Home > Uncategorized > Hugo, The Descendants et al

Hugo, The Descendants et al


Hugo has, for a considerable portion of its swiftly elapsing running time, a grand alchemy about it, as though Scorsese has bottled this up for a while and unleashed it as his last word. That’s how it often feels: a conscious fulcrum, a summation, a tribute to an art form. It’s also great fun: Asa Butterfield sneaks, sprints and scurries amid the unseen byways backstage at a Paris railway station, jinking impishly along forgotten corridors and clattering up dusty stairwells to fulfil his inherited and diligently preserved clock-keeping role. Ben Kingsley as George Melies nowadays runs a toy shop at the station, and the two become crucially embroiled, via Melies goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, best thing in the film), some stolen items pertaining to a coveted silver automaton and, of course, the serendipities and compulsions of fate and narrative arcs that are the stuff of movies. It doesn’t seem fair to quibble, but Scorsese is perhaps too close to this for it to breathe as much as it might’ve. There isn’t a frame that feels scruffily spontaneous, and some of the thrills seem crushed by zealous propriety or immaculate orchestration. This is a mounted and polished effort, which somehow seems strangely at odds with the frenetic, boyish Melies (Kingsley in great form) bustling around his chaotically wondrous sets, grandly recreated here.  Scorsese obsessively throws images of clockwork and clicking geometrical precision at the viewer and the effect is hypnotic but perhaps too freighted with insistences of legacy and wilful prestige. Regardless, there’s plenty of magic here, largely due to the great child leads.

The Descendants is a gently scathing return (overdue: he’s not Kubrick painstakingly assembling Napoleon each time, is he?) from Alexander Payne, which never quite hits his previous heights, and has George Clooney wrestling with two kids he barely knows after his estranged wife ends up in a non-returnable coma following a waterskiing accident. Cue unwelcome revelations of the adulterous sort and a troubling, sizeable family legacy he has potentially party-poopering final say over.Hawaii’s hardly an apt cinematic place in which to plonk beleagured characters that might evince maximum empathy, regardless of Clooney’s voiceover suggestions that ‘…paradise can go fuck itself.’ This isn’t hard times in Skidsville: Clooney is an affluent bumbler with a paunch whose job consists, like so many in film, of having a sprawling desk laden with teetering stacks of important looking documents you can scarcely see the protagonist recalling the import of. He also co-owns a large chunk ofHawaii as well. But money isn’t everything: inevitably reconnecting with your family is, as well as being a nice guy and forgiving your cheating, soon-to-die wife. The film, in any case, possesses some genuine belly laughs, is great fun and Clooney as slob is impressive enough. Robert Forster, though, who is barely in it as Clooney’s father-in-law, delivers the more memorable of the performances as a codger with a decent rabbit punch.

Certified Copy is much touted, possibly because it contains an awful lot of supposed intellectual extemporising and concomitant tortured air, maybe because it’s so deliberately unwelcoming (other than the majesty of the largely ignored Italian countryside – these people are serious), or even, perhaps, as it purportedly interrogates notable matters – authenticity, idolatry, existence, identity through art, etc – and isn’t deterred by piffling troubles such as being particularly compelling. The script is probably worth getting hold of. As a film, Certified Copy is admirably difficult but divulges nothing and bleats an awful lot. It’s the kind of film you wouldn’t want to deter in any way, but actually watching this one is often tedious. And Juliette Binoche tries too hard to appear unactorly and ends up looking graspingly odd.

The Guard is a bleakly hilarious romp, set on the Irish west coast, which is gleefully determined to draw shock-laughs at which it plentifully succeeds. Brendan Gleeson is great casting exemplified as a conventionally unconventional small town Garda firebrand of aimlessness suddenly given more to do than he’s entirely happy about as murderous drug-smuggling thugs, including the ever superb Mark Strong, head to town and snuff out another local copper (would they really require the services of more than one in this part of the world?) as pretty much an afterthought. Gleeson’s gruff quipper is soon thrown in with square black FBI suit Don Cheadle, ample script opportunity to tease out guffaw-worthy racist humour and subsequent cantankerously chortlesome ripostes. It’s a tremendous effort that’s simultaneously hard-edged and benevolent and unsurprisingly broke Irish box office records.

