Monday, April 23, 2012


Included in Brian's Best and Worst of 2011
Almost a year ago, I was leaving a movie theater when somebody handed me a flyer for a free early screening of Hugo; apparently, the title wasn't grabbing enough people, because he made sure to point out that it was Martin Scorsese's first 3D movie.  Obviously, as someone who enjoys the occasional film, I was very excited to see this movie and see how audience feedback would alter the final product.  I went through the proper steps to reserve a spot for me and the Mrs., but on the day of the screening, the location for the film was moved about 40+ miles from a convenient Chicago suburb to Chicago proper during rush hour traffic.  Since reaching the convenient neighborhood location was going to be a close call, this change of venues made it an impossibility.  What does this have to do with anything?  Aside from supporting claims that AMC Theaters is made of jerkfaces, very little.
Hugo's secret screening title: Reverse Flava Flav - the Movie, Boyeeee

Hugo follows the life and times of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan in 1930s Paris.  Hugo lives an invisible life inside a train station, where he maintains all the clocks in the building and sleeps in the walls.  How did he get there?  Just about anywhere is better than the Paris orphanage, apparently.  Since nobody knows he exists, Hugo isn't paid for his labors, which means that he has to scavenge and steal to get along.  If he gets caught, or is even suspected of a crime or of being an orphan, the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) will lock him up and send him to the orphanage.
"Be on the lookout for gingers without pupils"
Aside from sustenance, Hugo is also collecting parts to repair a clockwork automaton that Hugo and his late father (Jude Law) found.  Working on the device had been a bonding experience for the two, and Hugo has the unreasonable expectation that the automaton, when fixed, will transmit a message to Hugo from his father.  How he came to that conclusion, I don't know.  But, hey, it's not like Hugo's ever built an automaton that didn't transmit messages from beyond the grave, so I can't totally fault his logic.
Why would you create a robotic pygmy?  Unless...the children are giants...!
To get the parts for the automaton, Hugo pays particular attention to a toy shop in the train station, run by Georges (Ben Kingsley).  Being a grouch, but not an idiot, Georges has noticed the quiet boy loitering near his stand and has made a connection to parts that have gone missing.  Georges threatens to turn Hugo in to the station inspector, unless he works off his presumed debt at the shop.  When he's not working at the shop, Hugo befriends Georges' orphaned goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz); she introduces Hugo to the world of books and he introduces her to the world of cinema.  Ultimately, we all know the automaton has to be finished, but the final piece and the automaton's message take the film in a direction you might not expect.  Unless you read a plot synopsis or the book, I mean.

Hugo is a noticeable stylistic departure for director Martin Scorsese for many reasons, but I'm specifically referring to it not being propelled by a particular actor's performance.  The two leads are some of the better child actors around right now, but they don't steal the show.
They still look smug, though
Asa Butterfield is believable in both his childishness and his stubborn determination; I was also impressed by how well he managed the demanding emotional scenes.   Chloë Grace Moretz continues her surprisingly respectable filmography here (she hasn't been in anything too embarrassing for her age, except Big Momma's House 2), although I was slightly irritated by her voice in this film.  I don't know if it was an accent or an affectation, but she was good aside from that.  The supporting cast is noteworthy, although few got the chance to shine.  Ben Kingsley, as the top-billed actor, was predictably good; Kingsley doesn't always act in good movies, but pairing him with a great director makes for good stuff.  I like seeing characters balance prickishness and warmth, and that's what Kingsley delivered here.  I was far less impressed with Sacha Baron Cohen; I get that this is a children's movie and not a Scorsese gangster pick, but I felt that Cohen's physical comedy was clumsy and...well, unfunny.  I was okay with the rest of the supporting cast, though.  Helen McCrory may be far too young to play Kingsley's wife, but her makeup was tastefully done. 
You look about 70, your wife is about 40...nice job, man
Ray Winstone, an excellent film ne'er-do-well, was suitably nasty as an uncaring alcoholic.  Jude Law was charming and loving as Hugo's father.  Christopher Lee shows up to be friendly (in a creepy way).  Meanwhile, Emily Mortimer filled out the station inspector's subplot and Harry Potter alums Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths had their own romantic subplot.

The thing about Hugo that struck me as odd was how inconsequential the hero was to so many parts of the plot.  When the film began I thought it was obvious that he would try to help de la Tour and Griffiths overcome their dog-related problems and find love.  At the very least, I thought he would have a hand in the station inspector falling in love, which would inevitably lead to the inspector giving him a free pass when Hugo was inevitably caught.  It might have been a tad predictable, but that never hurt Amelie, did it?  And yet, none of that actually happened in Hugo.  The main character takes no action in these subplots, and they do not appear to affect him in any way that fits the film's theme.  So why are they included?  I don't have that answer.
Sadly, it doesn't require a heart-shaped key

Of course, it is not just the subplots that have little to do with Hugo and his quest to reconnect with his dead father.  The main plot veers off from a touching --- if ill-advised --- quest of a young boy trying to (essentially) make the impossible happen (reconstruct the automaton) so something even less possible (his father communicating to him from beyond) could happen and winds up finishing with a touching story about the importance of film preservation.  As someone who enjoys many films made before my birth, I understand and appreciate film preservation; I would pay through the nose for a good copy of His Girl Friday and have been contemplating upgrading my awful copy of Charade for its Criterion Collection version.  That does not mean that this is necessarily the right venue for a treatise on film preservation. 
But who am I to refuse that adorable mustache?

Despite my reservations, Hugo is a very well-directed and -acted film.  Big surprise, right?  Hugo gained some attention for being Martin Scorsese's first 3D film, so I suppose I should examine how well he did in this new/1950s format.  The short answer is "good."  There are not a lot of movies that make good use of 3D.  For every Avatar, there are at least six Clash of the Titans.  Thankfully, this is a movie that uses 3D for depth, rather than for machetes stabbing the audience.  The 3D isn't essential, but it looks good and makes some of the clock scenes far more interesting than they would have been otherwise.  Outside of the 3D, Scorsese did a great job.  It has been a long time since he has made a risky movie (in my opinion, I would say Kundun was his last big risk), but adapting a children's book was fairly ballsy for a man known more for elevating Joe Pesci than his last family-friendly outing, the music video for Michael Jackson's "Bad."

Am I the only one who forgot about the keyboard solo in this song?  I love call-and-response as much as the next guy, but  how does Wesley Snipes not shoot MJ in the face here?  Still, it is a pleasure to see a master director at work.  He manages to blend conventional premises with the source material and winds up with a story that is surprisingly surprising and not nearly as conventional as it initially seems.  Most importantly, though, Scorsese succeeds in his ultimate mission; I have to admit that, after seeing this film, I went home and quickly researched Georges Méliès (who directed an astonishing 555 movie shorts in less than twenty years) and was suitably impressed by what I saw.  If that is not the ultimate goal of Hugo, I don't know what is.

Is Hugo a great film, worthy of comparison to Scorsese's best work?  Definitely not.  It absolutely is, though, adorable and heart-warming.  This is a nostalgic movie, disguised as something that kids might want to see, and it is disguised well.  Is Hugo manipulative?  Oh, lord, yes.  Thankfully, it doesn't leave you feeling dirty, like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  It is not a whole lot better than that film, though, for similar reasons.  It barely made it into my top ten of last year, but it is still worth watching, especially if you have a fondness for older films.  This may not make you want to watch silent movies, but it is at least as effective as The Artist.

My first exposure to Georges Méliès was this music video from Smashing Pumpkins.  I don't know what made Billy Corgan choose this as a theme for his video, but it is still pretty cool.

No comments:

Post a Comment