I picked up this mystery – the first in a series – because of its core hook: In the present day (around 2003, when the book was published, I guess), a bomb goes off in London destroying the headquarters of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, and its key investigator, Arthur Bryant. His partner, John May, is left to find out who killed him, and finds that Bryant was researching his memoirs and had recently been looking into the details of their first case together. The majority of the book chronicles that first case, when May first joined the unit and the pair searched for a killer at the Palace Theatre during the Blitz, at the end of 1940.
The story chronicles the assembly of the Peculiar Crimes Unit at a time when most able-bodied young men are fighting in World War II, and with some opposition from the police leadership. Bryant and May are introduced to the theater life and investigate the murders of several performers in a soon-to-open run of Orpheus in the Underworld. While the book features some detective work and some action, it’s at its best when it’s chronicling life during the Blitz, and in introducing us to the characters of Bryant and May.
The pair have a certain Holmes-and-Watson dynamic, with Bryant being the book-smart, eccentric one, while May is more the man of action. But Bryant is also highly eccentric, believing in spiritualism and being somewhat sickly, while May is a rationalist and merely Bryant’s sidekick. Both men are in their early 20s in 1940, and Bryant puts on an air of experience and competence, while May is greener and admits it to himself. Interestingly, Fowler eschews the “odd couple” approach and paints them as a pair of men with personal and professional respect for one another, united in their common cause rather than divided by their differences. Readers might find the story at times has echoes of Sherlock or Life on Mars, though the novel predates both of those series by several years.
For all that, the mystery – in both time periods – proves to be a little disappointing (the 1940 mystery’s culprit bears more than a passing resemblance to a considerably more famous – and older – work, which I won’t name since it would be a huge spoiler), both solutions feeling a little like they were pulled out of nowhere (the questions that I thought the reader could reasonably anticipate turned out to be red herrings). They serve, rather, to illuminate the characters of Bryant and May further, which works fairly well, but makes the book feel different from a standard mystery.
Fowler has a facility for a wry turn of phrase, and I found myself reading lines that amused me out loud to whomever was around when I was reading. It’s a sense of humor that is playful but understated, and it’s perhaps the best part of the book.
While overall a fun book, it felt a little lightweight when I got to the end. Still, I was entertained enough that I’ll head on to the next in the series and see if things get better fleshed out now that the characters are established.
In The Other, Matthew Hughes returns to his character of Luff Imbry from one of his early novels, Black Brillion. Imbry is a confidence man and handler of stolen goods, and the novel opens with one of his rivals getting the drop on him and shipping him off to the planet Fulda. This is a hardship for Imbry in several ways: Fulda is not very advanced, so he’s forced to put in real labor to support himself, and there’s something strange about the Fuldans which prevents Imbry from ever fitting in with them. Fulda is also very isolated from the rest of the galaxy so there’s no clear way for him to get off the planet.
He’s dropped on Fulda with a man named Tuchol, who is not very nice, but it’s unclear if he’s willingly in the employ of whomever nabbed Imbry. Tuchol turns out to be associated with what seems to be a small circus – at least, people who are able to perform various feats which they do for show – and Imbry falls in with them. Unfortunately Imbry soon comes to the attention of the police, one of whom takes a very strong disliking to him. So the story involves Imbry trying to stay alive, trying to avoid the police, trying to find a way off the planet, and trying to figure out the secrets of Fulda, four tasks which are all intertwined.
The challenge with writing a character like Imbry is to make the reader get behind him. Imbry has a jolly facade, but the reader is always aware that this guy is a criminal, albeit of the thieving rather than murdering variety. One of the reasons Black Brillion worked so well was that it played a more straightforward heroic protagonist off against Imbry, allowing Imbry’s amusing personality to shine without having to carry the book. Hughes mostly makes it work here, because what’s been done to Imbry is clearly so wrong that you can’t help but root for him to get out and exact his revenge. But I found it difficult to embrace him entirely. In a way, Imbry is the opposite number of Hughes’ Sherlock Holmesian character Henghis Hapthorn: Imbry is a criminal but is amusing and amiable, while Hapthorn is a good guy but also basically a jerk.
Imbry gets wrapped up in two different mysteries: First, what’s so queer about the Fuldans, and what makes some of them so irrationally hostile towards Imbry (if you’re familiar with Phil Foglio’s graphic novel Psmith then you might find some echoes of that here). Second, he gets dragged into a prophecy the Fuldans have circulated among themselves (with varying belief levels), leading to an even larger revelation which turns out to be rather clever.
Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from seeing how Imbry deals with the burdens placed upon him. He faces a variety of people who won’t listen to him, view him with suspicion, and to whom he cannot ingratiate himself. But his cleverness and personality often allow him to find a way to get by even among such people. The wit which works its way through all of Hughes’ work is in full flower here.
While I enjoyed The Other, I don’t think it measures up to some of Hughes’ other work, and I think Imbry’s status falling between hero and antihero is a big part of that. Though given how the book ends, I would be willing to read a sequel in which we see Imbry working a little more in his natural element. But I’m doubtful that Imbry is a strong enough character (without a significant development in his character beyond where he started) to carry a series of novels.
Blue Remembered Earth is near-future SF, taking place in the 2160s. Following two centuries of climate change (global temperature shifts, depletion of traditional energy supplies, rising sea levels), Africa is on the cusp of displacing China as the dominant world power. The powerful Akinya family dominates Africa and has interests throughout the solar system, to which humanity is still confined.
Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday are inheritors of the Akinya legacy, but both are marginalized by their family due to a shared lack of interest in its business affairs: Geoffrey researches elephants, while Sunday is an artist on the moon. But when their grandmother Eunice dies, their business-oriented cousins enlist Geoffrey to go to the moon to check out a safety deposit box she left behind. What he finds sends him and his sister on a treasure hunt throughout the solar system, following her path as an early explorer of Mars and beyond, despite great resistance from their cousins.
The novel has two major characteristics: It’s a world-building endeavor, and it’s a science fictional mystery involving a trail that Eunice left for her family to follow.
In general, I’m not a big fan of near-future SF, because the ideas are not big enough to satisfy me, and I’m just not terribly interested in extrapolating our current situation out only a century or two (i.e., a period where things are largely similar to our world today with some fairly straightforward changes). I appreciate what, for example, Charles Stross is doing in Halting State and Rule 34, but it’s more the story than the setting which pulls me along. I particularly dislike settings like that of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with dreary settings, little hope, and unlikeable characters.
Blue Remembered Earth falls into a slightly different category: The setting isn’t dystopic, and the story is a mystery wrapped in the shrouds of history (a bit like Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels in that way). Rather than the characters playing out a set of movements implied by the setting, they’re involved in their own story against a slightly exotic locale. And the mystery implies that there’s something a little more advanced out there as well, assuming it pays off properly. (I’ll talk about the mystery in more detail behind a spoiler cut below.)
This is one of Reynolds’ best efforts at world-building, and he does a good job of laying things out without it becoming tedious (although I did find Geoffrey’s research with elephants to be hard going). Some of the big hooks involve an omniscient surveillance system called the Mechanism which has essentially eliminated violent crime, aquatic transhumans, and most humans having virtual reality implants. There’s also a tension in manned space exploration being potentially supplanted by unmanned, as artificial intelligence gets to the point that it can take on the risks so humans don’t have to. (And if that sounds like a disappointing development, well, that’s one of the themes of the book.)
Geoffrey and Sunday’s quest operates as a travelogue of the solar system, as Geoffrey goes to the moon where he visited Sunday in the “Descrutinized Zone”, which is free of the Mechanism. There’s also a trip to Mars, which is just barely on the civilized side of being a frontier and has a few amazing wonders of its own. They’re accompanied in this by a telepresence simulation of Eunice herself, who embodies the character of the woman but naturally lacks many of her memories. But as Eunice was both family to the pair, and a significant figure in the exploration of the solar system, she plays a significant role.
Reynolds’ characterizations are not his strong suit, and BRE is not out of step with the rest of his work in this regard: Geoffrey, Sunday and Eunice are reasonably drawn, the other characters are largely two-dimensional. And there’s not a lot of character development – Geoffrey struggles a bit with not wanting to make waves with his family beyond what’s necessary for his research, but doesn’t want to just roll over and do whatever the cousins want, either. This tension does come to a head, but the resolution is somewhat dictated by outside forces, so there’s not a moment of epiphany or a significant character shift for him.
Blue Remembered Earth is sometimes noted as the first volume of a series titled “Poseideon’s Children”, but there’s almost no indication of that in the edition I have (save an offhanded comment in the author’s afterward), and the book in fact stands on its own perfectly well, not so much the first of a series as a novel which could have sequels.
Overall it’s a pretty good book, an enjoyable ride, probably sitting somewhere in the middle of Reynolds’ oeuvre in my opinion.
As promised, a little more spoilery commentary on the mystery side of the story after the cut:
Read on, Macduff! »
I read Matter last year around the same time I read Surface Detail, but they’re two very different books. While I quite enjoyed Surface Detail, I found Matter to be fairly tedious, and the ending to be a big letdown. This review contains mild spoilers.
The story revolves around members of the royal family of the Sarl, a medieval-level humanoid race who live on one of the levels of the artificial shell world of Sursamen. Ferbin, the heir to the throne, is forced to flee his nation when his father is betrayed and overthrown by his second-in-command, tyl Loesp. His younger brother, Oramen, is installed as regent, but tyl Loesp plans to kill him and become king himself when the time is right. Thirdly, their sister Djan Seriy Anaplian was gifted to the Culture years earlier where she’s become an agent of Special Circumstances, a group tasked with especially difficult and important missions.
While Anaplian travels back to Sursamen – a little tricky since it lies outside Culture space – Ferbin works to get out into space to contact her, while Oramen works to stay alive even as he is effectively exiled to oversee excavation of the Nameless City on the adjacent level the Sarl have recently conquered. He also learns that the Sarl’s advanced patrons, the Oct, are up to something in the Nameless City. That something turns out to be of extreme importance – and danger – to all of Sursamen, which Anaplian and Ferbin find they have to stop once they get to the planet.
When I started reading the book, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh, another medieval-setting Culture novel,” having not been especially enamored of Inversions. It’s better than that novel in many ways, as Ferbin and Oramen both being forced to grow up and deal with the new realities of their lives is expertly handled. And Anaplian’s adventurs outside Sursamen are also entertaining.
Unfortunately, the larger threat from the Nameless City really undercuts all of the nice character development, truncating the growing tensions in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s stop in the hotel truncates the story in Psycho. It then becomes a very different story, which itself has an unsatisfying ending, as nearly everyone comes to grief. While it’s a page-turning ride, the conclusion feels devoid of meaning and borders on a throw-the-book-across-the-room experience.
The enduring character of the story is Ferbin’s aide, Holse, who is a lower class man who is devotedly loyal to his master, largely at sea in the advanced environments he and Ferbin travel to, but who has enough presence of mind and sense of self not to be overwhelmed by them. But he’s not enough to save the book.
Banks’ Culture series is pretty uneven, with some great books and some weak ones. Matter is towards the lower end of the spectrum, which is too bad because it starts promisingly.
I’ve given McDevitt a hard time over his Alex Benedict novels since the terrific A Talent For War, but I’m happy to report that the latest in the series, Firebird, is the best since that inaugural effort, with a genuine sense of wonder, a nifty plot twist and a satisfying conclusion.
The story opens with antiquities dealer Benedict’s aide, Chase Kolpath, being approached to sell some items from the estate of Christopher Robin, a physicist of some note who disappeared several decades earlier. (Yes, unfortunately the disappeared man has the same name as the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh, but oh well.) Chase doesn’t know who he is, but Alex fills her in: Robin was notes as being a proponent of there being alternate realities, and supposedly having been trying to find a way to them. One evening he returned from a trip with his pilot, who dropped him off in front of his house, and he disappeared. The pilot then volunteered to help with rescue efforts in a major earthquake and was killed in the process. While Robin is assumed to have died, no one knows for sure. Maybe he found a a way to other realities and simply stepped into one.
Alex doesn’t really believe this, but hits the talk show circuit to build up Robin’s mystique to make the most money for his client. But then, as always happens, he gets bitten by the bug to find out what really happened to Robin. THe investigation turns up a few facts: That Robin had become interested in reports of mysterious ships that occasionally appear near worlds, stations or other ships and then disappear without ever being identified. That he had a friend he went on missions with who was killed on one of them. That he was interested in a world named Villanueva, where human life had died out centuries ago but the trappings of it had been left intact. And that he had bought several old spaceships and taken them out in the 15 years or so before his death, returning without any of them. It all adds up to something that doesn’t equal parallel realities, but does equal something just about as cool, which even raises the specter of one of the earliest background elements of the series.
