"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

1 Post from November 2011


Asa Butterfield on time in Martin Scorsese's HUGO

HUGO – Directed by Martin Scorsese 




Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Chaplins.

{Opens Wednesday 23 November 2011}

Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese – the director who made such intense, violent and searing adult films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Gangs of New York and The Departed – had the tender and graceful touch to create an enchanting and magical family film, and display a deft flair for 3-D?  Scorsese does just that with great aplomb in his new movie, Hugo.   Like a master illusionist who can awe an audience with skillful feats of legerdemain, Scorsese once again proves why he is a master filmmaker: Hugo captivates the imagination, weaves a web of wonder and reverberates with the love of the movies because Scorsese’s passion for movies and its history glows from every frame of this lovely film.   

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old wily orphan who lives in the walls and rafters of a Paris railway station (evoking another Hugo, the French author Victor Hugo, who’s Quasimodo, from his novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, lives a lonely life within the sanctuary of Paris’s great cathedral) in the early 1930s. Hugo keeps the station’s many clocks properly wound, in repair and always on time, a skill he learned from his late father (Jude Law).  Hugo’s alcoholic Uncle Claude (which is another allusion to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as Claude is name of the Archdeacon of Notre Dame who rescues and adopts Quasimodo), who adopted Hugo after the tragic death of the boy’s father, unloads his horologist job at the railway station to his nephew and all but abandons Hugo to drink.

Like a mouse living within walls, Hugo scampers through the infrastructure of the station, spying on the commuter activity and the shops of the station from the many hidden windows built into the clocks, searching for opportunities to scurry into public for stealing food and other necessary sundries.  Hugo is also in search of mechanical parts in order to fix an automaton – a mechanical man – that he inherited from his father, who in turn acquired it from a source who got it from an enigmatic figure.  If Hugo can repair the automaton and find the heart-shaped key that will turn it on, Hugo believes a secret will be unlocked left by his father.  When Hugo attempts to steal a mechanical toy, for its parts, from a toyshop in the railway station, the shop owner, an elderly man (Ben Kingsley), catches Hugo in his thievery, which begins an intertwining of both their lives in unexpected ways.  Hugo will befriend the toyshop owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and with her help, they will discover that her godfather is the real French pioneer filmmaker, the magician of the movies, Georges Méliès, a forgotten artist of cinema who is now living in obscurity.  Hugo will go through an adventure of discovery that will profoundly affect himself and Méliès.

Director Martin Scorsese on the set of HUGO

Martin Scorsese is not only one of the greatest living film directors, he is also a film historian and a vital participant in the arena of film restoration and preservation.  He has made two essential documentaries about film history: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy (an intimate and richly detailed exploration of Italian Cinema).  Scorsese also appears in countless documentaries, made by other filmmakers, discussing a variety of film history topics.  Hugo is redolent with Scorsese’s passion for film history and it is one of the driving forces of its narrative, as adapted by screenwriter John Logan from the award-wining novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. 

Hugo takes Isabelle to the movies for her first time; her Papa Georges and his wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory), forbid her from attending the cinema.   The kids see the classic 1923 Harold Lloyd comedy, Safety Last!, and Isabelle is on the edge of her seat in suspense as Lloyd climbs the outside walls of a Los Angeles building and then hangs from the minute hand of a large clock.  This is one of the iconic images of silent cinema and we see the ecstatic delight it – and therefore all the great silent films – had on the original audiences of this era through Isabelle and Hugo’s reactions.  Later in Hugo, Scorsese successfully reimagines Lloyd hanging from the clock when Hugo finds himself hanging for his dear life during a chase scene.  

