Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Trip to the Past With "Hugo"

I didn't see "Hugo" in 3D, though many of its proponents have been raving about how well the new Martin Scorsese family film is suited to the format. I think that the film looks perfectly fine in two dimensions, but I am a little curious about how it would look on the big IMAX screen, specifically the brief snippets of several pioneering silent films that Scorsese includes in "Hugo," most of which are over a hundred years old.

If you're a film geek like me, who dutifully watched Lumière, Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and the works of a certain French fantasist whose name gives away too much, you will love this film. Scorsese is an ardent film preservationist and historian, and there's no question why he was drawn to the story of Hugo Cabret, a boy trying to solve a big mystery that has much to do with the forgotten world of early cinema. Scorsese uses it as an opportunity to recreate and pay homage to this bygone era, and the parallels between the technical innovations of "Hugo" and the foundational cinema masterpieces that it resurrects are easy to see.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy who lives in the Paris train station in the 1920s. He watches over the station clocks, steals to keep himself fed, and is ever wary of the Station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman pinscher Maximilian. At the beginning of the film, Papa George (Ben Kingsley), an old man who runs a toy stall in the station, catches Hugo trying to steal a broken wind-up toy, and relieves him of a pocketful of gears and a notebook full of figures and calculations. The notebook belonged to Hugo's late father (Jude Law), and may hold the key to solving a mystery he left behind. Hugo is desperate to get it back, and enlists Papa George's goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), to help him.

Now "Hugo" is being sold as a children's film. But with its many dark moments, a two-hour running time, and several jaunts into obscure subject matter, it probably won't be tolerated by younger children. But older kids and adult viewers who don't know a thing about film history should enjoy the films as much as the cineastes. The pace has a tendency to meander, but there are plenty of chase sequences, comic characters, and moments of suspense and drama to keep the energy up. The mystery elements also unfold beautifully, better than any of the recent treasure hunt films like "The DaVinci Code" or "National Treasure."

And then there are the visuals. "Hugo" is full of interesting things to look at, from clockwork automatons and giant clock gears to a shimmering Paris skyline. There's probably more CGI, color correction, and other digital business going on in these frames than in any other Scorsese film, but he's a deft hand who understands how to use light and color better than most modern filmmakers. So "Hugo" has the visual brightness of most kids' films, but is also far richer in texture, and subtler in effect. Even in the most mundane moments, I found myself marveling over the various nooks and corners of the recreated train station, the lighting effects, and all the little period details.

I wish I could say the same of the dialogue. Large chunks of the movie are silent, including the opening sequences, but whenever Hugo does open his mouth, he's tepid and too on the nose. Asa Butterfield looks the part of Hugo, but his acting is only marginal, and he can't do a thing with the iffier lines Scorsese has him deliver. Chloe Moretz is much more natural as Isabelle, one of those bright-eyed youngsters who devours books and likes using big words, but she has some weaker moments as well. Thus the scenes focusing on the children alone tend to be more uneven than the rest of the film.

But the highlights more than make up for it. Though the first half of "Hugo" is charming and engaging, it's not until some of the big reveals and an unexpected plot twist take place, that the film really hits its stride. That's when Scorsese gets to talk about the art of filmmaking and the joy of being a lifelong movie watcher, and you can feel his passion and his giddy fanboy eagerness coming through the screen. And that's when "Hugo" becomes something truly special, a film with real purpose.

Scorsese bridges the gap between 19th and 21st century audiences, if only for a few moments. And it's magic. And I won't tell you how he did it, because it's the kind of magic trick you simply have to experience for yourself.

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