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HUGO
(****)
Reviewer:  Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:  Martin Scorsese
Writers:
John Logan based on the book by Brian Selznick
Starring:
Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen
Length:  126 minutes
Released:  112311
Rating:
PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril, and smoking
“Hugo” is more like an elegantly composed symphony comprised of familiar movements but delivered with the fervor of authentic brilliance" 

When it was first announced that the next film from Martin Scorsese, the man who has long been anointed as America's Finest Filmmaker, was going to be a an adaptation of the acclaimed children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," many observers reacted to the news as if it were some kind of bizarre joke. After all, while Scorsese has long proclaimed that his own fascination with the cinema began when he was a small child, there was precious little in his filmography that one could actually show to the tykes without either boring or scarring the majority of them for life. Not only that, the story promised to be the kind of elaborate fantasy piece that required someone with a flair for presenting lavish special-effects tableaus--not exactly the kind of spectacles that are part of his celebrated bag of tricks--and the further development that he would be shooting it in 3D, a move perceived as being just another attempt to follow in the massively successful footsteps of "Avatar," served as a further cause for alarm. In the hands of someone like Steven Spielberg or Terry Gilliam, such a project would be awaited with bated breath by every film fan worth his or her salt but coming from someone like Scorsese, even his greatest admirers found themselves regarding it as a giant question mark at best and a potentially massive disaster at worst.

Those fans will be relieved to know that "Hugo," as it has now been dubbed, is neither a question mark nor a disaster. In fact, it is not even really a family film in the traditional sense of the word. What it is, in fact, is a Martin Scorsese film through and through and aside from the fact that the profanity count is close to nil and that the short person running around does not eventually wind up getting whacked in a rec room or buried alive in a cornfield, it still burns with the passion and intensity that has made his work so distinctive, not to mention the joy that he still gets in celebrating and paying homage to the art form that he has dedicated his life's work to pursuing. This time around, he goes back to its earliest days and presents us with a film that somehow works both as a love letter to the joys to be derived from the cinema, as spectator and creator alike, and as a marvelously engrossing and high-spirited adventure that is as enchanting as any of the "Harry Potter" movies and may be even more so because the magic that it is dealing with is the kind that still has the power to enchant and amaze even after all of its secrets appear to have been revealed.

The phrase “movie magic” has either been lost or diluted these days; this is not to say everyone’s grown too weary and cynical to believe in it anymore, but, like anything magical, we perhaps begin to take it for granted as we get older. Combine this with the advent of all the information that allows us to track a film when it’s just the glimmer in the eye of a screenwriter (or marketing executive or toy company), and it’s easy to see how we sometimes lose sight of the transcendent power of going to the movies. That’s an act that, in turn, allows us to go to other places, and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is a brilliant, heartfelt celebration that reclaims that by going all the way back to cinema’s infancy.

Actually, it’s probably more astute to say it begins in cinema’s adolescence, in 1930s Paris, where Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a street urchin that’s been abandoned by his uncle in the wake of his father’s death. Left in charge of keeping the clocks running at the local train station, he spends his days traversing about as a petty thief, much to the dismay of the local police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). The only thing that remains of his father is a broken automaton that he’s attempted to repair; however, he also needs a special key that will make it fully functional. One day, he meets a local toy shop proprietor (Ben Kinglsey) and his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), a duo who may hold that key, which may also unlock the old man’s long hidden past.

That hidden past is where the magic is, as we learn that the toy shop owner is actually Georges Méliès, the famed silent movie director. Only now, he’s not so famous--instead, he’s been discarded by time, forgotten--which likely seems inconceivable to the modern cineaste, though it’s mostly based in reality (Méliès did end up broke, even after selling off his films). Those uninitiated needn’t worry--“Hugo” serves as a fine introduction to not only Méliès, but also the silent era. And if you’re worried that the whole thing comes off as some stodgy, Film School 101 lecture, rest assured that it’s delivered with genuine, joyous passion by Scorsese. He’s one of cinema’s old masters, but “Hugo” reveals him at his most spirited, marrying the energy of a first year film student with the craft of a veteran.

This isn’t just a celebration of an art form--it’s an exaltation of the movies, particularly its magical powers. There’s a line of dialogue that I think sums up “Hugo” quite well; it comes when Hugo is discussing the movies with Isabelle (who has never been), specifically the trips he and his father would take. He explains that his father once described films as being like dreams projected in daylight, a wonderfully romantic notion that reminds us of the awe and wonder of film. Scorsese takes us back to the days where audiences were daunted by the Lumières’ ability to project a train arriving at a station--that’s a quaint notion the snow, but the image of theater patrons cowering as that train rushed at the screen is perhaps the ideal of the cinema--we can only wish that we were so affected these days.

However, “Hugo” isn’t a lament by any means; it’d be more apt to call it a rejoinder to all of this. It doesn’t live to merely homage that bygone era, even if it does inundate us in its language and visuals. For example, even Cohen’s police inspector falls in love with a pretty flower girl (Emily Mortimer), an obvious echo of Chaplin’s “City Lights.” But it’s not the mere surface level that’s echoed here, as Scorsese somehow channels the pure joy that is the final frame of “City Lights” and applies it to his own film, which is delivered through the eyes of a couple of adolescent protagonists, yet refuses to pander to childish impulses.

I think it’s fair to call “Hugo” a children’s film--it’s full of whimsical and fanciful ideals. It’s ostensibly about two kids embarking on a grand adventure, though it never capitulates to abject silliness. Instead, it funnels that wonder and whimsy into a strikingly mature exploration of discovery; at the heart here is a tale of two broken people looking for their place in life. Both Méliès and Hugo are listless for different reasons, and both will eventually bond over film, which speaks to the medium’s ultimate transcendent power.

They can be a nice diversion, sure, but the real enchantment of the movies lies in its ability to capture our collective imaginations. If there’s any lament to be found in “Hugo,” it’s that we’ve gotten so far away from this sort of primacy; the film community at times has become a cesspool of resentment and negativity. Perhaps ironically, it’s happened in an age where it’s easier than ever to network with fellow enthusiasts; sometimes, though, I can’t help but think we’re somehow all further apart. “Hugo” evokes why we love movies in the first place and why we want to share them, and I think we can learn from the incredible, authentic happiness these characters receive from showing and watching movies.

The flicker and hum of an old projector weave an enchanting spell, and Scorsese similarly dazzles us with a masterful display that relies on those old magic tricks--a crackling, affecting story, fine performances, and a gorgeously realized art direction. This is a stunning film to behold; draped in a meticulously ornate period design, it effectively evokes not only 1930s Paris, but also a sort of storybook aesthetic. With its vibrant, somewhat nostalgic sheen, “Hugo” resembles a dream itself; it’s a film that I could simply watch and derive pleasure from on a purely visual level. Scorsese is keenly aware of this, as he allows us to drink in this world early and often with some long, mesmerizing sequences with little or no dialogue. We watch Hugo trample through this world, peeking into the train station from behind its walls; more breathtaking, however, is when he glimpses outside, into the huge and magnificent. The City of Lights is expectedly luminous, and its revelation feels like a grand foreshadowing of Hugo’s adventure; if I could borrow a phrase from a film myself, he’s about to take his first step into a much larger world.

His journey is compelling, as, again, these characters are realized beyond their storybook conceptions; Butterfield is a capable in capturing the lead character’s Dickensian qualities, especially the necessary vulnerability and resolve. Moretz continues to build upon her already impressive career, once again bringing a remarkable maturity to the role of Isabelle, while Kingsley gives an incredibly moving turn as Méliès. Even when he’s introduced as the cantankerous shop owner, we sense that something tragic and sad lies behind his eyes. When flashbacks take us back to Méliès’s younger days, Kingsley is vivacious, bringing forth the directors’ showmanship and flair.

Those sequences are among the film’s most breathtaking and most celebratory of film itself. They treat us to reproductions of Méliès’s productions and allow us to glimpse at some of that old movie magic. Something about the crudeness and practicality of these tricks is fascinating; this is not to discredit the awesome and incredible work of modern CGI artists, but there’s something just a little bit less captivating about pixels. I think it’s here that Scorsese also completely justifies the use of 3D; it’s obvious that a film about wizardly film pioneers like Méliès would lend itself to the third dimension, but Scorsese employs it in a transfixing manner to fully take us away to another world, much in the way Méliès himself took audiences to the moon and back.

Cinephiles should appreciate “Hugo” on some level; its message about film preservation alone should be repeated from the highest mountaintop. More importantly, though, “Hugo” could breed an entirely new crop of cinephiles, provided it reaches an audience. While it’s far from indoctrinating, it’s a beautifully realized tribute that effortlessly relays the importance of appreciating motion pictures as art. Calling this a love letter is both trite and short-sighted. “Hugo” is more like an elegantly composed symphony comprised of familiar movements but delivered with the fervor of authentic brilliance; Scorsese’s career has been marked by transgressive films, and “Hugo” feels like the daring, audacious capstone to a monumental life that’s been spent at the movies. Time well spent.

"Hugo" is a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the year and as personal and deeply felt as anything that Martin Scorsese has ever done.

HUGO © 2011 Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2011 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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