he hates orphans so much is because he was an orphan himself.

Yeah, really. So he's evil, then sympathetic, then evil again and finally, I don't know, just plain idiotic? I guess in the end he went back to being sympathetic because we see him chilling out with all the other characters. I guess the magic of film cured his blah blah blah.

Oh, almost forgot about plot number four: The needlessly whimsical romance between two character actors. While Cohen's relationship with the flower girl I can accept as an attempt to develop his character (poorly), I still can't understand all the time devoted to Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as, well, two random people who fall in love. What does their story have to do with the film as a whole? Nothing. It doesn't involve films or robots, unless it's a reference that I'm completely missing. I guess since their romance is resolved when their dogs fall in love it's supposed to be whimsical or magical or something.

The World's saddest staring contest.

If the worst of Hugo's sins were needless subplots and overwrought “whimsy,” I could probably overlook that, but what really bogs Hugo down are the monologues. Well, really they're more like lectures: lectures, again, about how amazing and magical films are.

I took a writing course back in high school, and while a lot of what I learned may not have stuck, one think I've taken with me is that good writing is all about “showing, not telling.” Clearly, Mr. Scorsese missed that class. He's so obsessed with telling us about the wonders of films that there's hardly time to show us examples of this magic. Hugo's story is so painfully dull that the most “whimsical” quality of it is the score.

Even when he actually shows the films he's heaping praise on, he can't even let them speak for themselves. No, he's got to constantly inter-cut the clips with glimpses of Hugo and Isabelle laughing at how amazingly magical these films are! Can't you see how much these kids are enjoying A Trip to the Moon?! Why can't you love old films, too, kids?!

It's a shame the plot and characters aren't half as gorgeous as the set design.

If it seems like I'm being overly harsh, it's only because I can see what this film could have been. The set design is spectacular. There is some gorgeous cinematography. Even the 3D is incredibly well done, that even someone like myself, who regards 3D as a cheap gimmick, was glad he ponied up the extra cash for the goofy glasses. It felt like there was so much potential in this film, but Scorsese couldn't decide if he wanted to do a family film or a docu-drama about early films and so he settle, sadly, for a poor mash-up of the two.

Hugo is this year's Avatar: It's a pretty mediocre film trussed up with several layers of glitter and special effects. And just like Avatar, all I can see when I watch it is all the places that Scorsese could have done something interesting, or creative, or actually magical. If only Scorsese would have stopped talking about all the wonder and magic that films inspire and actually made something magical himself.

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Posted by Jacob

Comments (7) Trackbacks (0)
  1. The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review Jacob.

  2. FUCKING A I THOUGHT I WAS FUCKING ALONE ON THIS. Every asshole who’s seen this movie has insisted that “the visuals were stunning” and the movie was really “unique and family friendly.” Fucking fuck that. Find me a single kid who’s willing to sit through that movie and I’ll have to alert the authorities that you’ve been strapping children down and stapling their eyes open.

    Thanks for being the only game in town of the same opinion. You’ve got yourself a new reader.

  3. Nova, I think we’ll get along fine. Feel free to call us out on our shit as need be, though.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

    Dan: In retrospect, I feel my review was slightly unfair. While I still can’t muster any love for the plot or a lot of the acting, the set design, costumes and especially cinematography were gorgeous. If you can look past all my complaints and still enjoy it based solely on how pretty it is, then hey, more power to you.

    Nova: Ha! I’m glad to hear someone else agrees with me, too! But like Danny said, don’t be afraid to call us out when you disagree with us.

  5. yeah you got it – If there’s one thing I love its talking. Look in truth I didn’t really hate the movie I just hated that no one pointed out all the flaws. There’s a lot of things I look for in a movie and a good plot is right on top of that list. The fact that everyone felt differently caught me off guard. It was a bit like finding out that everyone was eating soylent green people meat, only when I told everyone what they were actually doing they just stared at me and said “….so what?”

  6. Asa *Butterfield* and *Chloe* Grace-Moretz…….maybe get the names spelled correctly before reviewing a movie? That was honestly my only problem with this.

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