Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's this theory that the last two months of each year are reserved exclusively for "adult" movies. Arriving last November, Martin Scorsese's Hugo seemed at least on the surface to be an exception. Based on an acclaimed children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and filmed and released in 3D, it felt exactly like the kind of giant family feature that would clean up at the box office, with parents taking their kids in droves to the theater as if it were an early Harry Potter installment. But they didn't. Maybe too sophisticated for children and too kid-friendly for adults, it ended up as a critically acclaimed commercial flop that racked up a healthy number of Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and wins. All those wins came in technical categories, which is ironic considering that wasn't even the most impressive aspect of the picture for me. I'm always weary when someone tells me something "has to" be seen in 3D. It actually makes me less interested in seeing it, so in the case of Hugo where my interest level was already minimal, the decision to wait for a home viewing was an especially easy one. My mind won't change on 3D overnight or even with Scorsese's endorsement, but this is still a magical film with or without it.

It's 1930's Paris and a 12-year-old boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station with his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) following the death of his father (Jude Law) in a museum fire. When his uncle suddenly disappears Hugo is left on his own to maintain the clocks and continue working on his father's final project: Fixing a broken automaton robot he believes contains a secret message from him. While stealing parts to repair it he's caught by the station's grumpy toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) and attracts the unwanted attention the Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), who catches orphans and locks them in cages. His only friend turns out to be the toy store owner's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who joins him in unlocking the mystery surrounding the automaton and discovering its strange connection to her godfather's hidden past. It isn't until the full nature of the mystery is revealed that the film really starts to take off as up to that point everything is visually spectacular (deservedly winning Oscars for Robert Richardson's cinematography and Dante Ferretti's art direction), but ordinary from narrative standpoint. That doesn't last long though. 

John Logan's screenplay takes its time for a reason, and since trailers and reviews have been liberal in revealing the secret, so will I. Isabelle's godfather is really legendary A Trip to the Moon filmmaker Georges Melies who's now washed up and embittered, forced into retirement following World War I, with his life's work seemingly lost and legacy long forgotten. Film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlberg), who's written and lectured on Melies even believes him to be dead. What happens next shouldn't be spoiled other than to say Scorsese merges actual biography and fantasy in a way that needs to be seen to be believed. For about an hour straight this film enters what I like to call "the zone," where you're completely swept away by the story to the point that you forget you're even watching a movie. It's a level of perfection few films reach but Scorsese gets there, at least for the last third of the picture.  The extended middle portion of The Tree of Life played in that area earlier in the year, but there's a flashback section here taking us through film history that's emotionally moving in a way I wasn't completely prepared for going in. It'll probably play best for film buffs but I can't imagine anyone else watching it wouldn't also be affected by how beautifully it's presented.

Having heard about this flashback section beforehand, my biggest worry was Scorsese turning the story into a public service announcement for film preservation (which admittedly wouldn't be the worst cause to force on us anyway) and shoehorning the rest of the movie into that. This doesn't happen, as the biggest relief is how well all the the narrative pieces fit together and tie into the central theme of broken people in need of fixing. It not only extends to Hugo, but Georges' wife and former actress Jeanne (Helen McCrory), as well Sacha Baron Cohen's comical inspector. There's a sub-plot involving him and the station flower girl (Emily Mortimer) that could have seemed completely cornball in another director's hands, but instead comes off as genuinely touching and organic to the story.

For some strange reason a lot of criticism has been leveled against the performance of young Asa Butterfield as the title character and I'm kind of at a loss as to why. He's mainly called upon to look in wide eyed amazement at everything with his expressive eyes and turn on the waterworks when necessary and does that just fine. What's strange is that despite playing the protagonist and being the driving engine behind the narrative, the film doesn't live and die by his performance like you'd figure it would. He's important, but ultimately just a cog in the machine, which is fitting considering the film's central theme. He doesn't give a poor performance at all but if he did or Scorsese picked a less talented child actor, a part of me thinks the picture might not have suffered much at all. It's about Hugo, yet it isn't. Butterfield does good work, but it kind of perfectly blends in, possibly causing an understandable reluctance from many to praise it. Moretz is better but that's completely expected given her experience, and if she looks and even acts a little old for the role (despite being exactly the same age as Butterfield) it's understandable since the Isabelle character seems to be written as slightly older. But this is Ben Kingsley's movie, giving a career-high supporting performance that went surprisingly overlooked during awards season. It isn't off base to claim he's the actor most responsible for the film's success, bringing an uncommon amount of depth and gravity to a bitter man simultaneously running from and toward his past.

Chalk this up as yet another entry in the nostalgia craze that swept through theaters in 2011, joining the likes of The Artist, Super 8, War Horse, Drive, Midnight in Paris and many more. But give this credit for at least depicting a relationship with the past that isn't completely full of the warm and fuzzies, even if does end that way. It only suffers in having a section so powerful that the rest of the film has trouble holding its ground with it. And while it seems we were obligated to honor Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen for just releasing anything, this (unlike 2010's Shutter Island) feels as if it would still be garnering massive praise without the knowledge Scorsese directed it. Yet he's inseparable from it anyway. Given its size and scope Hugo still manages to feels almost embarrassingly intimate and personal. It doesn't at all feel like the work of a filmmaker pushing 70, but one still trying new things and pushing himself in different directions. I may not always agree with those directions but it's impressive he would try something this unexpectedly ambitious when he clearly doesn't need to and could just pump out the same stuff he has been. The nicest surprise accompanying Hugo is that it wasn't listed among the nine Best Picture nominees as a favor to the person who made it, but because it actually deserved to be.

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