Hugo could have been more boring if Martin Scorsese had directed it from a chair attached by bolts to the shoulders of a brain-damaged Tom Hanks, like a cinematic Master Blaster of schmaltz. Twenty minutes in I started fidgeting, looking around at the other bougies packed in the theater, wondering if I was in the wrong film. Nay, the wrong skin. I’d read Hugo‘s ecstatic reviews, and heard Scorsese waxing poetic re: 3D on NPR. The premise—an orphan who winds the clocks between the walls of a post-war Parisian train station brings a robot to life, and accidentally befriends real life filmmaker Georges Méliès—seemed promising. But Hugo fetishizes instead of reveals the beauty of its subjects. Clocks, trains, machines, silent movies, and all manner of other steampunk knickknacks brindle brightly to melodic accordion music throughout Hugo, but the story never pushes them past the level of prop. I went in expecting steak and vegetables, salad and wine, cake and ice cream, but got a cotton candy buffet, and exited the theater with a stomach ache in my soul.
Hugo presents filmmaking not as porous, but implacable. Would that a story about the magic of visual storytelling had had a good story to tell itself. The never-ending army of precious objects—heart-shaped locks, flower girls, mechanical mice, blue-eyed children with British accents, blueprints, sketches, automatons, glimpses of le Tour Eiffel—all seemed summoned to underscore an obscure art history lesson: remember this director (who is actually interesting, but whose Wikipedia page is conveys more of why than the movie). Scorsese attempt to exalt art, imagination, adventure, etc; but in pursuit of these ideals, his heroes pay no price. Without stakes, the scenes are leaden, and the theme yawns on: in the adoration of precious surfaces stuffed with good intentions, a piety as dull as it is cheap can be achieved. The beautiful logic of what the clocks mean, how they or any of the other props surprises us, is beside the point if they are shiny, and everything is shot in friscalating 3D™ dusklight, and “celebrates imagination.” It’s haunting to me that a movie supposedly so sincere about art making climaxes at an awards ceremony. Remember that scene in Toy Story 3 where the toys, faced with their imminent meltdown into magma, turn to one another, then decide to hold hands, lest they face death alone? Nothing anywhere near that real or human happens here.
Hugo brought lots of other movies to mind—Amelie, Ratatouille, Kontrol… I mean, upon exiting Hugo with the rest of the unwitting Thanksgiving-weekend throng, I wished to see another movie immediately so that I might wipe the dull taste of Hugo from the mouth of my poor movie brain, Hugo being like a chocolate-flavored rice cake: containing a necessary trace of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a kind of passable color-flavor combination, but underneath pure tasteless healthy.
The other movies it brought to mind—two set in the same accordion-soaked Paris as Hugo; one in a similar train-station conceit—were far superior if only because their directors showed a defter hand than old Scorsese with the construction of world—construction of viable, idiosyncratic worlds being the only thing any movie, nay work of art, is responsible for—Ratatouille was good because that little rat knew his way around the kitchen in explicitly unknowable ways, his rat-ness driving both story and scenery; Hugo, alas, is neither animated nor particular savvy about its ostensible locale: the eponymous child actor seems barely able to navigate the obvious back-lot he’s found himself on—at one point hiding from the station inspector by crouching in front of some stacked-up chairs.
I mean come on! He’s supposed to live in the station! Know all the crannies! Take us on a mind-whizzing tour—in Kontrol, the main character knew his labyrinth so well he could even sleep there, avoiding the security camera’s gaze, and didn’t Amelie understand the sightlines in her little apartment complex well enough to set up some seriously adorable hi-jinx?
Yet there are so many things wrong with Hugo, it seems unfair to linger on just that one: besides its sins of worldlessness, Hugo falls flat in an NPR-kind of way. The New Yorker, mine old frenemy, declares, “Hugo is superbly playful,” and yet the kind of blitheness Hugo achieves is distinctly pat, almost platitudinous: art is the arena in which the most trivial kinds of redemption are looped in endless reels of feel good puffery. Everyone ends up smug and satiated in Hugo,including Sasha Baron Cohen’s maimed Station Inspector, who seems to have wandered in from the set of a much funnier, more interesting movie. Had Hugo simply played the old movies it tries to celebrate, with some Ali G commentary to boot, I would have been totally and completely satisfied, my movie mouth full of cavities like it should be.
Every line is a time-based pun like “I’m gonna clean your clock…” and “Time’s up!” and “Looks like we’re making good time…” and “Time to go get some more time before time runs out.” “Not this time!”
Justin Timberlake’s lingering falsetto, erupting at moments of emotional intensity, undercut his ability to wag a gun and grimace convincingly at an adversary.
There were pauses in the dialogue so vast and vacuous, Russel Crowe could’ve piloted the ship from Master and Commander through them.
