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Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese truly deserves the plaudits that his latest film has been garnering and there is so much that is truly wonderful about it.  However it is not a perfect 10 on my scoreboard.

For a start, I think his use of 3D techniques in the film's creation is quite possibly the best use of this format ever -- even James Cameron's "Avatar" falls into a close second place.  Unlike so many recent releases where the aim seems to be to throw as many objects at the viewer as possibly, harking back to the ping pong bat in 1953's "House of Wax", Scorsese achieves a majestic flow in his filming.  The opening scenes in the inner workings of the Paris rail station clock where our young protagonist Asa Butterfield lives, is one of the most bravura and realistic sensations of sweeping flight that I have ever sensed in a film.  Occasionally the director doesn't get it quite right with some of the crowd scenes in the station concourse more closely resembling a kiddie's pop-up picture book, but much of the filming is breathtaking.  Of course it is unfortunate that this part of the film's brilliance will be lost to subsequent viewing until such time as we all are 'blessed' with 3D televisions.  (Not that I've seen it but I would guess that the 2D "Avatar" verges on the tedious).

Fortunately the film has much more to commend it.  Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time that Scorsese has embraced a film suitable for children, rather than his trademark gangster movies and literary recreations; however it is not really a movie that all youngsters will enjoy and it is really more like the director's heartfelt love letter to early cinema.  The movie begins as an adventure movie for youngsters, as we learn how young Hugo came to reside in the mechanical innards.  After the death of his clockmaker father, a very brief turn from Jude Law, his drunken uncle Ray Winstone (another mercifully brief turn) abandons him there, to take on the work for which the old sot continues to be paid as he chases bender after bender.  Hugo does his work and lives from hand to mouth by stealing the odd croissant, all the time trying to avoid the unwanted attention of the station's security in the shape of Sacha Baron Cohen, who with his fearsome mouth-snapping doberman, has it in for all orphans.  His main concern is to finish the automaton man that his father was working on at the time of his death, convinced that it will be able to write a final message from his father from beyond the grave.

He also steals mechanical parts from the station's toy kiosk until he is finally caught by the old man who runs it (Ben Kingley) and his precious notebook is confiscated.  He enlists the help of Kingsley's young and sheltered ward (sweet-faced Chloe Grace Moretz -- miles away from "Kick-Ass") to regain it, and the two begin a series of adventures together.  This is somehow where things begin to slow down for the younger viewer, but pick up dramatically for the film buffs in the audience. It turns out that 'Papa Georges' is actually an embittered Georges Melies, one of the great and most imaginative pioneers of early cinema, long believed dead in the
Great War and whose previously popular short films have gone out of fashion.  This gives Scorsese a platform for a subject close to his heart and he uses the film to teach a potted history of moviemaking's first days.  He launches into a tour of Melies' original glass studio and recreates the making of "A Trip to the Moon" and other magical fripperies in a most believable way.  Movie Nirvana for someone like me, but I suspect a little wasted on younger children or older ones expecting continuous action.  Finally through the intervention of an enthusiast played by Michael Stuhlbarg (the only American other than Moretz in the main cast), Melies is drawn out of his self-protecting shell, given the honours due him...and Hugo finds a home.

Based on the graphic novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, Scorsese has wisely shortened the film's title and given us a loving and colourful recreation of Paris in the 1930s. Most of the cast including of course the soulful Buttefield are British and the director has unexpectedly found roles for the always reliable Christopher Lee as a book dealer, Emily Mortimer as a flower-seller (worshipped from afar by Cohen's would-be comic villain), and character actors Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as a pair of aging, dog-loving romantics.  Even (Sir) Ben -- not the most likeable of actors -- is very good indeed as the disillusioned Melies, quite possibly his best role since his Oscar-winning Gandhi. 

This is finally a movie of two parts which don't quite synch together.  The children's fable gives way to Scorsese's cinema valentine but offers us assorted pleasures along the way.  His recreations of Hugo's nightmares, including a runaway engine crashing through the station is a genius use of 3D, and another where the boy sees himself turned into another mechanical automaton is imaginatively done.  By the end the movie is chokey, as Melies' sadness segues into a happy ending but I somehow don't know whether the film will have as wide an audience appeal as it deserves.  Finally, as wonderful a filmmaker as he is, I suspect that Scorsese doesn't really possess a strong sense of humour and some of the film's attempts at laughs ring slightly hollow, especially Cohen's usual overplaying. However this is a minor fault in Scorsese's brilliant conception, leaving a thrilling cinematic experience for all of us and especially for your faithful film-fan PPP.
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