The Trouble with Quibbles: Hugo

An interesting change of pace from some of his grittier films, Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s 3D celebration of cinema/magical mystery tour through 1930s France. The film, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows the eponymous young protagonist, an orphan who secretly lives in the walls of a Paris railway station, as he attempts to unlock the mystery of a clockwork automaton, which he believes holds a message from his deceased father.

AS: I love me some Martin Scorsese, but I was not nearly as jazzed about Hugo as I thought I would be.

BP: That is crazy to me. I feel like any film buff or cinephile or what have you, should really like this movie. I mean they don’t have to think it’s perfect, but I expect you to at least have had a minor emotional reaction to it

AS: I did have an emotional reaction. I love everything about the cinema. I think Ben Kingsley is amazing. And would’ve loved to spend more of the movie with him and his movie magic. But I didn’t care for the kid or really anything about the kid. It’s like two different movies. The stuff with Ben Kingsley is A+, the stuff with the kid is D-.

BP: You mean to say you love everything in the movie dealing with movies and the history of movies?

AS: Yes. I got a little teary-eyed when the children in the theater with me were marveling at Méliès A Trip to the Moon.

BP: I will come back to that… but is that your only complaint… that the kid and his plight didn’t work for you? Was it his acting, his story, or both?

AS: Both… I just didn’t care about Hugo. I didn’t think Chloe Moretz was that good here either, and I usually think she’s great.

BP: I will agree that the Hugo stuff is not nearly as strong as the Méliès… but I think it’s interesting because I feel a biopic about Méliès would not be as moving, whereas when you frame it with Hugo’s story I think that’s what makes the rest work. It’s like that sense of loss and longing for connection doesn’t work the same way. As for the kid acting, I think it was fine, nothing amazing, or as great as Moretz has done before, but it all worked for me. I mean Asa’s eyes do half the acting for him.

AS: Yeah, that’s what makes it more frustrating for me. I know Chloe Moretz is good. And Asa Butterfield does have some nice moments. But for the most part, I’m just annoyed by these two dumb kids.

BP: Why did you think they were dumb?

AS: The ignorance of youth… Hugo & Isabelle aren’t any dumber than other child protagonists in movies, but I’m just not as emotionally invested in them to go along with their antics.

BP: I guess… but part of that is the point. I mean, they’re ignorant and then they get real learnt by the end real good. But I’ll return to my earlier point, I think you are invested and you don’t know it. How else to explain the reaction you have at the end?

AS: I have the reaction to the love of movies, not the kids. I still don’t care about the kids. At the end, my first thought was, “Gee… I would’ve much rather spent the whole movie watching George Méliès create movie magic, instead of this stupid kid, who just complicates things.” It’s a weird movie, cause it tugs on my heart-strings with my movie nostalgia, but it also makes me feel like a cranky old Scooby Doo villain,”I would’ve got away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”

BP: But my theory is, you wouldn’t react to the nostalgia stuff were it not for Hugo. I mean I have no way to prove this, but I don’t think a 40 min film about Méliès and film history would have the same effect. Anything else not work for you?

AS: You’re saying Hugo is the gateway to nostalgia?

BP: I’m saying I think his story is a reflection of why we love movies. I mean, the plot of the film is admittedly thin, but you spend a lot of time with Hugo, his sad lonely life, watching him look out, as a voyeur, into a busy train station, wondering where he fits in. That’s us at the movies, is it not?

AS: So, Hugo’s sad existence and the subsequent escape he seeks in movies is a reflection of me/us?

BP: Escape or connection, yes. It can be you or me, if that strikes you personally, but most importantly it’s Scorsese. It’s his childhood manifested through Hugo’s eyes.

AS: Martin Scorsese telling stories about seeing movies as a kid is infinitely more interesting to me than Hugo (the character). I identify with Scorsese; Hugo, not so much. I enjoy Hugo (the movie) most when Hugo (the character) isn’t on screen.

BP: I suppose I see your point, and disagree, but unless you have more demerits, shall we talk about that movie section and how amazing it really is?


BP: It works on so many levels, it’s ridiculous. And yes, my eyes welled up.

AS: Even without Ben Kingsley, the Méliès segment could be great, but with Kingsley telling that story, it’s easily one of my favorite movie moments of all time, which complicates my feelings about the movie even more.

BP: I think it begins sooner than that. I think when they’re reading the film history book…

AS: The Invention of Dreams.

BP: …things in my brain and my heart started to act funny… like climbing the rope in gym class.

AS: I don’t remember our gym having a rope, which begs the question: what were you climbing? Otherwise, yeah, I concur.

BP: But let me analyze a bit for a second here. This is a kids film, and the “plot,” the “mystery,” is a little simplistic. But, it works to draw you in, get to know the characters and the locations… luxuriate, if you will. And then you get the “movie” part of Hugo, which isn’t about nostalgia. It’s so much more. It’s a history lesson, which is nostalgia for us cause we already know the history, but it’s also a declaration of why movies matter, why we see them, why we like them, but also, why they need to be discussed and preserved. Scorsese does this within the confines of Hugo’s story, without preaching, and it works for all types, in my opinion. If you’re a kid, you learn something you might not have known about. If you’re an adult, you learn something you might not have known about, but felt already.

AS: For me, that was the only part of the film that worked.

BP: And if you’re a die-hard film fan, it visually presents your love… or something… it’s hard to describe.

AS: All of that I can agree with. But the “mystery” is shit.

BP: Only cause you know it already.

AS: Which makes for a shitty mystery.

BP: Kids don’t know it. Regular Joe’s don’t know it.

