Martin Scorsese is more than just the man who directed Goodfellas or the guy with bushy eyebrows who calls Entourage’s Vincent Chase wanting him for a remake of The Great Gatsby.
Scorsese is cinema.
You could make the argument that he is the biggest film fanatic on Earth, going as far as to establish The Film Foundation which, of this writing, has preserved over 545 motion pictures since 1990. Though most often associated with his scintillating crime films dealing with hoods and organized crime, and the double-dealing of running a casino, he has gravitated to other genres and mediums as well. From music videos (Michael Jackson’s “Bad”), concert documentaries (The Last Waltz), biopics (The Aviator), to even a feature on the fourteenth dalai lama (Kundun), Scorsese is proving that while you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, the old dog can find new ways to surprise you.
Last year, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of author Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island had him make his first pulp movie with a great big gothic setting and B-movie staples. With the release of Hugo, Scorsese ventures farther outside the box with an adult-oriented fairy tale filled with magic, but not with a boy wizard who looks like he was marked by Zorro’s blade. The film is perfectly suitable for young viewers, but it moves at a leisurely pace free of the visual cacophony that seems to be part of most family films (though 2011 is bucking the trend in a big way). So if you see your young son or daughter’s attention span start to wane consider this your warning.
It’s difficult to discuss the film without wanting to plaster a big spoiler alert sign. So far, the advertisements have done enough to entice viewership, but one shouldn’t be quick to assume what the film is based strictly from the trailers and television spots. It’s not a repeat of what happened a few months ago when one woman thought she’d be getting Fast Five when she paid to see Drive.
Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s historical fiction book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has its titular character (as played by Asa Butterfield) rummaging around Paris’ Monparnasse train station in the 1930s. He lives within the walls and backrooms of the station, doing his best to avoid being apprehended by Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), who walks with a limp looking to apprehend unattended children to have sent to orphanages. Hugo, having learned the craft of resetting timepieces from his recently deceased father (Jude Law), quietly makes his way around the station setting the clocks ensuring everything is on time. When he isn’t fixing clocks, or pilfering a morsel of food here and there, he tends to his hobby project: the automaton his father was restoring to functionality prior to his death. But to make it work Hugo has to steal some parts from a toymaker in the station run by a man named Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Yes, that Melies.
Georges doesn’t like Hugo much, finally catching him in the act of stealing. Ordering him to empty his pockets reveals a notebook containing drawings and notes about the automaton. Georges is perturbed by the notebook’s contents and, more importantly, why Hugo would have it in his possession. Young Hugo pleads with the old man to get it back but to no avail. Lucky for him, then, he happens to befriend Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who helps Hugo get back the notebook and finish the automaton. The thought was that the finished automaton would reveal a hidden message from his father, but instead the message unlocks the mysteries of one of the early pioneers of cinema.
As the plot begins to unfold lovers of film will easily recognize why Martin Scorsese would want to be associated with such a project. The character of Hugo is a semi-autographical representation of the director. Maybe of different time periods and locations, but both have a fondness for cinema, stories and people. In one scene Hugo takes Isabelle to the movies (she’s never seen one before), and it happens to be Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, a film famous for its iconic shot of Lloyd dangling from a clock on the side of a building. It’s a shot that Scorsese pays homage to later in the film.
James Cameron, who started the infamous trend of studios wanting to milk the 3-D success of Avatar, is a director who has tried to push the limits of special effects wizardry in film. So it only seems fitting that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo be a 3-D film about the man who invented special effects. Unlike recent offerings, Scorsese’s 3D is more about creating an immersive viewing experience instead of as a gimmick.
Not since Baz Luhrmann’s pre-Glee stylized Moulin Rouge! have we had a dreamlike Paris. Though aside from a great establishing zoom of Gay Paree, we only get a few glances of the cityscape through Hugo’s eyes as he stares outside the windows from one of the clock towers. But it’s a breathtaking sight. Matched with Dante Ferretti’s art direction and John Logan’s scripted adaptation, a screenwriter who earlier this year scored with the original Rango, Scorsese’s latest is his biggest period dressing since The Age of Innocence. Only instead of lavish dresses and form-fitting suits, the clothing attire is more Charles Dickens, not F. Scott Fitzgerald. And the story seems ripped from the pages of Dickens, at least for the first half. The last half is devoted to flashbacks of the history and career of Georges Melies, including his famous short film “A Trip to the Moon.”
With close to forty years of yelling “Action!” and then sharing his gifts with the world, Martin Scorsese presents a story that celebrates the birth of cinema. Hugo is much an entertaining film as it is a filmlover’s dream. Released in the same year as The Artist, a black-and-white film set in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, and told with no spoken dialogue, Hugo is again a film that allows audiences to rediscover the magic of the medium while hopefully making the uninformed cinephiles realize that movies existed before Michael Bay.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Notable Cast: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law
Writer(s): John Logan, based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick