Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Many reviews of Martin Scorsese's Hugo have marveled at what a departure it is for the greatest living director. And all I can say to that is ... what movie did THEY see?

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved Hugo, having just seen it a second time. But it's not really a departure for Scorsese. Inevitably, the man will be best remembered for his crime pictures and gritty dramas.  Hugo is certainly neither of those. I would stop short of calling Hugo his best film, but it is one of his masterpieces - and more importantly, it's the movie he was born to make.

First and foremost, Martin Scorsese is America's premier student of film. He, more than any other working director, lives and breathes the medium, knowing its history, and its power to transfix audiences, inside and out. Hugo, based on the historical fiction novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick may nominally be about a boy who lives in a train station, longing for companionship, but more than anything else, Scorsese's film is a valentine to cinema itself, as it wonderfully depicts many people seeing a movie for the very first time.

And just when it seemed 3D was on the ropes, buckling under the weight of shoddy conversions and crass commercialism, along comes Scorsese, showing us that yes, the techinque truly can be essential to the telling of its story. Scorsese employs the third dimension in just about every way possible, using it to make rooms seem vast and imperious, to make  great heights seem vertiginous, to make us duck as a runaway train hurtles off track through the station. Most crucially, he draws us into the worlds of Paris. He made me feel like I was right there with the characters, ducking my pursuers or gaping in awe at visual wonders I've never seen before.

 Yes, the movie will play just fine flat, I'm sure. But just as seeing a movie at home can never capture the full experience of going to the theater, seeing this movie only in 2D would diminish its impact.  The 3D enhances the imagery, making it even more potent. This is especially important considering much of the film centers around Georges Meiles (Bem Kingsley) the early wizard of cinema whose most famous film is probably the 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon, which features a rocket giving the moon a hell of a black eye. Meilies was one of the first people to understand that movies could not just capture images or tell stories, but to take viewers to places they would never see otherwise. When Hugo depicts Melies making his films, I felt lost at the movies in the best possible way.

It's only too easy to praise Hugo for its craft; for Dante Ferretti's eye-filling production design to Robert Richardson's lush cinematography to Howard Shore's playful score. But there's much more to the movie than what's behind the camera. Asa Butterfield is ideal as the title character creating a heart-rending portrayual of an endlessly resourceful but ultimately lost boy. Chloe Grace Moretz once again proves herself one of the great child actors, playing Hugo's book-loving confidant Isabelle in a way that channels no one less than Audrey Hepburn.And Ben Kingsley is wonderful as Meilies, a lost man just aching to be found, even if he doesn't know that at first.

Were I feeling less transported, I might feel inclined to quibble that Scorsese might have done well to trim the movie back a bit from running just over two hours. A little too much time is spent on characters other than the kids and Mellies, and whenever the film diverted from them, the energy drained somewhat.

Even so, I can only give the movie my highest recommendation. It hit me not only as a film lover, but also on a personal level. I teared up when it was revealed that many of Meilies' movies were preserved for future generations. And like Hugo, I have found myself struggling with my identity, wondering just what my place is in a world that seemed particularly tumultuous of late. When life closes in like that, it's wonderful indeed  to know that there are movies like Hugo that can wrap us up in our dreams, even while we're wide awake.


No comments: