Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Hugo ****
Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Written by: John Logan based on the book by Brian Selznick.
Starring: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station inspector), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (Rene Tabard), Ray Winstone (Uncle Claude), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick), Jude Law (Hugo's Father).

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is mainly about the joy of watching movies – and the power they have to ignite your imagination. It is a film made for movie lovers, regardless of their age. It was impossible for me not to think of those stories Scorsese tells about being an asthmatic kid, watching the world outside his window, and discovering the world of movies as I watched this film. It was also impossible not to think back to my own childhood, and the experiences that led me to become a movie lover. This is that rare film that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Yes, it is a kid’s movie, but like many of the best kid’s movies, it is more a movie about childhood than a movie made for children themselves. Older kids will like it, but younger ones, I’m not so sure. Not that it really matters to me – as I loved the movie.

The movie takes place in 1920s Paris, where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives at the train station. His mother and father are dead, and for a while he lived with his uncle, who has to ensure all the clocks in the station are properly kept up, but the uncle has also vanished. Hugo lives in the steaming bowels of the station, and figures that as long as he stays out of sight, and keeps the clocks working, no one will know his uncle is dead, and he won’t be sent to the orphanage. He just has to avoid the nasty Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who loves capturing kids with no parents.

Hugo meets two people who will change his life. The first is Georges (Ben Kingsley), the old man who runs the toy booth at the station, who catches Hugo stealing, and takes away his father’s beloved notebook and will not tell him why. The second is Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who he enlists to help get the notebook back. Hugo needs it because before his father died, the two of them were trying to repair an automaton – a windup robot that who can write – and the notebook will tell Hugo how to complete it. Isabelle has led a sheltered life, invested in books, and sees this as her chance to have a real adventure.

The first half of Hugo is a marvellous visual adventure as Hugo and Isabelle try to piece together the truth about the automaton, avoid the station inspector, figure out why “Papa Georges” is so angry about the notebook and sneak off to the movie to see Harold Lloyd dangle from a clock. Isabelle refers to Hugo as “Dickensian”, and that’s as good of a description as any for him. The movie meanders in place in this segment, but I didn’t mind it. The side trips added flavour and nuance to the movie as a whole.

The second half of the movie is essentially a tribute to the silent movie makers of yesteryear. Eventually, Papa Georges will be outed as Georges Meiles, the silent film pioneer who pretty much invented special effects and directed hundreds of short films in the early 20th century. His most famous is Voyage to the Moon in 1902. What Meiles did with special effects, which did not really exist until he came along, was truly remarkable. Scorsese, who has made numerous documentaries about film history, has now taken that structure into a dramatic film. What’s amazing that although the film is a history lesson at times in the second half, it never feels like one.

In essence what Scorsese has done with Hugo is take the most advanced special effects of his time, and used them to make a tribute to the film pioneers who invented special effects – and the medium of film as a whole. The environment of the train station created by Scorsese and his collaborators is truly astonishing. CGI interacts perfectly with period detail in the art direction and costume design, and the dark passages running through the train station, full of clock gears, is amazing. For the first time since Avatar, the 3-D in the movie actually works to enhance the movie, not distract from it. Scorsese uses it as flavour, to add depth and dimension to his film, rather than supplanting the story with his use of special effects. The actors, amazingly, never get lost in all the special effects around them. Sacha Baron Cohen once again proves he is among the most adept of physical comedians. Chloe Grace Moretz continues her streak of incredible child performance, capturing the innocent fun of adventure perfectly. Asa Butterfield makes a wonderful, wild eyed hero. And Ben Kingsley is best of all, as Georges Meiles, a sad man who thinks the world has forgotten him. The supported by a wonderful, eclectic cast of character actors, all of whom add flavour to the train station environment. I have a feeling that Georges Meiles, watching this film, would be astonished by how far movies have come in just over 100 years.

Hugo is a masterful film. It is one of the most visually assured films of the year – a film that uses the most up to date techniques to support it’s larger than life story. At first, Hugo seems like a departure for Scorsese. I mean, the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, making a kids movie? But the film is obviously close to Scorsese’s heart. Scorsese has always been one of the biggest fans of movies in the world – and one of their most knowledgeable supporters. He has very vocal in his advocacy for preserving the films of the past (in fact, he has admitted that one of the reason he made Raging Bull in black and white was to make a point about film preservation). That Scorsese has been able to create such an astonishing visual film that functions both as an adventure film for children and a history lesson about the importance of movies is truly amazing. Hugo is a love letter to the movies – and one of the best of the year.

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