Cowboys and Aliens is an oddity: completely standard western meets alien interlopers on the one hand. Well, as standard as that premise could get. And as uninteresting as you could possibly render such a potentially outlandish scenario. Lots of uninspired CGI clogging the screen, explosions and wide-eyed gun-toting and very few characters you’re too engaged as to the fate of. Plenty of widescreen frenzy behind which you can almost feel the presence of blue screen and weary mouse-pointers swooping about. And yet someone forgot to tell Daniel Craig, who won’t have any of it and puts in a performance that really makes a mockery of the film, so tenaciously commited is he. Harrison Ford is also in it, and is in a lazy comedy bad mood throughout. He doesn’t even phone it in: he scribbles it on a scrap of paper, rolls it up into a ball and tosses it over the fence on his way to the pub.

The Rum Diary was disastrous for the 45 minutes I lasted. I do have a soft spot for the Hunter S Thompson novel, though, so my being infuriated at the pernicious liberties taken with the source dialogue perhaps clouded a correct and fair appraisal. Badly cast, shot, scripted, with a horribly uneven, capering-then-sober-then-hey-how-about-some-wig-comedy tone, terrible locations, nil dramatic interest and lifeless exchange following drab, surreally uninvolving scene. Totally misjudged.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 2, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    I haven’t seen Certified Copy yet, but, despite your review, I’m really looking forward to it. Last weekend I watched Kiarostami’s Close-Up as kind of a build-up to get to his latest. I wasn’t disappointed by Close-Up; I’ll let you know if I am disappointed by Certified Copy.

    • March 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm

      I really like and admire Kiarostami; I even love how this was made, this kind of film, the setting. It just didn’t work for me, and that nags me. I’m going to have to watch it again very soon. In fact, I kind of think maybe I should’ve held fire on it until a repeat viewing. This all sounds wishy-washy but I have to be fair to my initial thoughts but also the film. I didn’t enjoy Taxi Driver first time. And Kiarostami is a great director.

  2. March 2, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    I know several intelligent people who loved Certified Copy and probably just as many equally intelligent people who didn’t like it or, at least, were indifferent. I may have to watch it sooner than later. I was going to wait and get it on bluray when it comes out from Criterion, but it’s free to watch streaming on Netflix . . . hmmmm.

    I’m assuming your thoughts on Taxi Driver changed, and am interested in how. The first time I saw it I thought it was good but not great — then I sat through the closing credits which changed everything for me. The next time I watched it I loved it. Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, on the other hand: loved them from the get-go! I haven’t seen Hugo yet, and I blame the first trailers that tried to make it look like a holiday romp by focusing on the Sascha Baron Cohen slapstick while playing a mindlessly giddy music track. I’ve since seen better trailers that present a more palatable tone. I really liked the book.

    • March 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      Yes, Trevor, watch it soon if you can. I can ask you in a bit of detail about what I felt was wrong. And, as mentioned, I’m happy to have got it wrong here…

      Taxi Driver: I don’t think the film lets you in easily. You have to earn it. It’s such a beautifully realised nightmare that I think you have to let a first exposure percolate, much like a few albums I might mention, before you can get in sync with its rhythms and adences. And I have to confess that, at the age of 17, I watched it every night for a month. I became a little obsessed with it. It all starts with THAT moment at the end with the quick cuts in the car: De Niro suddenly, horribly, rupturing his fantasy. And we’re left with those cold alluring streets. And we have to go back and make sense of it…and then we get the same catharsis followed by that final estrangement, and it stuck me on a rather strange, impressionable loop.

      King of Comedy I must have seen a similar number of times. Like you, loved it from the off and still do. Best performance I think I’ve ever seen from DeNiro. Raging Bull is fantastic but I don’t have as intense a love of that as those other two.

    • March 2, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      Hugo is great: I forgot to mention, so concerned was I with concision as opposed to waffle, that the Baron Cohen aspect was the only part of the film that just doesn’t work for me at all.

  3. March 2, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Lee, do you watch ALL the flims? 🙂

    This is great: I love your micro review format. I’ve not seen ‘The Descendants’ yet, but I probably should seeing as it was written(well, ‘adapted’) by the legend that is Jim Rash. Have you ever seen an American sit com called ‘Community’? I’m addicted, it really, really is the funniest show I’ve ever seen. Anyway, Jim Rash is in that, so I have a kind of contact interest in anything he’s involved with now.

    Not seen Hugo either – the steampunky aesthetic appeals to me though, so I should probably check that out too!


    • March 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      Tom, cheers, and yes: apart from the woeful Rum Diary!

      Well, that’s me checking ‘Community’ out, then. Don’t know it. The Descendants was painless, tremendously well done comedy drama, and Alexander Payne is yet to get near a dud.

      Of the films on that list, Hugo strikes me as the one you’d like best, but now I’ve said that it’s probably Certified Copy!

      Great last post, Tom – wonderfully unexpected.

      • March 2, 2012 at 11:37 pm

        Yeah, ‘Community’ is hilarious: it’s never been properly broadcast in the UK for some annoying reason. It takes a couple of episodes to settle in to itself, so I recommend you don’t judge the pilot too harshly – but it’s great.

        Thanks for your comments on my Very Hungry C review. I’ve had a lot of people accusing me of being sarcastic/pretentious/snide about it etc. But I genuinely, genuinely love that book – and likewise think there *is* something very horror-fictiony about the life cycle of caterpillars. 🙂


  4. March 3, 2012 at 12:30 am

    Have seen three of the films you review here – Hugo, The descendants and The guard – and pretty much agree with your summation. I hadn’t quite seen that over-orchestrated point you made about Hugo but I can see your point. Nonetheless I was torn between it and The artist for the Oscar, with a slight preference for Hugo. I wasn’t disappointed in the outcome. The artist is a clever and beautifully done film even if the storyline itself is ho-hum.

    I enjoyed The descendants but it didn’t quite cut it for me, wasn’t quite hard-edged enough to ram home the point of the “big” title. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

    The guard. Well, what can I say. Clever from go to whoa, and entertaining besides. “Simultaneously hard-edged and benevolent” says it all really.

    • March 3, 2012 at 7:27 am

      Yes, it felt a little wrong to remotely complain about Hugo, and I think it’s a wider point with Scorsese: I don’t think he’s as loose a director as he once was. But maybe that’s inevitable: the same happens to all of ’em, it seems. Cronenberg, Spielberg, Tarantino, even Lynne Ramsay.

      I totally agree on The Artist, and need to finish my review of that asap. It’s not something destined to endure: a fleeting bit of nostalgic alchemy I reckon.

      Quite agree on The Descendants as well: I was margInally disappointed to be honest but it didn’t seem fair to complain, such fun was it. And The Guard is a blast!

      Great to hear from you, anyway.

      • March 3, 2012 at 8:11 am

        Seems we’re in sync on these films, eh? I enjoy reading your perspectives.

    • March 3, 2012 at 10:17 am

      It seems we are! And thanks. But I fear I am in the minority on Certified Copy…oh well it just doesn’t work…

      • March 3, 2012 at 10:39 am

        I’m not sure it’s been here — or, if it has, I’ve missed it. Cowboys and Aliens has but I didn’t see it.

  5. Mary Gilbert
    March 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I haven’t seen any of these Lee so thanks for your sprightly reviews. The Descendants has been at the local multiplex but I don’t want to see George Clooney speaking French. On the other hand The Guard is being given a special showing next week here to celebrate St David’s day and the twinning of Lannion and Caerphilly. It’s been explained in the local paper that as they couldn’t find a Welsh film then an Irish one might suit as it’s in the same Celtic neck of the woods. I’m looking forward to it on the basis of your review. At last a film with some intentional humour in it! We’re also seeing Dame de Fer in the original Meryl Streep VO tomorrow. It’s bad enough having to see Mrs T without her being dubbed into a French version so we are pleased an original version is being offered at a volunteer run cinema in the seaside resort of Plestin les Greves which has a large ex pat population. I enjoyed seeing Albert Nobbs last week about a transvestite waiter in 19th century Dublin with Glen Close which also had a role for Brendan Gleeson. A very odd rather moving little film.
    We watched A Dangerous Method and I’d love to hear your views on this. Keira K was clearly working to prove she can really act and perhaps overdoing it a tad as some of her hysterics were unintentionally comic. I thought the main weakness lay in its lazy narrative whereby the raving madwoman becomes cured rather too quickly after a dose of Michael Fassbender. The cinematography was gorgeous and it contained Viggo Mortenson as a rather dashing Freud so that alone redeemed it for me.