McDevitt often stretches to put Alex and Chase in danger, sometimes a little too far as neither of them is a fighter, and the risks they take sometimes seem ridiculous. But he does a better job of balancing this than in recent novels. He also does a good job of taking one of the side plots and turning it into a serious moral dilemma and distraction from the main plot.
Best of all, once we learn what’s really going on, he lets Alex and Chase get to the meat of the problem, and there are several wrenching scenes where we learn what happens to several characters. Fortunately there’s also a satisfying afterward which ties up one of the loose ends. So McDevitt really gets just about everything right in the novel.
Overall the story doesn’t have quite the impact of Talent, and the nature of the series takes just a little wind out of the sails of the potential of the story (in a true standalone novel, there’s the potential for a lot more exploration of the plot twist which can’t really happen here without revealing more about Alex and Chase than can really happen here). But it’s still a really fun novel, and quite a page-turner too. If you’ve bailed on the series prior to this, I suggest getting back on board at least for this installment.
“The Angels Take Manhattan” was the “mid-season finisher” of season seven of Doctor Who, and the final episode of the series for the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory. But despite having the fan-favorite villains the Weeping Angels, I don’t think the episode was successful, either internally or as a send-off for the pair. For two reasons:
- The Angels have passed their expiration date as villains, and
- The story fails in its emotional resonance.
My spoilery explanations after the cut:
Read on, Macduff! »
Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.
The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).
Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.
While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.
More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:
Read on, Macduff! »
Last weekend we watched the two Iron Man films that came out. They’re both enjoyable films, with the first one being the better of the two, and the second maybe a couple of ticks above The Avengers.
Iron Man (2008) benefits greatly from having a simple (and focused) character-driven story: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a billionaire playboy who inherited a weapons manufacturing company from his father, Howard. Orphaned as a boy, he’s raised by his father’s friend Obadiah Stane (a nearly-unrecognizable Jeff Bridges) who runs the company until he’s old enough to take it over. But as a man – despite being a genius – Tony is more interested in being a playboy until he’s captured by rebels in Afghanistan with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. Only quick thinking by fellow captured scientist Yinsen (Shaun Toub) saves him, and their pair construct a power source to sit in his chest to keep the shrapnel away from killing him. The power supply also happens to be able to power a suit of armor, and after escaping captivity, Tony refines the armor into a suit that can fly and shoot energy beams, thus becoming Iron Man.
Although Tony is in his 30s (or 40s) when the movie starts, the story is basically about him growing up and taking responsibility for himself and his company. Horrified by what his company’s weapons are used for, he pulls it out of the weapons business and refocuses it on other areas. He struggles with Stane for control of the company as well. He also comes to learn that he has friends who care about him and who can help him, if he reciprocates their loyalty and deals with them as adults rather than as children who aren’t as smart as him.
This is one of the things I like about the better superhero films of the past decade: They’ve moved beyond being about the superpowers and what you can do with them and are rooted in the challenges that the characters face. While the characters are larger-than-life, their challenges are relatable: Both Batman and Iron Man deal with alienation and guilt, while Captain America deals with the conflict of duty vs. love. While the adventure story is of course de rigueur in these films, weaving it and the character drama together is what makes a good film of this sort.
Iron Man 2 (2010) is an enjoyable action film, but is much less interesting than its predecessor. The government is pressing Stark to turn over the “Iron Man weapon” to it, which he resists, claiming it’s not a weapon. His competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, playing a thanklessly goofy role), wants to supplant Stark as a supplier to the government. And a Russian scientist, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), has adapted Stark’s technology and tries to kill him as revenge for the perceived slight Tony’s father perpetrated on Vanko’s father. This story is basically divorced from the character drama, which involves Tony unlearning many of the lessons he learned in the first film, behaving drunkenly irresponsibly as Iron Man, and being stopped by his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who takes another set of armor and then delivers it to the government. Tony also alienates his friends Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (played by the directory, Jon Favreau). Tony’s backsliding is ostensibly because the device in his chest is gradually killing him, he can’t figure out a solution, and so he gets depressed. SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) kicks him in the ass with a video of Tony’s father Howard, but the resolution of these threads all feels slipshod, and utterly divorced from the climactic battle (which itself seems haphazardly staged).
