Saturday, December 3, 2011


There's odd mixture of elements in Hugo, Martin Scorsese's latest, part Dickensian fable, part cinemaphile fan piece.  The question turns to who is this oddity truly intended for, a beautiful and meticulously crafted piece of work made with the sturdiest of precision-- is it a family tale (perhaps, but the wee ones might grow tired of references and literate dialogue and pacing that may extend their respective heads) or movie buffs and historians (who will certainly rejoice the tone and style, but will likely not add too much to the ticket sales of this costly affair.)  That divide, I suppose, is merely for the distributors to sort out, for the pleasures of Scorsese's latest, an unabashed and lovingly crafted ode to cinema, far outweigh the deficiencies, so much so that will dark themes run unbridled throughout, the most meaningful and resonant purpose of Hugo is it's heart on it's sleeve for that of film preservation.  And conjured by the medium's strongest supporter, here's a film that preserves that the art of filmmaking touches upon everything.  And that's the take away from Hugo, that movies are the grandest of all, projected moving pictures that connect the world viscerally, emotionally and historically.  That the filmmaker, at the point where he could surely call it a day, has amassed his greatest respect with such an ambitious scope (and in beautiful 3-D, now less), shows that his sense of play is as alive and well as ever.

Hugo begins with a sweeping prologue of a young boy and his daily adventures at a Paris train station in the 1930s.  He fixes and sets the clock (later exposition will explain how he got there), but there's a sweeping and majestic magic as our young hero darts through the walls of that station he calls home.  The clanks and cranks and gadgets all larger than life, darting through and through, with the train engine steam seems to come close enough to smell.  He's a fixer of things, the son of an inventor, with an appropriately dramatic name, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield.)  There's little dialogue in the bristling first sequence, but swift and wondrous tracking shots, of a bustling train station and picturesque, only in the movies, views of Paris.  And while at first, and through large chunks of Hugo, it may appear to be mere window dressing, the immaculate production design (courtesy of Dante Ferretti) provides itself not just another character in the piece, but another loving nod to the possibilities of movie making.

We learn that Hugo has had a rough go at things.  His father, an inventor and clock builder (played by Jude Law is flashbacks) passed some time ago.  His uncle, a drunken oaf and clocks-man at the train station (played by Ray Winstone) became his unrequested guardian.  And he wiles away, tinkering with the clocks, while trying to discover a path to connect his father's past (an unfinished robotic automotion) to a happier future.  All along the way, trying to keep out of sight from the station engineer (a slapsticky menace played by Sasha Baron Cohen) and his pit bull and stealthily pilfering supplies from an old toy maker (played by Ben Kingsley.)  The first half of Hugo is somewhat a labor, due to exacting and elongated backstories and multiple characters coming and going and a momentum that pendulums back and forth between manic and hay wired and cold and chilly.  What offsets every over the kilt climax is a burst of pure cinematic ambition, either visually or emotionally-- no spoilers, but Kingsley's the heartbreaker of the story, perhaps slightly by default as the orphaned Hugo as played by Butterfield is a bit bland and inexpressive, when he should be spirited and brimming from his impassioned quests.  It takes an unlikely friendship between a local young girl Isabelle (played by Chloe Moretz, of Kick-Ass and Let Me In fame) to slightly crack him; she's an adventure seeking bookworm, longing for a sense of play and abandon she's only read about.  The preternaturally precocious Moretz is engaging, but seems a bit more proficient in fine tuning her British accent moreso than playing a character.  One of the many cinematic asides that must quickly be gotten over is that this a film set around French characters with British accents...or perhaps that just another comment on the filmmaking process.

The connection, it turns out for not just Hugo and Isabelle, but from Scorsese to us is that power of film.  Hugo regales with proud stories of going to cinema with his father; while the more closed in Isabelle has never been.  There's a reason for that, and I dare not give it away, since that's the key to Hugo, and the source of it's power.  The connective tissue between the glossy bits of celluloid and the personal attachments and resonances illuminates the features (from a busy screenplay by John Logan, based on the children's story by Brian Selznick) and frees Scorsese to tell his family friendly (all bet it, made for adults) tale with the passion and yearning one would expect from one of the art forms finest.  It's in that technological precision, that one might grow tired of, perhaps just slightly as Hugo reaches it's ultimate, and most potent climax-- for the exhaustive shifts in tone and manic pacing certainly start to take its toll.  The final trick of the master's sleeve, however, turns out to be potent and utterly charming, Kingsley's game and noble performance ultimately shepherds us through Scorsese's movie land dream, it's a connection of glee and devastating heartbreak of the power of movies themselves; that Hugo ultimately becomes his story makes it all the better.

And what it speaks of Scorsese is fairly nifty as well.  The auteur and long championing historian, whose resume reads like a ridiculous best of list, has built a different sort of passion project, and an altogether unexpected one.  The same giant behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull crafting a children's movie in it of itself would mark a knee-jerk reaction; that he made one that's really a mediation on his own personal love affair with the cinema is the audiences ultimate gift.  B+

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