AS: If all the character has to do is say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got the automaton back at my house and I’m fixing it,” how is that compelling?

BP: It barely is. I agree.

AS: No, it isn’t at all.

BP: But that is not the point. It works.

AS: Not for me.

BP: It’s not the highest stakes, but it works. Back to the “movie” stuff, the real kicker, the thing that makes it all transcendent and downright magical is the 3D

AS: Again, something I can agree with. Hugo does feature some pretty amazing 3D. The depth is stunning, through all the gears and clockwork. It’s gorgeous, like a living M.C. Escher drawing.

BP: There are 2 things I must say about the 3D. One is that it is thematically important. Sure the movie will work without it, but the 3D is a part of the story. He is telling us about movie’s and why they are magical, while using new magic to tell us.

AS: There is one point Hugo makes that I did really like, about how the world is one big machine, so he must have a part to play. I like that. That idea works hand in hand with the 3D.

BP: It’s remarkable. He even post-converts old silent films and makes those even more resonant. It was crazy. You’re sitting there watching an audience, watching old silent films and the whole thing is in 3D. So integral.

AS: Yes! It’s one thing hearing about how people jumped the first time they saw The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, but seeing it in 3D makes it something special.

BP: God yes! It’s like watching Scorsese’s entire outlook on film, from the start to now, and it’s all still so connected.

AS: The 3D makes if feel like Scorsese just opened a window into the past and let us look through.

BP: The second thing about the 3D: most of the time when you hear about “good” 3D, people talk about how not overly in your face it is, not gimmicky. But Hugo isn’t subtle about the 3D, it is aggressively in your face. The difference is that it’s all with purpose and framing. There are clock gears moving in the foreground, or a character is walking behind another, or there is something in the set design happening in the background, or sparks, or someone is watching a movie. It doesn’t shy away from using it.

AS: I don’t think “in your face” is the best way to describe the 3D. Yes, they use a lot and to great effect, but it takes us into the screen. It’s 3D for depth, not 3D for in your face gags.

BP: I guess I should clarify. It’s not in your face, like shit flying at you, but every effing shot utilizes the 3D in some way.

AS: Right. A rich 3D tapestry… not balls flying at your face.

BP: Which brings me to another point: this film is flat-out beautiful

AS: Yes, stunning if only for its lack of balls.

BP: The art direction, the cinematography, the costumes, they are all fantastic. The 3D captures it wonderfully, and yes, balls-free.

AS: Now I just want to talk about how the 3D invites you to go “balls deep” into the world of Hugo.

BP: Best poster quote ever!

AS: If only.

BP: I would think you could overcome your Hugo scene hate by virtue of how amazing the film looks. I mean, even if nothing is happening, or it’s just an okay scene, there is always something to look at.

AS: I can, and did.

BP: Well, see there, things aren’t all bad, champ. And yeah, the whole theater was sniffling, then applauding

AS: Which I love.

BP: And it wasn’t a critics screening in L.A., but regular people in San Diego. The film resonates, even for people who don’t know who Méliès or Lumière brothers are, or what an aspect ratio is. And I think that’s ultimately what makes the whole film a success.

AS: The ancillary characters help get me through: Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee, Sascha Baron Cohen.

BP: Kingsley was great, but my runner-up deserving of a shout out is Helen McCrory.

AS: Yes, she was quite good.

BP: In conclusion?

AS: I was less than enthralled by the main character’s journey, but the supporting cast, the Méliès backstory, and the idea of movies capturing dreams all surpass the main character’s shortcomings. Even going by my original grades of A+ for Méliès and D- for Hugo, the film evens out. Grade: B

BP: While not perfect, Hugo transcends its faults and sticks the landing. The 3D is essential and done right. I wear glasses over glasses and would not mind sitting through it again. See it, and be reminded why you go to the movies and why you love them. Grade: A


11 responses to “The Trouble with Quibbles: Hugo

  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. Check out mine when you can.

  2. I hear a lot of people say that the first half of the film drags but I disagree. While the first half isnt perfect it still works. Essentially Scorsese is trying to make the first half a silent film. There isnt a ton of dialog and the actors use a lot of facial expressions and body language to convey emotion.IT two movies in one. First half is an homage to Melies and the silent era and the second half is about Melie\magic of Cinema.

  3. He isn’t the most exciting character but it’s not his fault. He pretty much has to be depressed for about half of the movie. I guess you either buy the kid’s acting or you don’t and I totally bought it. I thought he was great.

  4. But you don’t have to like him to like this movie.

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  6. Chloe Moretz killed this movie for me. She was just so cutesy and amazed at every bloody thing. It was like I was watching her do an impersonation of Ariana Richards’ performance as the young granddaughter in Jurassic Park. It only worked for Richards because she looks so young in Jurassic Park. Richards was 12 and looks like a ten year-old in her movie: Moretz was 13 and looked 16 in Hugo. I just didn’t buy the little girl act.

    Another big problem for me was that the whole movie is crushingly depressing. Everyone has such crushing personal and financial blows and you just get the feeling that even though things get a bit better, they don’t get better enough for anyone.

  7. I really can’t stand either of the kids in Jurassic Park. Now that I’m a bit older I understand why they’re in the movie, but their acting was pretty awful, especially the girl.

    Moretz didn’t bug me in Hugo. Maybe a little a first but then I realized this is what her character is. Moretz isn’t trying to hard, her character is.

    As for the sadness, I liked it. I liked that it is in what is essentially a kids movie, and I think it accepts the inherent sadness of the subject matter head on.

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