Wednesday, December 7, 2011

HUGO: Scorsese Goes Storybook

HUGO Review:

- I think it's safe to say: Martin Scorsese has never made a movie like Hugo. From the director who's brought us acclaimed tales of gangsters, lowlifes, and criminals comes a film that is, in most ways, a complete departure: a family-friendly, 3D film that plays out like a storybook come to life. If you're a Scorsese fan, then what is recognizable about Hugo is its visual flair, it's gorgeous cinematography, and its epic and ambitious storytelling. But what's also conveyed in Hugo is the legendary director's deep and abiding love of movies. This is Scorsese's love-letter to cinema - a lesson about the history of - and importance of - the movies. Hugo is an ode to imagination and wonder - a stunningly-realized movie that reminds us why we love movies in the first place. Somehow, Martin Scorsese has defied expectations and created one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

The first thing I'll say about Hugo is that it's a visual marvel. Without question, I'd rank it as one of the top two or three live-action movies in terms of use of 3D. Scorsese shot Hugo with 3D 100% top of mind, and it shows - it's immersive in the way that, so far, only animated 3D films have managed. Part of that is due to Hugo's highly stylized rendering of 1930's Paris - filled with deep colors and ultra-detail, it's a sprawling cityscape less based in reality and more in dreams. But part of the power of the visuals - and of the 3D - lies in the way that Scorsese manipulates the camera - soaring, swooping, climbing, diving, floating and flying through this world. There are shots in this film - including a stunning opening tracking shot - that are quite simply breathtaking. At the same time, the framing of many individual shots is outstanding - Hugo stays true to its storybook roots, presenting us with any number of evocative scenes suitable for framing. Hugo's world, indeed, is a technicolor dreamscape that you won't soon forget.

The story here is fairly simple, but contains a number of interesting twists. Based on the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the film begins as the story of the orphan Hugo's ( Asa Butterfield) quest to complete the work of his deceased father. Before he died, Hugo's father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker and mechanical expert. A pet project of his, that he worked on with Hugo, was to repair and restore an old, mechanical robot - an automaton - that he'd gotten from a museum auction. Essentially an elaborate, human-like wind-up toy, the automaton was designed to write or draw messages once activated. And so, when Hugo's father is killed, Hugo is determined to finish the restoration of the machine, because he's convinced that, once wound-up, it will write out for him a final message from his dad. Hugo just needs some odds and ends - gears, cogs, springs, etc. - as well as one, more mysterious item - a heart-shaped key that fits into the automaton's chest.

Hugo's mission causes him to cross paths with Georges (Ben Kingsley) - a cranky old toymaker - whose toys Hugo steals for spare parts. Eventually, however, we learn that there's much more to Georges than meets the eye, and his connection to the mystery of the automaton is much deeper than originally suspected. Hugo makes this discovery with the help of Georges' adopted daughter, Isabella (Chloë Grace Moretz), as the two orphan children connect as kindred spirits. All the while, however, Hugo must elude the fiendish Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a bumbling but dogged lawman who is constantly on the hunt for any wayward orphans to round up and send off to some presumably horrible orphanage.

Without spoiling anything, the eventual revelations about Georges take the film in a fascinating and unexpected direction. What starts off as a simple story about a boy and his robot soon becomes a movie about the history of movies - and about movie magic. Scorcese incorporates a mix of fiction and real-life cinema history - but even with the narrative embellishments, you'll come away from Hugo wanting to know more about the real-life genius that was Georges Méliès and his many lasting creations.

I loved the cast of this film. Asa Butterfield - wide-eyed and bright-eyed - is very good in the lead role, and it helps that he's paired with the always great Chloe Moretz. I know she's still barely a teenager, but I've already come to think of her as a great actress. In this film, Moretz impresses again, showing that she can play a more toned-down character who isn't a vampire or pint-sized assassin. The kid actors are exceptional, but the real treat here is the veterans. Ben Kingsley is titanic in this one as Georges Méliès. As we learn more about him and his story, Kingsley really gets a chance to shine. It all culminates in a thrilling final act that sees Sir Ben deliver a performance for the ages. Some of Georges' words of wisdom will stick with me - "we are all wizards," he says - and by god, I thought, so we are. I also got a thrill, and a chill, from a small but impactful role played by the legendary Christopher Lee. As Monsieur Labisse, a wizened librarian and lover of literature, Lee has some wonderful moments in the film. Talk about presence, gravitas, and presence - it doesn't get any better in movies than Christopher Lee. Ray Winstone is also excellent in a smallish role as Hugo's nasty uncle, and Michael Stuhlbarg is very good as an academic who takes an interest in Hugo's quest. Finally, Sasha Baron Cohen has a lot of great moments of comic relief. His Inspector is a lot of fun - very funny, and classic Cohen.

I guess the one knock against Hugo is that, at times, the pacing feels a bit off. The movie feels a little too ponderous at times, stretching out scenes and dialogue to the point where the storytelling can feel a bit slow. This is particularly evident in the middle of the film, where it feels like there's a lot of treading water before the big reveals and gear-shifting in the third act. Now, Hugo is so visually stunning that I found it easy to just sit back and drink in the scenery and let myself get lost in the picturesque 3D world. But, I also acknowledge that, for a good chunk of the movie, Scorsese leaves you to wonder just where, exactly, all of this is going. It doesn't help that the movie meanders into tangential subplots around its peripheral characters. The conflict between a local Parisian and an antagonistic dog. The Inspector's awkward attempts to court a local shopgirl. These scenes are amusing, but I also felt that the movie could have used some editing and streamlining. As is, it feels a bit unfocused at times.

Overall though, I found HUGO to be one of the most entrancing, captivating, and yes, inspiring movies I've seen all year. The central themes at its core - emphasizing the importance of art, imagination, invention, and creativity - are communicated with flair, whimsy, and lots of heart. The visuals are amazing - this is quite simply a master-class in visual style and imagination from Martin Scorsese. HUGO is a must-see for all ages, a unique and surprising addition to the Scorsese cannon.

My Grade: A-

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