    • March 13, 2012 at 8:38 pm

      Mary, I’ve no urge to see the new Cronenberg: I quite like his latter stuff in the main but I had an inkling I’d loathe this and your ever-reliable cautionary words seal my waiting for the DVD. I think Knightly is VASTLY over-rated (she was horrible in Never Let Me Go: the woman isn’t very talented and Carey Mulligan often made her look rather silly I thought) and I dread the prospect to an extent.

      Albert Nobbs I do look forward to, and thanks for the reminder.

      The Iron Lady: I know Meryl will be great. But she’s Meryl. I can’t face a film about the ferrous ex-PM….

  6. March 13, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    It mystifies me that a film can be made with the title Cowboys and Aliens, and not be a swashbuckling extravaganza of cheesy adventure. What possessed them to think anyone going to see that might want a moderately serious movie?

    Otherwise, The Guard’s the only one really on my list (as well as A Dangerous Method, as mentioned by Mary, I’m a long time Cronenberg fan). The Descendants sounds a little too middle-class problems-y. Certified Copy hasn’t had much publicity here yet but sounds over-self-important. Hugo just sounds, well, a bit too self-conscious.

    And that’s more than enough hypens for a hundred comments.

    • March 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm

      Max, I am the worst hyphen abuser in world history (apart from David Foster Wallace, who gets away with it) so I would scarcely notice! Hyphens, parentheses, semi-colons…I’m an addict.

      Cowboys and Aliens is odd in a way: it’s pure trash with vacillating intent. One minute it’s determined to be goofy trash whilst the next it fancies itself a bit loftier, partly because Daniel Craig won’t have it that it’s pure throwaway malarkey.

      The Guard is a blast. Without the accompanying demotic inflections any quotations are pointless but I was still tempted. The mention of the Waco disaster was particularly funny, as cruel as that may sound.

      Certified Copy was painful. Maybe I’m lacking my faculties at present but I found it a misfire on all fronts other than location choice.

      Hugo is just over-earnest, simple as that. I’d never be able to get round the fact, as enjoyable as it often is. It’s too loaded with gravitas and many scenes are like painstakingly cultivated dioramas: you want a bit of a breather after a while.

      The Descendants is very funny in parts but missing it is no disaster.

      I’m an enormous Cronenberg fan. Yet I have little immediated urge to see that. Whereas I’d watch Dead Ringers once a week happily, Videodrome even more often. I did a huge thesis on him years ago and it was a joy.

  7. March 16, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Over-earnest. That was my impression. It’s a failing I can’t really abide in a film.

    I’m watching Betipul (the Israeli original of In Treatment). That plus seeing Cronenberg reunited with Mortenson makes A Dangerous Method a must see for me (I originally typed A Danderous Method, which could potentially be a more interesting film). A History of Violence and Eastern Promises were both very good I thought.

    • March 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

      A Danderous Method had me chuckling…imagine…

      Is Betipul good then? Homeland, have you seen that?

      Yes I did like AHOV and EP but I’m very much a Videodrome/Scanners aesthetic man and there’s nothing I can do about it, even though it does seem counter-logical at times. The very thought of those films (and a lot of the ideas were not perfectly executed it has to be said) excites more than his later work.

  8. March 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I’m enjoying Betipul so far. The format allows an exploration of situations which are dramatic, yet quotidian. A woman has commitment issues with her boyfriend and romantically fixates on the shrink, a military pilot has guilt after his bomb kills a building full of children (ok, only quotidian in Israel and even there not so much), a teenage gymnast has suicidal impulses, a couple undergoing fertility treatment have relationship issues.

    It’s refreshing seeing characters grappling with real dilemmas that don’t involve any chance of getting shot or aliens conquering earth or whatever.

    I’ve not seen Homeland/The Manchurian Candidate, the Series. I suspect it would make more sense in an Israeli context, but even when that comes on I may not bother. It’s not grabbed me.

    Regarding Cronenberg, I love those early ones too, but I wouldn’t want him to do the same sort of thing forever.

    Long live the new flesh.

  9. March 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Sounds interesting indeed, very talky stuff is always a pull (and turn off to my probable co-watcher, alas) and there’s a good opportunity for interesting dialectics there it seems.

    If you don’t like prevalent guns and aliens there ain’t much left TV-wise! If there’s a gun in a popular series, it seems, at some point every show must use it, and so on.

    Clare Danes’ performance elevates it from pretty interesting to very interesting, and it remembers to be fun.

    I certainly wouldn’t want Cronenberg to recycle or run stale but I much prefer the earlier, funny ones.

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