Other clips and images from silent cinema permeate Hugo, including snippets from D.W. Griffith’s monumental 1916 epic, Intolerance; Robert Wiene’s 1919 German Expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; and clips of Charlie Chaplin, to name a few.  The Lumière Brothers of France were pioneer filmmakers – they were the first to project movies on the big screen – and in Hugo we see clips of some of their short films (known as “actualités”, a primitive form of documentary, usually one-minute in running time), including their famous 1895 film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. This Lumière film shows a train heading towards the movie camera, thus enlarging on screen rapidly.  Supposedly, the original audiences of this film panicked and ducked when they saw the train rushing towards them.  Scorsese creates his own version of the Lumière train shot in a remarkably vivid sequence that is the logical extension of what audiences imagined they saw back in 1895.  This sequence also draws inspiration from an actual train derailment the same year at Gare Montparnasse in Paris.

Scorsese profoundly manifests his reverence for film history through the character of Georges Méliès, movingly portrayed by Ben Kingsley.  Méliès was a French magician who became obsessed with the movies in the medium’s embryonic years.  He is arguably the first film pioneer to tell narrative stories and he is noted as the father of cinematic trick effects, most famous for his imaginative and beautifully art directed (Méliès designed and painted his sets) fantasy films.  His most famous and influential work is the first science-fiction film, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune – 1902), loosely adapted from the Jules Verne novel, which contains one of cinema’s most famous images, a bullet-shaped rocketship crashing into the eye of the moon.  A Trip to the Moon is imaginatively integral to Hugo’s plot and its moon image a thematic motif.

A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune – 1902), directed by Georges Méliès

Scorsese’s most stunning work in Hugo comes in the loving, affectionate recreation of Méliès filmmaking years when the magician realized magical dreams on film in his Montreuil glass-walled studio.  These scenes are an important reminder of the early romance and adventure of filmmaking when the marvellous potential for the medium was being discovered for the first time in its nascent period.   Hugo, if nothing else, is a love letter to the movies.

Scorsese’s use of 3-D technology is remarkably sublime.  He never goes for the cheap in-your-face shots for the sake of the effect.  He uses 3-D to envelop the audience in the film’s environment, to embrace the characters, to enhance the drama.  The 3-D in Hugo is always subordinate to the story.  I have not been a fan of 3-D movies, but kudos to Scorsese for using the generally eye-thumping technique with the sensibilities of an artist and skilled storyteller.

If there is a flaw to find in Hugo, it is in the titular character.  Asa Butterfield is appropriately dramatic, in a subdued way, but he comes off too cold, too distant, and too withdrawn.  This problem stems from how the character was written, performed or directed (probably a result of all three).  These personality characteristics are all appropriate for Hugo, who leads a lonely, insular life, but his character arc is severely lacking and he remains an aloof character to the end.  It is only when Georges Méliès becomes more prominent in the film (about halfway though) that Hugo warms up and achieves a pathos that is so poignant, particularly when the notion of losing our purpose in life makes us kind of broken, is revealed as the theme at the heart of the movie. Ben Kingsley conveys such a delicate sincerity as a broken artist that this role will surely rank among his finest performances.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès

All the supporting performers are warm, engaging, humorous and human, especially Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector hobbled by one mechanically supported leg, who is also Hugo’s main nemesis, and Emily Mortimer as Lisette, the pretty flower shop owner that the station inspector is sweet on.  Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle, the young girl who helps Hugo on his journey, is a lovely presence.  Jude Law, Ray Winstone and Christopher Lee (as a helpful bookstore owner) have little screen time and feel wasted for such strong actors, but I suspect they had additional scenes that were cut from the final film. 

Hugo is bravura filmmaking, a visually resplendent picture and a most original, entertaining, and ultimately rewarding family fantasy film that is among the best of the genre, standing tall with The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Harry Potter movies.  Martin Scorsese and his creative team have put on screen something rare these days: a sense of wonder and enchantment wrapped in a dazzling display of technique wedded intrinsically to a delightful story, while teaching audiences about forgotten yet essential film history.  Hugo, like every other film in cinema history steeped in the fantastic, owes its legacy to works of Georges Méliès.   That Scorsese can remind us of this history and make a wonderful entertainment for all ages is an awesome magic trick that would make the old French illusionist proud.

Georges Méliès: Magician of the Movies


HUGO trailer