In Time is a man running a marathon whose legs are suddenly hacked off and instead of going to the hospital, he just worms forward, desperately clutching the earth in front of him while gawkers turn away, covering their eyes with their hands, but their eyes aren’t crying, they’re smoking.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde
“If I am the exact same character in every movie, I can be in every movie.” – Olivia Wilde
Remember the highlighted blonde-poodle haircut Justin Timberlake used to have.
Byron: The world was void, the populous and the powerful was a lump, seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay. The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still, and nothing stirred within their silent depths; ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea, and their masts fell down piecemeal; as they dropped they slept on the abyss without a surge—the waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, the Moon, their mistress, had expired before; the winds were withered in the stagnant air, and the clouds perished! Darkness had no need of aid from them—she was the Universe.
Like adultery, drugs, and advanced degrees in the humanities, midnight showings are great in theory, often lackluster in praxis, and usually leave one deeply regretful come morning. They are a bad idea, neither the cause nor effect of which you can ever remember, and so one which you are helplessly destined to have again and again, like thinking “pot is still fun!” or “a bj isn’t really cheating!” or “oooh, PhD in creative writing….”—movies at midnight sit stupidly in the center of one’s movie-going buffet, a dry, dull cake you somehow convince yourself you will not eat even as you march gustily towards it, suddenly feeling great and what’s this? Hungry! And: Alive! with the pure excitement and adrenaline and pleasantly discombobulating sense of adventure arriving at and entering a mall that has already closed instantly and inexplicably entails. What are we, like 12? Yes; let it be known: Mark and I are like 12. For we went to see Thor with the other 12-year-olds, all of us housed unattractively in the pasty corporeal sacks of our mid-to-late twenties, and we went to see it at midnight—an hour when all normal adults are either drunk, asleep, or mid-coitus with their cougarish comp lit prof.
Thor is like if Kenneth Branagh had riotous, frequent, meth-fueled sex with one of his film-studies undergrads and they decided to make a movie together, but this undergrad was hugely overweight and really into fantasy/comic book shit and also super-gay in an early-80s Freddie Mercury kind of way, and he insisted that their movie be an accurate depiction of ancient Norse mythology and its accompanying world views. And by that he meant lots of capes, curly-horned helmets, and some kind of space-sea-waterfall-scape, as if multiple Yanni album arts had been blown-up and poorly CGI’d together. There are moments when you can tell that someone real directed this film: a few scenes, after Thor has been “cast out” from Valhalla or wherever and deposited into the astrophysicist purview of Natalie Portman (who here plays her one other kind of role—the over-eager, somehow feral Good Girl), smack pleasantly of Branaghian self-awareness; later on, a deliciously inter-textual moment is smuggled in. But alas such morsels are few and far between. Thor is loud and metallic; its savor is like sleeping with a mouthful of popcorn taste, then waking up from a backwash of dreams your subconscious once again got suckered into taking the last swig of.
Couple things wrong with Hanna. No movie seen since more recalls Black Swan. Strengths similar. Strong central performance intersects ostentatious directorial style. Former never wavers, latter offers bursts of visual pleasure—e.g., prison-suited Saoirse Ronan escaping evil subterranean complex with pinpoint pistolry through pulsating flourescent light à la Goldeneye on N64, with the Chemical Brothers’ tribal electro jizz giving it to you in the ear. Or over the hodgepodge of land-, ethno-, aestheti-scapes the undisciplined script leapfrogs—Nordic forest pocked with ice floes dancing Wes Andersonianly, X-Files-ish Moroccan desert, Syriana-style city-state on eve of generic Arabian reverie, dueñde-eyed Flamenco dancers (whose feet we never see…) clapping in the glow of a bonfire—but like Black Swan, or the actioner of yore Hanna sadly most reminded me of, Boondock Saints, the overdosing on slow-motion, cheesy outfits, inorganic battles, and plotting discontinuity reduces our portrait of the titular naïf and her struggles to an excuse to peacock Joe Wright’s directorial tailfeathers. We can give Wright an “A” for effort—trying to hoist the genre out of a swamp sticky with little else but the buttsweat of Jason Statham—but as bad poetry repeatedly teaches us, a high-gloss literary stylism is no panacea, and often ends up offending us more than things that are meaningless, nakedly.
Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother isn’t scary enough. One problem common to all bad action movies, no matter who they star or how florid their mise-en-scène: we never actually fear for our main character. I don’t think this is a difficult problem to solve. You don’t do it by weakening your hero. You strengthen your villain. If the big bad wolf is actually a big bad wolf, and little red riding hood defeats her, as we knew she would, that can still thrill us, especially if we don’t know—or can’t imagine given a set of seemingly incredible odds—how the inevitable reversal will be architected. But if the big bad wolf is just one woman with a gun stomping bureaucratically around in “scary forest green” half-inch heels, and little red riding hood is a genetically-engineered badass who has already effortlessly slaughtered a small army of armed guards in a high-security compound controlled by the CIA ten stories beneath the Moroccan desert, it’s hard for me to fear for her life. It’s hard for the endless chase scenes that power-fuck their way through Hanna to transcend routine. The only times I really sense Hanna’s humanity is when she adopts herself into a normal family of British travelers and almost has her first kiss, makes her first friend, and experiences adolescent intimacy’s sweet sting. I wish this would’ve been more of the movie. Or I wish the obligatory action orgy that gobbled it up would’ve had even a glint of equivalent ambiguity.
Toy Story 3 was the best movie of 2010 because it revived the cadaver of adventure with brilliant scripting, realistic characters, and inventive action. Rango takes that resurrected corpus adventura and jabs a syringe of adrenaline into its heart. The first scene—too surprising, weird, meta, and smart to describe—is the best opening since Inglorious Basterds. And Rango’s multiple chases, battles, and other staples of action are so aware of their historical predecessors that watching each is like gorging yourself like a hog at the trough of homage to and parody of all the most beloved tropes of spaghetti western, space opera, noir, Freud, and Homer. Constant, riotous, gonzo wit at machine gun pace obliterates all your defenses against Rango‘s eleven-layer irony-cake of visual and narrative gratification. In one scene, our not really-eponymous hero, an Odyssean lizard and archetypal chameleon with no name—Johnny Depp, perfect casting—turns to a kid and shouts, “Burn everything but Shakespeare!” It was like watching something written by a future, infinitely more successful and disciplined version of myself. As the crowd shuffled me out of the theater I looked back over my shoulder and thought, “I want to see that again.” Last time that happened was Fantastic Mr. Fox, and before that Basterds. What do these three movies have in common? One, an oneiric swirl of fulfilled conventions. Two, a reeling, panoramic sensorium of metaphor. Three, a seemingly suicidal level of self-referentiality grounded in tight storytelling. Four, an almost obscene amount of jokes. Five, cornea-crushing cinematography. Six, sincere, devoted direction. Seven, perfectly executed setpieces. Eight, all squeezed through the estranging eye of auteurial mise-en-scène. No windmill goes untilted at; no saddle goes unblazed. No god of cinema goes uncrucified and seconds later, raised. Rango is generous and savvy in these ways. Gore Verbinski also directed the first Pirates of the Caribbean, another epic that took me back to the theater multiple times. Rango is so decadently good, it seems passive-aggressively pathetic to point out its only flaw: an impatient dénouement. The film could’ve luxuriated in its coolest characters more. And there are many cool characters. Anyone who does not see Rango, or anyone who sees it and doesn’t like it, Fuck you!
2. What specifically delights us about the animal in human attire
3. Not of dress only, but of attitude
4. Lizards in Hawaiian shirts; some sort of bird thing in a poncho
5. Is it an aspect of miniaturism
6. And from the miniature do we extrapolate perspective
7. Is it perspective that delights
8. How is it possible that for the first five minutes of Rango I literally did not know what was going on
9. Why was this so delightful
10. Is there less at stake for an actor in an animated role
11. Or do they consider it an exercise in formal invention
12. Like a Mark Leidner movie poem, for example
13. What is the equivalent in poetry to Jesse Eisenberg being the voice of a blue parrot in the forthcoming, highly sucky-looking Rio
14. Is this like if Mark made a movie of a Tony Hoagland poem
15. The Tony Hoagland poem
16. Does a topic’s importance—its claim on the political, the social, the real—bar it from delight, not to say delightfulness
18. Whilst acknowledging the awkward demands of the polis—its tug
19. But what is perennial about the search for the self
20. When we sense allusion without perhaps knowing the exact nature of the referent, what is the pleasure
21. Is this an allusion of codes—the hilariously absurd shot of Rango’s posse riding against the pulsating semi-circle of sun, for example
23. Because Rango is the voice of Johnny Depp, his steed a roadrunner with a butt-full of feathers
24. In intuiting allusion do we feel bound more closely to the culture in which we and it bask
25. Is allusion thus a tool of tribalism
26. Which, like racism, is not delightful
27. When I laughed so heartily at its Star Wars allusion, was I simply pleased to have been allowed access to the cerulean depths of Rango’s cultural sea
29. Is delight predicated mostly on consciousness or un-
30. Is delight more complicated than we generally consider it to be
31. Are good children’s movies the cinematic equivalent of the medieval jester
32. In that they allow adults levels of experience conventional grown-up fare assumes
33. Bewilderment; delight
34. And yet it is only through recontextualization of cultural knowledge—which depends on the experience of exposure—that such delight can function
35. Is it better to be young than old