Today is a big day for us all. Jennifer Aniston, best known for staring intently into David Schwimmer’s eyes, has finally gotten her star on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.”
No idea why she’s posing as though she’s putting her handprints in cement. Maybe she’s doing an impression of Marley from ‘Marley and Me’.
For a filmmaker whose name immediately conjures up images of Joe Pesci stabbing someone in the boot of a car, Scorsese has had a rather eclectic career: producing and directing slapstick comedies, romance, concerts, and even a Dalai Lama biopic. Family entertainment, however, has so far eluded him until now. That’s what makes his latest feature ‘Hugo’ such a unique commodity.
It’s an unholy act of futile resistance trying to ignore his visually opulent execution, even as I watched it in 2D. No doubt Scorsese is helped here by the fact that his preferred camera stylings have always been characteristically animated, perfect for the attention of kids with his sweeping shots that are truly arresting to the eye. Marty doesn’t need to fake the broad and fantastical tone — a fate that made Ron Howard’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ utterly unwatchable – and Brian Selznick’s book (‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’) provides a solid wealth of layered themes from which the screenwriter John Logan continues to build upon.
As it opens with CG-assisted dissolve, the hustle of Paris’s busy streets become synonymous – or, at least, visually equated – with the inner-workings of a clock. This fitting motif provides the emotional theme for the rest of the film: function, and the notion that true happiness comes only from fulfilling one’s function. (If you listen carefully enough, you can just about hear Max Weber rejoicing in his grave. Indeed, ‘Hugo’ feels somewhat Calvinistic in message, with the whole idea of answering your own “calling” et al.) This, being for both kids and adults alike, is hit home both subtextually and overtly. Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) notes that the automaton which Hugo (Asa Butterfield) owns looks “rather sad,” to which he replies that it is simply waiting, waiting to perform its function — which, we can perfectly extrapolate, is on the same plane as sadness. Hugo goes on to discuss his admiration of machines, of how they come with an exact number of parts, “no more, no less” than what is needed to work (clearly IKEA didn’t exist during the 1920s). Just like the automaton, Hugo and Georges Méliès (and the ensemble of kooky love-lorn characters populating the train station) are all machines missing that crucial piece that will make them whole (at one stage, I expected Richard Griffiths to propose a shared visit to the Wizard of Oz). Jokes aside, this does make for an unusually strong emotional backbone for what is essentially a family film.
That the movie pioneer Méliès (Ben Kingsley) could so quickly and unexpectedly lose everything serves to emphasise the fragility of cinema’s dream world, a child in need of protection, and ‘Hugo’ is a referential pat-on-the-back for Scorsese’s craft of film preservation. It’s almost as if he takes the position of the parent reading to a young child, turning the page and pointing out amusing details: his technical expertise forever guiding our eyes.
When all of the characters, both major and minor, are brought together for the finale, rather fittingly at a film screening, we see in this fleeting moment one of Scorsese’s fondest realisations about his own community, in that it’s an outlet for everybody’s collective ambitions (Méliès is asking them all to “Come and dream with me!”). Wrapping these themes around the narrative of an orphan trying to find his place in the world is a gesture at once autobiographical and giving, a living testament to the importance of art in an era that so often dismisses it.
I’ve been looking forward to the return of Alexander Payne with an anticipation which some many not consider necessary and an obsession which some may not consider healthy, but how could I not be bitterly disappointed by this harmless and half-baked meditation on life and death?
Payne establishes his modern pastoral dialectic early on: in an expository and somewhat clunky piece of over-narration from Matt King (George Clooney), we immediately discover that he faces an all-important legal decision whilst his wife languishes in a post-boating accident coma. King, given one of the most awkwardly predictable names in recent memory, is the last direct descendant of Hawai’s former reigning family and must now decide whether to sell the land (and, in the process, delight his money-grabbing relatives – featuring some great animated turns from Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster) or keep it and preserve the island’s unique vibe. (No prizes, after many a bout of deep Oscar-baiting introspection, for which our antihero finally plumps for!)
Sadly, that’s the real problem here: our empathetic allegiances are already with Clooney from the very start thanks to him suddenly finding out that his wife was having an affair (talk about adding insult to terminal injury). I can appreciate why Payne added this; he expected the two subplots to seamlessly converge, but in fact they remain as just two narrative arcs (one looking to the past, the other to the future) that clumsily trip over each other and endlessly battle for the spotlight. In his previous films, we feel no sympathy for the protagonist, whether it be because of Paul Giamatti stealing from his own mother (‘Sideways’) or Jack Nicholson’s conservative cut-backs on his wife’s funeral expenses (‘About Schmidt’). There was no obvious guiding of sentiment; it is entirely up to the audience as to whether the lead characters have, fully or partially, redeemed themselves by the time the credits have rolled. Rather, Payne’s signature offhand disrespect for character development in ‘The Descendants’ is entirely embodied in Matt King’s daughter’s boyfriend, Sid, who becomes a punching bag (both literal and figurative) for the otherwise splendid cast. The unexpected moment of humanisation given to him near the end feels both like a self-realization of Payne’s spite and also a tossed bone.
Even the occasional cathartic attack on the emotional progress aren’t really that effective – a rather unfunny flipflop sprint by Clooney fails to live up to Kathy Bates’ nude jacuzzi scene in ‘About Schmidt’. Instead, Payne tends to undermine the building of tension through unfunny, crude interjections – too often falling back on Matt King’s daughter’s continual swearing. (It’s funny ’cause she’s too young to understand what words like ‘hoe’ and ‘m*****f****r’ mean! LMFAO!)
As for Payne himself, he’s probably worthy of the ‘Best Director’ nod from the Academy. By any other measure, this is a well-made film: visually stunning and a justifiable addition to his body of cinematic work. It is only when we remember that this movie is a descendant of ‘About Schmidt’, ‘Sideways’ and the beautifully subversive ‘Election’ that we realise the hysterical plaudits and Oscar buzz are overblown. The comedy feels forced and the tragedy too heavy; ‘The Descendants’ is a cartoon mallet to the head compared to the heavenly lightness of his back catalogue.