MOVIE REVIEW: Hugo
HUGO-- 4 STARS
When you think of Martin Scorsese's movies, you don't think of warmhearted children's novels. If you are like everyone else, you think of blood splatters, gangsters, money, New York diction in the form of Joe Pesci profanity, cops, and more gangsters. From a cinematic standpoint, when you think of Martin Scorsese, you think of traditional old-school filmmaking with movies that are intimate, character-driven, and even quiet in their delivery. He himself has been an authority in restoring old films and loves the medium. You don't think he would ever get chippy with bright happy colors, let alone hopping on the bandwagon of shooting in 3D. That would be like a food critic eating macaroni and cheese out of the box.
Well, it's happened with Hugo. Martin Scorsese not only made a family film, but a family film with all of the bells and whistles of 3D. After first glance, you might think he's getting a lot of money for this or that he's got grandkids tugging on his arms. Watch Hugo and you will see an aficionado of old films and cinema history making a movie that has a soft spot for just that.
Hugo, while telling a very Parisian story for a proud Italian-American guy from New York City, is a love letter to the wonder of the original silent films of the early 20th century. Based on Brian Selznick's Caldecott Medal-winning 2007 historical-fiction novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (adapted by John Logan of Gladiator fame), we are introduced to a very different type of Parisian Quasimodo. Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is an orphan who lives within the walls and pipes of the city railway station in 1931. Son of a master clockmaker (Jude Law) and nephew to a watchmaker (Ray Winstone), Hugo, unbeknownst to the public and shopkeepers striding within the station, maintains all of the station clocks. Having tragically lost his father to a museum fire, he is determined to finish their shared work project of repairing an abandoned "automaton," a mechanical man who writes with a pen, in hopes that it may offer him a message from his departed father. He survives by stealing food and mechanical parts from the reclusive Papa Georges (Sir Ben Kingsley), a toy shop owner, while dodging the ardent station inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), who has a penchant for dispatching orphan thieves.
When he's caught stealing at the toy shop one day, Georges discovers a small notebook Hugo keeps of his father's sketches and plans for repairing the automaton. Seeing it sparks unspoken emotion in Georges and he takes it away from Hugo. In trying to get it back to finish his father's work, Hugo befriends Georges's charming goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz of Kick Ass and Let Me In). Hugo reluctantly shows her into his world and his automaton project. Together, they discover that a necklace given to Isabelle by her godmother, Jeanne (Helen McCrory), is the key that unlocks the automaton to work.
Like the novel's real historical inspiration, Papa Georges is actually the long-forgotten turn-of-the-century French film pioneer Georges Melies. Starting out as a stage magician with Jeanne as his muse, he got into movies and innovated special effects, hand-painted color prints, multiple camera exposures, stop-cut substitutions, and scene dissolves on 531 films, only about 200 of which still exist today. Having the public believe that he died in the Great War, he has sought to forget the "old days" and the recognition he deserves as a artistic pioneer. His connections with Hugo and Isabelle's quest to discover the past may just change that.
In a lot of ways, this story of Georges Melies could be that of Scorsese himself too. Long passed over and underappreciated for being an innovator and great himself until his later years, you can't help but see the parallels. In taking his craft to these heights with Hugo, Martin Scorsese has made a statement as much as he's made an homage. Hugo is unlike anything he's ever done and the end result is nothing short of brilliant.
From a technical standpoint, Hugo is the most finely crafted movie I've seen this year. Two-time Oscar winner (The Aviator and Sweeney Todd) Dante Ferretti's production design has created an astoundingly expansive train station of inescapable steam, gears, and heights. Three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria) nails pitch-perfect period costumes. Jumping off the screen in 3D, two-time Oscar winning (JFK and The Aviator) cinematography Robert Richardon takes his camera around and through every direction possible, something very new for a Scorsese picture. Finally, fellow three-time Oscar winners, editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed) and composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), recreate the world of Melies and tie everything together with a sumptuous French-flavored musical score. With that collection of quality on-screen and talent off-screen, the attention to detail in every phase is masterful and without equal.
Hugo deserves its place as one of the best films of 2011 on that level of craftsmanship alone. Its story is warm and stirring, but not as captivating from beginning to end as it should be. True cinema lovers will appreciate the vision, history, and admiration for the medium created by Scorsese for sure, but it might lose the casual moviegoer. Nevertheless, Hugo is worth your two-hours. You might just learn a good lesson about where movies came from.
LESSON #1: THE HISTORY OF EARLY CINEMA-- Hugo and Martin Scorsese, like George Melies did in his own day, shows how movies grew out of magic. Back then, never before had people seen something so large, encompassing, and visually creative. The art dazzled audiences and many of the time-honored techniques that started the medium still exist today, even with the power of CGI and 3D. Marvel about how it all used to be.
LESSON #2: SHOW A LITTLE HEART TO GET A LITTLE HEART-- Hugo has many cute subplots about lonely and forgotten people in and about the train station finding renewed attention, interest, and love from a stranger. The only way to received that love and attention is put yourself out there to show a little heart of your own. Once the apple of your eye sees the heart inside of you, only then will they share yours with you.
LESSON #3: WHAT THINGS CAN BE FIXED AND WHAT THINGS CAN'T-- Our hero Hugo longs to fix and repair the neglected automaton with the desire that it may bring him closer to his deceased father. While the automaton can be fixed, a loss like death cannot. As a lover of machines, Hugo sees the world as one big machine with no spare parts. Every one has a purpose, yet he sees himself as an orphan and a misplaced part. Much like Georges's history and reputation, Hugo's life too can be fixed. He is not a extra useless part.