The film might have done better to avoid Tony’s backsliding (though I appreciates that it didn’t fall into the too-often-used-in-the-comics plot device of making him an alcoholic) and instead focused on the father/son relationships which are explored somewhat in Tony’s case, but only superficially in Vanko’s case. The best parts of the film involve Howard Stark – cleverly portrayed in flashback sequences as being a Walt Disney type figure – and Tony’s reactions to the footage he’s shown. But seeing him shut out his friends felt like a betrayal of the first film’s triumphs; it would have been better had Tony brought Pepper and Happy into the fold rather than withdrawing into himself, even if the ultimate solution came from his father.
Though the action sequences are fun, ultimately the film can’t lift itself above the level of an action movie, though it does try.
In both films, though, it’s easy to see why Robert Downey Jr.’s career has lifted off as a result: He plays Tony as a rather manic genius prone to a variety of mood swings, and he pulls it off quite well.
Iron Man 3 is slated for 2013 release, and hopefully it will move the characters forward rather than treading over the same ground a third time.
If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).
Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.
The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).
He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.
The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).
The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.
You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)
I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)
I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.
I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.
Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.
We finally made it out to see Hugo (2011) on Sunday. Despite seeing it in a theater with a really crappy sound system, it was still a fun film, though not quite as enjoyable as I’d hoped. (We didn’t see it in 3D, either.)
Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story takes place in 1930s Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy whose father (Jude Law in a brief role) was a watchmaker who also works in a museum. One day the father brings home a mechanical man which has been discarded, and he and Hugo set to repairing it. When Hugo’s father dies in a fire at the museum, Hugo is taken to live in abandoned quarters in the railway station Gare Montparnasse by his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk who soon disappears. Hugo continues to wind the clocks in the station while eking out a living and avoiding the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). He also steals parts to continue repairing the automaton, but is caught by a toy shop proprietor, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who takes from Hugo the notebook about the automaton that Hugo’s father had created.
In his quest to retrieve the notebook, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the godchild of Georges and his wife (Helen McCrory), also an orphan. The two become friends, and Hugo learns of Isabelle’s love of books (Christopher Lee plays the owner of a bookshop she frequents) and the fact that her godfather never takes her to the movies, shocking to Hugo as his father’s love of film was something he remembers keenly. The pair set out to repair the automaton, which reveals a surprise about both of their families, and long-held pain that Hugo sets out to fix.
Lavishly directed by Martin Scorsese (who I heard wanted to make a film that children could enjoy), Hugo is an interesting mix of classic and modern filmmaking. Indeed, a historical film director is a significant character in the film, and Hugo takes place in an awkward period between the silent era and the golden age of film (“talkies” and color were already around, but the great films of the late 30s were still in the future), not to mention a period between the wars, before the rise of Nazi Germany would have impacted the life of an orphan boy like Hugo. The film opens with Hugo looking out from one of his many hiding spots on the train station – an enormous and intricate set (though of course one wonders if it’s a set of CGI), followed by an extended single-shot scamper by Hugo through the bowels of the station. It’s the sort of thing whose scope and detail would have been beyond films of the 30s, but the film also has a variety of minor characters – the people who work in and frequent the station – and following the details of their lives as asides to the main story feels very much like the films of the time (or maybe just a little later).
I was a little disappointed that the story was only a little bit fantastic and not more so – I guess I was fooled by the preview scenes of a train careening through the station (inspired by an actual incident at the station). Though the automaton is a marvel by itself, just a rather low-key one. The degree of coincidence in the film is a bit much to swallow, too – that Hugo acquires the automaton, is brought to the train station, and meets Georges and Isabelle is quite a confluence of events. I guess Hugo’s speech to Isabelle about how everyone has a purpose in life is supposed to explain this, but the film doesn’t really sell it.
My dad pointed out that the film is really fixing broken lives, and that’s exactly right; all the film history stuff is just the backdrop against which the story is set. I felt that the film was a little too mechanical in portraying the characters’ breakage, though; Hugo and Georges in particular seem emotionally restrained even in scenes where I expected them to explode. (Ben Kingsley is a terrific actor but I wonder whether he plays Georges too low-key, and what, say, Christopher Lee would have done with the role.) The film does much better in the healing scenes, which I guess is to the good since it forms the climax and denouement of the story.
Overall, an enjoyable film, but not quite what I’d expected it would be, and it didn’t knock my socks off. It reminded me in some ways of The Illusionist (2006), which on the whole I’d say is the better film. But there’s a lot to like about Hugo, especially the craft that went into filming it – it’s gorgeous to look at, and feels fully-realized in its portrayal of period Paris.