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4.0 out of 5 stars No-Spoilers review of the 3D movie and the coming 2D DVD, December 19, 2011
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This review is from: Hugo (DVD)
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.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 46 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 9, 2012 9:23:09 PM PST
Andre M. says:
While I usually detest heavy analysis of movies whose sole purpose is to entertain, I liked your review. I think that you correctly explained some of the reasons people go too far in overexamining movies of this kind. Good job.

Posted on Jan 18, 2012 8:06:34 AM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 18, 2012 1:28:28 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 18, 2012 2:52:29 PM PST
Ehkzu says:
Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (considered the standard reference dictionary by most publishers' copy editing departments (and I speak from 20 years' experience as a writer/content editor for national publications):

fable...n[oun] from L[atin] fabula, conversation, story, play...: a fictitious narrative or statement: as
a: a legendary story of supernatural happenings
b: a narrative intended to enforce a useful truth;
esp. one in which animals speak and act like human beings
c: falsehood, lie

fabled adj[ective] (1602)[first year it appears in print]
1: fictitious
2: told or celebrated in fables
3: renowned, famous

English morphs constantly ("morph" being a word I never heard used when I was in college, for example). While "fable" as "anthropomorphized animal stories with morals" was probably the most common meaning of the term in the 18th century in Anglophone countries (as in Aesop's Fables).

However, like most words, "fable" keeps evolving, and while the "animals talking with morals" model persists, now, among other things, the term describes movies with a "heightened reality" that isn't strictly realistic, but is used to advance moral ideas.
Some examples:
Sleepless in Seattle (10th Anniversary Edition), which has no animals but uses improbable coincidences and characterizations and suchlike to convey a hopeful moral, and in which the lack of realism isn't considered a drawback by most, because it's a, well, fable. The idea isn't to make it point-by-point realistic but rather to create something of a ritual of hope, where the ideals espoused are the point rather than strict depiction of reality.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Series This uses fantasy as a proscenium to advance complex moral messages.
And, of course, Hugo, where the robot is impossible by current knowledge, much less that of the 1930s; where several of the subplots aren't strictly realistic, along with some other plot holes and improbable coincidences and a happy-ending-for-everyone that is exceedingly improbable. But all that is OK because it's a fable. Which also excuses and explains the fact that all these French people are speaking English--and with London-centric Brit accents as well.

In fables the point isn't the realism of the setting but rather the usefulness and desireability of the maxims being illustrated and illuminated.

The origins of words should never become a straitjacket. Words are constantly extended and even inverted as society evolves, and the need for new applications for existing words arise, along with neologisms and foreign language borrowings.

The protean flexibility of our language and its constant change provides one of the chief joys of this language. I'm constantly grateful for having had the luck to be born in an English-speaking country.

Posted on Jan 25, 2012 2:07:12 PM PST
H. Soister says:
I almost laughed when I read, "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." Actually, this isn't just a Soviet but a native Russian outlook. If you've ever read Nineteenth Century Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky and Gogol, you'd realize that almost everyone in their stories is doomed. Just one of the subplots in "The Brothers Karamazov" made me want to drink myself to death with bad vodka. So yes, Hugo is a good tonic.

Posted on Jan 26, 2012 7:33:23 AM PST
M. Aves says:
I must say, it's a really great review, and quite detailed and analytical. However, and I make this point on most Amazon review that I like but think are overly-long, a review of this length reduces the chances of other reviews being seen and considered. In fact, wherever you look, the reviews that are often displayed most often, and therefor voted on most, are those that by dint of length fill up most of the first page of results.

"Brevity is the soul of wit", as the immortal Bard of Avon proclaimed. Your review would have been immaculate had it been half as long. Please endeavor toward more economy with your words henceforth, so that other points of view may be perused by fellow shoppers.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 26, 2012 9:09:45 AM PST
Ehkzu says:
Einstein said, as long as we're quoting famous people, "explanations should be as simple as possible--but no simpler."

Actually I think most Amazon reviews are too long, because they comprise (a) revealing the plot, usually with whatever surprises are there, and (b) an up or down vote on the movie, usually larded with adjectives but no real explanation for why they think so, leaving the reader guessing, since they can't tell whether the reviewer's judgment can tell the reader whether he'd actually like the movie.

Reviews aren't equally useful. If you don't care what's actually said but just want to know what the crowd thinks, look at the Amazon star graph that shows how many votes a film got for each star rating. If you do care, then it's more useful to the reader to plow through one long, detailed, objective review than to read dozens that total, in word count, the same length as that long review, but don't help you much.

When I'm looking for products on Amazon, I look for the long reviews and skim over most of the short ones, because I find them often containing what I'm looking for.

And after all, there's no limit to the number of reviews. You can easily get to the ones you want to read. Just scroll down. Long reviews for them as want 'em, short reviews for them as don't.

"Brevity" as Shakespeare meant it, means "high information density," actually. Look at his plays. Not a lot of shorties there. If you don't cut down Hamlet, performing it as Shakespeare intended takes at least 4 1/2 hours. The closest to that on film is Kenneth Branaugh's version.

So that's what Shakespeare thought of his own injunction. And he was right. The same content in the hands of a lesser playwright would have had to run two or three times as long.

Lastly, I'm doing these reviews for free. If you want miracles of concision, that takes a lot longer to produce. Speaking as a professional writer/editor---someone would have to pay me to get that.

So think of this Hugo review as getting to read a pro's first draft.

Posted on Feb 4, 2012 12:47:40 PM PST
You DO know that you don't have to go to the theater necessarily to see it in stunning 3D, right? The 3D tv's today are AMAZING and produce even better picture quality that even the best theater's can. I just finished setting up my home theater, and because our old plasma just broke, we got a very-well priced 3D Samsung. The whole experience is breathtaking.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 4, 2012 1:52:09 PM PST
Ehkzu says:
Good point, Andrew. There's still an argument for the scale of the thing--such as the initial swoop down from the sky into the busy train station in one shot, which is stunning on a big screen--but yes, in-home 3D is certainly coming.

I tried looking at one in the store but the 3D glasses didn't fit over my eyeglasses, while the ones in the theater always have. So that's been a knockout factor for me so far, but if a setup has glasses as comfortable for eyeglass wearers as the theaters do, yes, it's something I should mention.

Posted on Feb 13, 2012 2:06:51 PM PST
"Two Russian intellectuals that I saw the movie with" left me wondering what their credentials are to make them intellectuals - it was a stunning film however - cheers

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 13, 2012 11:44:48 PM PST
Ehkzu says:
They're interested in things that aren't work-related, and even in things like non-blockbuster movies--and they can defend their ideas in conversation (which most people can't seem to do--as if they only associate with people who agree with them about everything. or who don't talk about what they do disagree about).

Apart from that...I haven't seen any universities offering a B.A. in "Intellectual studies" though that doesn't seem any goofier than some of the things they do offer degrees in...

So if anyone tells me they're an intellectual I'll take their word for it unless they subsequently prove otherwise. Seems like it's less of an IQ thing than it is an attitude thing--being interested in learning the same way you might be interested in scuba diving or stamp collecting.
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