Friday, December 9, 2011

Hugo Movie Review

This review is based on the 3D version of the film. As this is only the second film I’ve seen in the contemporary 3D style I don’t feel I’m familiar enough with its uses and implementations to 100% accurately judge whether it’s any good or not. However, I have taken the liberty of commenting on my reaction to the 3D as I believe it is the critic’s duty to report his response to a film as completely as possible.

When I read that Martin Scorsese was going to make his next film in 3D and it was also going to be an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s picture novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, my first reaction was to be simply dumbfounded. Why would the director of so many dark and violent films that deeply explore the human condition venture into such new territory? And why would the man who still insists on using film stock, a man who supremely values film history, shoot in 3D? Surely this must have been some kind of total commercial sellout. Well, the final judgment is yet to be determined as it often takes years for the critical and audience response to render a final verdict on a piece of pop culture’s place in the canon, but after seeing it I can say it makes a lot more sense now that Scorsese was drawn to this particular story and this particular use of 3D technology to make Hugo.

What I didn’t know about the story is that it’s a veritable love letter to the pioneering days of cinematic storytelling in early twentieth century France when the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies were laying the foundations for what would later become not only narrative cinema, but also for filming techniques and special effects. Effectively Hugo is a love letter from a man who is in love with cinema to those old short films that paved the way for what we see today.

Set in early 1930s Paris, predominantly in the Gare Montparnasse, Hugo is about an orphan boy who lives in the train station keeping the clocks ticking after the disappearance of his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) who was only looking after Hugo following the death of his father (played in several flashbacks by Jude Law) in a museum fire. Hugo steals his food and scrounges for metal gears, cranks and shafts to rebuild an old automaton that his father found in the museum one day. This metal figure with piercing black eyes is the object of Hugo’s ambition. He and his father were attempting to get it working again like an old and complex clock before the fire. Now it is Hugo’s mission to complete the job. Standing in his way are an officious station inspector (a scenery-chewing Sacha Baron-Cohen) who is a one man army trying to rid the world of orphans and an older gentleman who runs a small toy shop in the station.

This man, played by Ben Kingsley, finds a sketch book of the automaton and takes it from the boy for reasons which should seem fairly obvious straight away. I’m probably not revealing too much by saying that the man turns out to be Georges Melies and the film becomes a story of redemption for both the boy and the older man. In essence then, Hugo is a work of historical fiction. But this is also a tale of childhood adventure. And what adventure would be complete without a partner, an accomplice. So the story supplies Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose Godparents are Georges and Jeanne Melies. Isabelle, a well-read girl who references works like Treasure Island and Wuthering Heights, is all too happy to have an adventure such as she’s only read about. She’s a precocious girl, throwing words like ‘enigma’ and ‘clandestine’ around, which gives her character a sense of being studious and eager. Without her, Hugo would be lost. She holds the key to his success, both literally and figuratively.

Asa Butterfield, with his big and beautiful blue eyes, plays Hugo. As child actors go, he holds his part down and he’s cute and all, but he lacks a certain spark of charisma. The eye is too often drawn to his surroundings, perhaps a result of the distraction of the 3D effect and Dante Ferretti’s busy production design more than Butterfield’s occasional lack of presence. In the spirit of classic Hollywood, the film is filled out by a colorful cast of supporting characters who often provide a little uplift including Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as a will-they-or-won’t-they pairing, Emily Mortimer as a possible love interest for Baron Cohen’s station inspector, and Christopher Lee as the librarian who keeps Isabelle up-to-date with the latest adventure stories.

Most of the details presented as the history of Melies are fairly accurate and adapted rather faithfully by screenwriter John Logan. Kingsley’s Melies is a bitter and sad old man whose time has passed while the public has forgotten him. Even the fictional film historian and self-described Melies expert Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) believes him to have died in The War. Hugo is not only Hugo’s story of unlocking the secret of a mechanical man, but also of Melies’ second chance at revisiting the films that he made that defined and shape motion picture production in its infancy. This is a character who believes deeply in the magical power of cinema. Melies, a magician and conjurer before he first saw the Lumiere brothers’ motion picture exhibit in an amusement park, was the first to utilize tricks of the stage and magician’s illusions to develop early special effects. He built the world’s first movie studio to stage his films while envisioning cinema’s possibilities for transporting an audience to another world, to fantasy worlds that can’t exist on earth, and most famously to the moon in A Trip to the Moon, inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Scorsese the cinephile does his level best to evoke the sense of wonder imparted by those early films, shooting in 3D in such a way as to augment that experience. Of course Scorsese must be aware of his role in the series of technological developments since early cinema that has enhanced the viewing experience. From the Lumieres and Melies to the advent of synchronized sound, then Technicolor and Cinemascope and on to CGI and now finally with 3D, filmmakers are constantly setting the bar higher when it comes to approximating real life on the movie screen. However, as good as the 3D is in Hugo, (and I will admit there were at least a couple of shots that were stunning in 3D), I still found it to be a pointless distraction. Apart from those minor moments there was little about the film that I feel was improved by the presence of 3D. At the very least Scorsese demonstrates that, despite my insistence to the contrary, 3D may have useful applications outside of animation.

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