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Hugo (2011)

December 10, 2011

written by: John Logan (screenplay) and Brian Selznick (story)
produced by: Johnny Depp, Timothy Headington, Graham King, & Martin Scorsese
directed by: Martin Scorsese
rating: PG (for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking)
runtime: 127 min. 
U.S. release date: November 23, 2011
From Martin Scorsese, the director of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” comes a magical 3D motion picture based on an award-winning children’s novel. Does this even sound right? Who cares? Sign me up. Consider “Hugo” one of the most satisfying films of the year. An artistic achievement from one of the most influential and talented American filmmakers living. Scorsese has always had a knack for including and referring to his favorite music and films in his movies and his latest is no different. At first, such material may seem like a curious career departure for Scorsese, but once experiencing the meticulous artistry and absolute joy for the power of cinema on display throughout “Hugo”, it’s obvious this absolutely stunning tale of identity, dreams and redemption, is one of the best of the year. 
Set in Paris in the early 1930’s, the story primarily takes place in a bustling train station, where people come and go amid swirling steam and clamorous engines. Amongst those constant travelers are those who make a living there, for them work and life has become one. We meet Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths, the “Harry Potter” movies), the newspaper seller, who has a pretty obvious unrequited crush on Madame Emile (Frances de la Tour,  “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”), owner of the cafe. There’s also the kind flower seller, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the only person capable of unhinging the tightly-wound Station Inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), who prides himself in snatching delinquent children. They populate this vast station (which Scorsese treats as its own absorbing character) with their own characteristic quirks and humanity, establishing an engaging introduction to this time period. 
We see all this through the eyes of  young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy living in the station with his neglectful and absent uncle (Ray Winstone) who maintains the clocks in the station. Hugo’s father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker (and film lover) who tragically died in a fire, leaving the boy alone in the world with a penchant for tinkering with machines and a longing for adventure. His father also left him a mysterious silver automaton that may have some connection with Georges (Ben Kingsley), the station’s solitary toy shop owner. 

Hugo comes to know the sad, cantankerous man through his adolescent god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a thrill-seeker who introduces Hugo to books like Robin Hood, thanks to a stoic shopkeeper (Christopher Lee), while he sneaks her into a showing of  “Safety First!” (a Harold Lloyd silent classic) to experience her first-ever movie. As the two spend their days evading Gustav and his look-alike Doberman, they begin to dig deeper into the history of Hugo’s automaton, revealing an amazing discovery from Poppa Georges’ past and his involvement in silent cinema. 
Like many recent films, the trailers for “Hugo” are somewhat misleading, selling the film as wide-eyed kiddie escapism, and understandably so. If this is to be considered a children’s film, than it can proudly stand alongside other “children’s films” made by Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, both of whom chose not to dumb down the subject matter for any specific age demographic. For those who’ve read the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (a distant cousin of famous film producer David O. Selznick, another film history connection), they may already know what’s in store for them. But then there’s also those (like myself) who will gladly follow Scorsese anywhere and appreciate when any director tackles a new genre for the first time. For moviegoers who know next to nothing about either, the tone and feel of the TV spots and previews only represent about twenty percent of this dense, mesmerizing film. 
Reunited with screenwriter John Logan (“The Aviator”), Scorsese spends the second half of the film sitting the audience (and the two young protagonists) for film history class. Only there’s no chance of falling asleep in a class this imaginative and engaging. Accented throughout by a beautiful score by Howard Shore, who incorporates music of that area with a romantic storytelling flow, viewers are taken on a magical tour of the silent film era. There are other integral characters who help flesh out the details here, such as Isabelle’s godmother, Mama Jeanne (a wonderful Helen McCrory) and film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), but to give any more information on them would provide a disservice to the deserved surprises for you, dear movie lover. 
For those in the know, Scorsese incorporates recognizable footage from some groundbreaking films, and for everyone else, this will be their chance to become initiated. Look closely and you may even see James Joyce, Django Reinhardt (is that co-producer, Johnny Depp?) and a recreation of the famous 1895 Gare Montparnasse train derailment, also in Selznick’s book. All of these details, be they slight or massive,  allow Scorsese to meticulously unveil his passion for the subject matter in dreamlike fashion. 
For obvious reasons, actors have been known to automatically say “yes” to any Scorsese project, and the director usually manages to get the best work from the cast he works with. Therefore, it’s unsurprising to watch the talented actors in “Hugo” commit to just the right amount of melodrama and humor. As Hugo, Butterfield excellently balances weighty emotions like loneliness and abandonment with mischievousness and frustration that one would expect from a boy his age. Moretz continues to display a confidence in her work, providing a knowing wink and a delightful charm about her. But it’s Sir Ben Kingsley, with his calculated responses and expressions, who has us from start to finish, in the most multi-layered role of the film. When we first meet him, we are both curious and apprehensive, and towards the end, we are inspired and moved by him. 
It helps that Scorsese has the astonishing talent of cinematographer Robert Richardson and the impeccable Thelma Schoonmaker as editor (both longtime collaborators) at his disposal once again, especially with this being his first foray into 3D. He uses the currently overused third dimension to interact and engage his audience, not to simply try out a gimmick. It’s like watching a pop-up book come to life. From specks of dust and ashes floating in the air to the always-present flowing steam, Scorsese has built an atmosphere that is breathtaking to behold (easily out-classing James Cameron).
I don’t say this lightly, but seeing “Hugo” in 3D is worth it. It’s basically the equivalent of walking through the screen and immersing yourself into the movie. That being said, Scorsese has said that he now plans on filming every movie in 3D. I hope not. Since what he has done here is so special, let’s hope that the film preservationist in him will keep it that way. 


RATING: ****


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