Monday, November 28, 2011

Hugo (3-D)

The Magic, Machinery And Mastery Of The Movies

Like clockwork: Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret in Martin Scorsese's adventure fantasy "Hugo". 
Paramount Pictures
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 28, 2011

Martin Scorsese manages to eat his cinematic cake and keep it too with his dazzling "Hugo", a film that has taken me the better part of a week to digest.  Saturated with detail and breathtaking beauty, "Hugo", based on Brian Selznick's book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, tells the story of an orphaned boy trying to complete the invention started by his late father (Jude Law, one of several actor cameos in the film.) 

Set in 1930s Paris, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a clock tower of a busy railway station, assembling a machine from his cherished notebook of drawings, a book which Georges Méliès (a wonderful Ben Kingsley) has contempt for.  Working at a shop stand in a train station that Hugo lives in, Méliès is a isolated, bitter man, and we will understand why.  The station is patrolled by a witty but awkward inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, great here with his own comedy, and partly channeling Peter Sellers) who scours the station for orphans to lock up.

Mr. Scorsese has two films in one here, and the kids' adventure that "Hugo" purports to be isn't quite.  But the second film is an excellent adventure of the evolution of machines and the mysteries of time and how movies have been either treated well or forgotten by time.  Exhibit A is of one of the early fathers of cinema, Georges Méliès, a man largely unsung in some circles, and whom was taken advantage by some for the many creations he brought to cinema, a medium that changed his life and transformed the way we see the world in many respects.

"Hugo" is handled terrifically by Mr. Scorsese (who also cameos here) but the director is for all intents and purposes the main character Mr. Butterfield plays: full of the awe, child-like love, passion and wonderment of the movies in his eyes, heart and soul.  For all the large scale Oscar-esque grandeur of what is at many times an arresting production, "Hugo" is a deeply personal film to Mr. Scorsese, and he trumpets some of his biggest causes (film preservation and restoration) in it, doing so in a way that isn't off-putting or self-aggrandizing.  "Hugo" isn't a kids' film; it's a film for the kid in all of us: the curiosity seeker, the adventurer, the dreamer, the magician and the inventor. 

What "Hugo" does is reinvigorate a passion for the history of early cinema but more importantly links that past to this unmistakable present.  The lineage of movies is everything, Mr. Scorsese argues, a heritage that didn't ever get cut, even if it got a few scars and scratches along the way.  Mr. Méliès' prolific work (over 500 films) is of much value today as it was over 100 years ago, and he isn't forgotten, even if time dealt him a bitter-sweet hand in his day.

Time is treated as a fascinating and mysterious entity in "Hugo", as a quality both invincible and invisible.  It moves so fast we don't see it.  We see how it changes things however, and time, no matter how many years ahead in the future of film -- doesn't change the memory or impact of what Mr. Méliès brought to the medium of the movies.  Mr. Kingsley's Méliès may think the world has forgotten his contributions but his influences have always been there.  Keeping tradition and movie history alive is what "Hugo"'s chief protagonist Mr. Scorsese has done for years, and he celebrates the movies in an earnest, touching way.  Moving, joyous and consistently entertaining, "Hugo" affects us in the deepest ways with its charm, rascally joys and most of all its nostalgia and connects to the spirit of movies and moviemaking with tenderness.  This is a movie for people who love movies and who have been enthralled by the magic of them. 

Like clockwork: a shot from Martin Scorsese's adventure fantasy "Hugo".  Paramount Pictures

When Méliès tells Hugo that "dreams are made here", it sparks his imagination and it self-references our own feelings about movies and our need for escapism in light of the harsh realities of everyday life.  Hugo is that boy who wants to keep movies going and keep past movies intact.  In doing so everyday life for him is made better, even after tragedies strike him.  Hugo has a keen desire for knowledge, a relentless thirst to complete his invention, and to forge a link to a past that perhaps Mr. Kingsley's Méliès either forgot or didn't want to remember because of where he stood in the eyes of nefarious thieves, a word he often uses to label Hugo.  It's as if Méliès sees Hugo as Edison, so pained is he by the past.  Hugo himself is a timeless entity; he could just as easily be a 21st century wunderkind, a Steve Jobs in the making, a wizard of instinct like Mark Zuckerberg.  In celebrating past masters Mr. Scorsese is also acknowledging present ones.  (Spielberg, Lucas, Lasseter, for starters.)

The mechanics and the constant examination of machinery and man/emotion -- a fusion that recalls a tension in themes present in films like Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and the late director's idea "A.I." -- is well-executed.  Clocks are the engines that run the world's existence, calibrate it, record its history and keep ticking despite the painful lessons that history has taught. 

At the backbone of "Hugo" is the idea that machines are the engines of time that can be fixed, rejuvenated and given another chance to shine, and to impact people's lives for the better.  The train has machinery that narrowly misses condemning one character to the grave.  The station inspector's rickety left leg, stabilized by a metallic harness, needs fixing, and in turn, a bolstering of his self-esteem, to pluck up the courage to ask a woman on a date.  The inspector is a machine in his movement and his very being, and he is a toy, a lifelike wind-up toy, and his true feelings are muted.  Hugo's by contrast, are open for the world to see.  He wears his heart on his sleeve.  Hugo is working on a machine, and the film harmonizes the two in one moment that is pure magic.

At times "Hugo" feels labored and a little longer than it should have been and its early emphasis on a purported adventure for children should have been scrapped.  Mr. Scorsese probably wanted to market "Hugo" to the widest audience possible; it's been some 18 years since a Scorsese picture was rated PG -- and he shrewdly brings children of a PG age to an entertainment and history that he introduces them to in a relatable, universal, and non-alienating way, using a once-briefly used format in the 1950s (3-D) that is now for better or worse an everyday occurrence. 

The 3-D format works well in "Hugo" because it allows the audience to feel that in its extra dimension they are seven years old all over again -- to see things the way a child sees them: as larger than life itself -- to see adults towering over them and intruding their personal space.  To cry, to be scared, to laugh, to feel the heartbeat of a romance.  To see Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock, or Buster Keaton sitting on the lever of a wheel on a moving train.  Trains, clocks, super machines ("2001"), robots/automatons ("Metropolis", "Star Wars", "Blade Runner", "Terminator", "Robocop", "A.I.") have always been there in reality and/or in the illusion called the movies.  Sometimes it just takes someone who cares a little to fix them rather than forsake them. 

Is "Hugo" a great film?  I'm not so sure it is.  It's unquestionably a very good one, and the intricacies and care taken in telling a story many moviegoers (and a few film critics) may be unaware of is admirable.  The film's players embrace a mission that is layered, investigative and edifying.  "Hugo" is exhilarating in its sheer joy of the celebration of magic, Méliès and the movies.  Howard Shore's brilliant score underlines the film's tempo and air of discovery around each corner.  Whether one thinks "Hugo" a very good film or a great one, Mr. Scorsese has cultivated one of his better efforts, possibly his best since "GoodFellas" -- certainly a better film on a second viewing and in 3-D.

With: Chloë Grace Moretz, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, and a few cameo appearances.

"Hugo" is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association Of America for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.  The film's running time is two hours and eight minutes.

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