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The UnPopular Opinion: Hugo

04.18.2012

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

There are few things more infuriating than a missed opportunity, and I have no problem with saying that Martin Scorsese's HUGO is one of the single biggest missed opportunities in recent cinematic history.  The trailers filled me with wonder, the promotional materials promised an experience full of fun and wonder, and the film's overarching plot was one which spoke about many themes and subjects very dear to my heart.  HUGO looked to truly be a perfect storm of everything that I loved in other films at last brought together in a single grand spectacle.

I walked out of the theater feeling nothing but frustration, as well as relief mingled with surprise that I had somehow survived Scorsese's extraordinary test of my patience.

Not only was HUGO an enormous missed opportunity, which is sad in and of itself, but also a significant step back for Scorsese as a storyteller that was barely carried by a few fascinating sequences plus a set of (almost universally) great performances.  I cannot remember the last time a film let me down as much as HUGO did, the last time I was so acutely disappointed both by what I had seen (the atrocious storytelling) and what I hadn't seen (those lacking elements which make this such an infuriatingly missed opportunity).

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I don't know if you've ever seen GETTYSBURG with Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels.  Growing up, being the Civil War-obsessed kid that I was, this movie was cinematic gold to me.  A painstakingly accurate recreation of the the days leading up to and including the Battle of Gettysburg, it captured my young mind and definitely fueled my fanatic interest in the subject.  Upon rewatching GETTYSBURG about ten years later, I couldn't even finish it due to how f***ing boring and slow I found it to be.  Basically historical reenactors being filmed doing their thing, GETTYSBURG is a movie that High School teachers actually use these days to instruct their classes on the Civil War.  And as an educational experience, sure, it works just just fine.  But as a narrative film with an engaging plot structure, exciting character interaction, or interesting camera work? Well, in that respect it fails utterly. 

As does HUGO, which is the polar opposite of GETTYSBURG in terms of its lavish spectacle and production values but otherwise cut from exactly the same cloth in terms of each of those above three counts.  HUGO is, quite simply, the most expensive educational special you'll ever see.  Or else it's the most expensive visual love letter (in this case, to cinema) that you'll ever see.  Either way it is a narrative film in name but not reality, filled overflowing with boring camera work and shoddy storytelling.  And that last point is even excluding the large number of continuity mistakes that can be found infecting Scorsese's work on a general basis.

HUGO's plot and story structure is full of "continuity" mistakes as well, jumping every which way as it tries to equally cover an entire spectrum of plot progression.  Is this a story of the mystery about an automaton which draws a strange picture (ignoring the question of why he draws it in the first place)? Is this the story of friendship between two young people? Is it a love letter to the magic of cinema? Is it a history lesson on cinema's origins? Is it a techincal showcase? Is it a biography of the tragic fall and triumphant return of George Melies? Is it about a boy's quest to find peace with his father's death? Is it is it is it WHAT? I.  DON'T.  KNOW. 

Yes, of course a movie can be about many things with many layers of storytelling, and many often are.  But at least do it with some thought for how the disparate elements might compliment each other and a modicum of respect for the basic storytelling requirement of having real characters partake in real interactions in a halfway-decently built narrative.  Instead, the three narrative threads that run through HUGO (Hugo Cabret's story, George Melies' story, and the story of the people in the train station) do not, as written/edited, serve to compliment each other in the slightest.  Each is distractingly different in tone, pace, and intention, and there is very little success in the way Scorsese tries to tie them together.

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First the good, because there's just a whole lot of bad that I'll spend plenty of time on in a moment.  There are quite a few really great performances here, with Sir Ben Kingsley of course being the absolute highlight and a true delight to watch.  I would go so far as to say this is some of the best work of his career, and he consistently surprised me with his natural and inspired line readings.  Helen McRory brings a lovely balance of strength and humanity to her role of Mama Jeanne, while Michael Stuhlbarg's wonder and delight as Rene Tabard is a joy to behold.  And then there's newcomer Asa Butterfield, who acquits himself quite well amidst the sea of talent that surrounds him.  Howard Shore's score is also well worth a mention, as it manages to succeed at overlaying a fair amount of joy and magic to the proceedings.

