Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Hugo, the brand new Martin Scorsese film, which is indeed a Thanksgiving Holiday treat, had me at the very first image from the trailer. I knew I would absolutely attend the very first show at my AMC multiplex in Sarasota just from that image.

Unlike the trailer, it isn’t the first image of the film, but starting with it, Marty gave us a tremendous tracking shot from high above the city before the camera swooped down into the station and onto a platform and wove its way through the throngs of passengers. That’s just for starters.

Actually, the pre-credits sequence ran for about 10 minutes. Hugo is the film adaption of the prize-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

This was no ordinary book. Written by Brian Selznick, the book walked off with the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2008. This award has been given out for excellence in Children’s Books continuously since 1938 and as such, is the equal to an Oscar in its own field.

Martin Scorsese bought the screen rights to the book in 2007. Now The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a fine title for a book, but Scorsese has called the film Hugo. Amazon.com described the book with the following:

Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocked with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

As for the film, everything that you just read about the book is in the film. But knowing what the story about isn’t nearly enough info to tell you how watching this film was simply a magical experience. Now on top of the good story, and the fabulous Scorsese touch – you must also add in the state of the art 3D.

While the book weighed in with 500 + pages, the movie follows suit with a running time of 127 minutes. Said another way – that’s one or two scenes over two hours.

Lets have a look at the cast. In the lead role, Asa Butterfield who is 14, plays the 12-year-old Hugo. You can compare him to a younger Daniel Radcliffe from the early Harry Potter films. You could also compare him to Freddy Bartholomew who starred opposite Spencer Tracy as a 13-year-old boy in Captains Courageous back in 1937. Asa/Hugo knows all the ins and outs of this Paris Rail Station – where he lives, works, and plays – all without the rest of Paris knowing anything at all about him. He’s like a will-of-the-wisp, or a cat burglar – first you see him, then you don’t. He knows all the passage ways, catwalks, platforms, steps, ladders, and tunnels behind the walls, below the tracks, and high above the station proper. He lives on food stolen from the vendors in the station. But he is the one who now keeps the clocks running all over the station.

Hugo’s Dad, played by Jude Law (in flashbacks) was a watch/clock-maker. But he perished in a fire. We are brought this news by Hugo’s Uncle Claude who is played by Ray Winstone. Scorsese establishes early on that Hugo and his Dad were quite close, that Hugo idolized and loved his Dad fiercely, and that his Dad and Hugo were working on restoring the Automaton, a mechanical man, together.

Sasha Baron Cohen plays the blue-clad Rail Station Inspector. As the 1931 version of  a Paris Transit Cop, he is Hugo’s nemesis, and is hell-bent on capturing Hugo and bundling him off to a city orphanage.

Along with Maximilian, a larger than life Doberman, they provide the comic relief of the film, as well as the being the ‘threat’ to Hugo’s well-being.

Ben Kingsley appears as George Melies. When we first meet him, he is the owner-operator of a toy shop in the rail station. He’s elderly, but not exactly old as in doddering. In fact early on, he captures Hugo who tried to pilfer some cog, or spring, or circular wiring that he thought he needed for the mechanical man. Melies forces Hugo to empty his pockets and we then see the notebook. Without giving too much away – at this point I’ll state unequivocably that Melies  has more substance to him than just being a toy shop operator; and that the notebook is NOT a MacGuffin, or useless object.

Of course, Melies’ ward, Isabelle, a young girl in Hugo’s immediate age group soon enters the film. While she’s taller than Hugo, they seem at first glance to be a nicely matched set of kids. We know they’re going to become fast-friends. Isabelle is played by the sparkling Chloe Grace Moretz. While Hugo and Chloe are not a couple in the romantic sense – after all they’re just 12 – they soon are inseparable.

Chloe enters the film seeking an adventure. She also loves secrets, and if ever there was a boy with the some secrets – it is Hugo.

There’s your set up. A boy, a girl, a transit cop, and a few other people who circulate through the film serving as moments when we can catch our breaths.

There’s Emily Mortimer as Lisette, the flower seller and she has captured the heart of Cohen’s Rail Inspector.

There’s a cute couple of nearly septuagenarians – Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour who provide local color, atmosphere, and Romance.

Finally, we have Christopher Lee as Monsieur Labisse, a librarian with a photographic memory – name a book, any book, and he can tell you the Section, the Row, the shelf, and location of the book on the shelf. Since we usually see Lee in a villainous role, it nice to see him as something else.

But the real magic of this film is not the story, or the casting, or even the acting. Instead this is just a magical creation of Paris 80 years back. Made all the more magical because of Scorsese’s skill as a film-maker. The 3D imagery is breath-taking. At first I thought it was distracting, but as the film moved forward, I thought that I was getting accustomed to it, then I found myself amused and pleased by it, and by the film’s end – I thought that with certainty, I would see the film again for many reasons, but this marvelous 3D  would be at the top of the list.

Then there’s the attention to details. The costumes, the sets, the flower stand, the runaway locomotive, the inner-workings of the stations’ clocks with all of the levers, sprockets, wheels, gears and what-not that you could have ever imagined. All of these were just great and when you factor in the moving camera, it is even more spectacular. You just feel that everything you see is so real, so alive. Even when Hugo steals a fresh-baked croissant, you can almost experience its warmth and the fresh-baked smell. That is how our imaginations work and when Scorsese is at the helm, you couldn’t ask for better.

Scorsese has created a simply wonderful film. It does run a little long, and it spends the last third of the film educating us about the first days of cinema , but film is Scorsese’s passion and his life, so this isn’t surprising. It’s no accident that Hugo will hang by his fingertips from the minute hand of a huge clock, just like Harold Lloyd did in Safety Last , a film made in 1923 which we see in part in Hugo.

What is surprising is that Martin Scorsese took on some new tasks with this film – he had to recreate a Paris from 80 years ago, he crossed into uncharted waters by making a family film instead of a film intended just for adults, and he took on the challenges of 3D. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to your smaller children – I think that today’s kids at 10 or higher, all of whom seemingly have grown up with CGI as the norm, will simply love this film. I’m a long way past the age of 10 myself – yet as I exited the theater I felt all of the giddy excitement that a great film can provide, just like I did when I was 10. Go see Hugo, in fact – don’t miss it, and bring Grandpa too.

For all of my reviews and columns please visit my website – The Arts.

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