Monday, December 19, 2011

Hugo--a great film for certain people of all ages

Few read reviews to find out whether the reviewer liked the film. They want to know whether THEY will like the film--to decide whether to see the movie or not, and whether to see it in the theater or wait and see the DVD (or the download). That's the task I'll take on here.

As the Rottentomato website has already shown (it assembles and correlates scads of reviews from the press and the web, along with reader responses), the critics adore this film, the audience somewhat less so.

Part of this has to do with managing expectations. The marketing presents Hugo as an Avatar-ish 3D fantasy with a C3P0 (StarWars)-type flying robot. this is actively misleading, though that's not the director's fault.

What Hugo is, is a fable--not a fantasy--that's part tween adventure and part infomercial for the preservation and viewing of old silent movies. Most importantly--and this is a point that hasn't been made by most reviewers here and elsewhere--it's a film about ex-magician/early filmmaker Georges Meliés that Scorsese made, to a degree, IN THE STYLE of a Georges Meliés movie. That's part of the homage.

Thus "Hugo" contains a lot of adventurous running-around, a brilliant exploitation of the best 3D filmmaking technology extant, and a leavening of slapstick elements--particularly from the surprisingly restrained Sascha Baron Cohen.

It's a fable based on real events in the early history of movies. "Sleepless in Seattle" was a fable with no fantasy elements other than its happy-ending-inevitability, which you feel from beginning to end. That's the essence of a fable, not whether it has fantasy elements or not. A fable is a kind of ritual that reaffirms the tribe's values and faith in its vision of life.

Hugo reaffirms faith in goodness--that even in many apparently hard-hearted people there's an ember that can be fanned into life by the right person. The movie's vibe from its first seconds tells you that you are riding towards a happy ending.

Two Russian intellectuals that I saw the movie with hated that fact. They think a movie is unrealistic unless everyone's doomed, and if you'd grown up in the Soviet Union that was probably realistic. Especially since Soviet-era fable-movies did guarantee a happy ending--"happy" as defined by Soviet ideology at least. So for my friends. fables aren't just false, but evil State Propaganda. And a lot of Americans who fancy themselves intellectual have a similarly jaundiced perspective about Hollywood's addiction to guaranteed by hook or by crook happy endings.

I think this issue stems from not understanding the ritual validity of fable. I love realistic movies without this guarantee of happy outcomes, but I also love a good fable. I'm certain of my spouse's love for me and of my love for her. I'm certain of our relationship with our closest friends, as they are of us reciprocally. I'm certain of the law-abidingness of my society (especially compared to the third-world countries we've traveled in). Predictable good outcomes are, within reasonable constraints, reasonable to believe in, in many ways.

So "Hugo"'s ultimate predictability is a valid artistic choice. It's not a spoiler to say this because you know it from the start and you should know so you don't confuse this with a Sundance-type art film where everyone is confused and faces an uncertain future, usually alone. I apologize for "Hugo" not being a slit-your-wristsathon. I also like such films, and they usually set your expectations from the start as well, for that matter.

So who will enjoy "Hugo" ?
1. Bright tweens. It stars a pair of bright tweens, so this is a natural. Many younger kids will like it as well--it's visually a treat, and it is based on a kids' story. But duller/much younger/Disneyfied kids who want nonstop action and/or the relentless cheerful action of a Disney film will probably find their attention wandering in places.

2. Everyone who's interested in the history of filmmaking--particularly right at the beginning.

3. Everyone who's interested in modern filmmaking. This does represent the absolute state of the art in 3D cinematography--where its 3Dness is integral and almost taken for granted, not tacked on, not poke-you-in-the-eye, not several layers of 2D images.

4. Everyone who's interested in good fable direction/screenwriting/acting. This is not to say anyone involved in this project can't do naturalistic films or fantasy films, or, in the case of Chloe Grace Moretz, naturalistic fantasy films ("Let me in"). So no negatives are proven here. That said, I believe the casting was spot on for the major and minor roles. This is one area where Scorsese didn't copy the stagy mugging of Meliés' films (except during re recreations of those films). The large, intent close-ups of the major characters really exposed their acting chops, and all came through. The boy, who I'd never seen before, kept it subtle, as well as the other juvenile character, Isabelle (played by Moretz). The young actors in many youth-oriented films tend to mug--again, Disney movie style--and kids who expect that need to be prepped by their parents to look for more lifelike acting here.

Who won't love it?

1. It's not a Selena Gomez/Demi Lovato/Disney vehicle. It's nothing like Lindsay Lohan's wonderful "Parent Trap," one of the best of the normal good-quality kids' film. It too is a fable, but it isn't overlaid with all the stuff about film history and suchlike. "Hugo"'s ideal kid audience is going to be like Isabelle in the move--sweet, bookish, curious, and not locked into peer culture as the source of everything that could possibly be of interest to one.

2. People who don't like the fable genre. The film embeds pretty naturalistic performances and note-perfect sets showing a Paris train station circa 1931, where most of the action takes place within a non-naturalistic film fable. There are lots of non-fable films. See one of those unless you really do want to see state of the art 3D cinematography and want to ratchet up your suspension of disbelief in order to watch this.

3. People with zero interest in film history. This is where a lot of movie critics err. Of course nearly all of them are fascinated by early film history. But this film verges on being a high quality 2 hour infomercial for film preservation, and you know, reading this, whether such prolonged self-regard on the part of the filmmaker towards his medium will fascinate or annoy you.

4. Adults who don't like films starring children. I detect this bias in people who criticize the performances of "Hugo"'s two junior leads, who are both exemplary. Also, I hadn't seen the boy before, but I have seen Moretz costarring in the grim, critically acclaimed "Let Me In," in which she portrays--with almost no dialogue and almost no special effects--a bloodthirsty (literally) yet profoundly conflicted child vampire, and in which those averse to sunny endings will get their wishes more than satisfied. And in which her appearance and performance have been compared favorably to a very young Ingrid Bergman. That is, she has gravitas. Of people in her age bracket, the only other actor I can think of who has that is Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit).

My point here is that Moretz's acting chops are now an established fact. She has a far less complex character to portray in "Hugo," yet even in Isabelle's wide-eyed pre-ingenue role she infuses her character with a kind of luminosity that holds its own even when she's sharing the screen with great adult actors like Ben Kingsley.

5. Adults who only want to see heavily plot-driven films. It's not like "Hugo" is one of those kaleidoscopic non-narrative films. It tells a story, to be sure. But besides the child-centered narrative there's a biopic about Georges Meliés (and his wife) here, told in flashback, along with excursions into film history. Some people will find that as rich as a multicourse meal; others will be annoyed by "Hugo" not being propelled by a singular narrative drive. Such people will sit there saying "All right, Scorsese--get to the point!"

6. Those who are really reluctant to pay to see the film in a theater, even if they're eager to see it on DVD. I agree with this feeling nearly all of the time. However, some films are so visually huge--and, especially, if they're 3D and do that well--you need to bite the bullet and see it in a theater, if only to compare what it's like in a theater in 3D with what it's like on your flat screen TV at home in 2D. Hey, you can always see it in a bargain matinee, as we did. But we'll probably get the DVD when it comes out as well, because it both makes and recalls film history.