So we've covered the performances and the score, which means that in terms of the good bits of this film I still need to mention... uhm... well... I don't know exactly what else there is to mention beyond how it's a very pretty film to look at despite some really dodgy CGI (such as the flame that consumes Jude Law).  I honestly cannot think of anything else to praise about this film besides (most of) the performances, the score, and the art direction, and so we begin my long litany of complaints that I'll try go shorten to some sort of manageable length as I'm sure sure you have place to go and people to see and good movies to watch. 

Since I already brought up performances, let me just take a moment to mention how Chloe Grace Moretz's performance in this this is a huge step down from her past work in films like LET ME IN.  Perhaps there is only so much she could do with such a roughly drawn character and lines that were little more than expository, but damn was her breath acting and dull delivery distracting.

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I would also wonder why in the hell she was allowed so many seemingly self-indulgent pauses, but that would excuse Martin Scorsese and his editor from any of the blame in regards to the pacing of the acting in this film.  Which they should not be.  The performances in this film as a whole, even if the acting is fantastic in and of itself, suffer from a strangely overwrought editing style wherein the camera will often focus on one person for a few seconds, allow them to deliver their line, then cut to the person to whom they're talking, wait, allow that person to deliver their line, and then repeat ad nauseum.  And even if the performances themselves are praise-worthy, it is a wonder anything decent was able to be dredged out of characters and interactions that are an embarrassment to John Logan's writing career.  Almost the whole film is full of text and performance pacing that borders on elephantine, with no respect for the natural flow of conversation, inspiration, discovery, or emotion.  I've never seen a pacing problem like this in any of Scorsese's other films, so I don't really know what went wrong here. 

Methinks its time, lest you think this review to be hyptocritical by dragging on in its own way, to mention one of the most glaring problems present in HUGO: the camera work.  The awful, uninspired, nothing-less-than-boring camera work.  Or to be more specific, the still camera work.  When in motion shots are framed engagingly and the story told beautifully, but when the camera is still? I.e. when anybody is talking to anybody? Scorsese shows himself in HUGO to be no better than Tim Burton, who shoots a hell of a boring movie.  It is the artistry and design and plot which generall makes a Burton movie interesting to me - I never go to study his "filmmaking prowess."  For that I watch Spielberg or Nolan or Fincher or Ridley Scott, and once upon a time I watched Scorsese.  But HUGO was, for me, a massive disappointment in that regard.  This whole "methodical-and-serviceable-to-the-point-of-being-painful-camera-work" situation then in turn caused an already awfully structured narrative to drag all the more. 

As if it needed help, seeing as how HUGO bears the most bipolar narrative I've see in recent years.  Both times watching this film I had zero idea whose story this was, why it was important, why I was meant to care, or why the film disrespected me so much as an audience member by periodically dropping in "motivations" and "explanations" for these things like so many lead weights masquerading and expecting me to see them as gold nuggets.

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Last, and perhaps maybe least but still valid, is my frustration with how the film's "message" is constantly stuffed in with zero regard for smooth storytelling or natural character interaction.  It's all so damn heavyhanded I was very nearly driven to check that I wasn't watching a Lifetime movie made by Martin Scorsese on accident when he meant to make something else instead.  "Movies are our special place?" Yeah, I can see that.  No young person just comes out and says that, or if they do it's certainly not in such language.  Though I suppose any blame in that department would again fall on screenwriter John Logan and not Scorsese, but either way the point remains.

I found it curiously ironic that HUGO opened with a shot of an intricate clockwork mechanism, as that sums up rather well exactly what this movie is – a spectacular piece of technical achievement (again, despite some very dodgy CGI) that is yet a slave to that same technicality. Insofar as true human interaction and storytelling that is even passably engaging goes, HUGO is a complete mess.  If I were at my most cynical I would make the analogy that HUGO is to Martin Scorsese as ALICE IN WONDERLAND is to Tim Burton, which really is saying a lot as I utterly loathed that movie.  At my most generous I might say that HUGO is to Martin Scorsese as PUBLIC ENEMIES is to Michael Mann, implying it to be one of Scorsese's significantly lesser efforts that collapses under the weight of its own good intentions.

But, at the end of the day, I think the answer lies somewhere in between.

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Extra Tidbit: How did HUGO's Robert Richardson actually manage to wrangle the Academy Award for Best Cinematography away from THE TREE OF LIFE's Emmanuel Lubezki?
Source: JoBlo.com

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