Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hugo (2011)

Since it just received more Academy Award nominations than any other film in 2011, why not discuss Hugo?  The story of the story all begins with children's book author and illustrator Brian Selznick.  Mr. Selznick, a distant cousin of famed producer David O. Selznick (think Gone With The Wind, King Kong, Rebecca), penned The Invention of Hugo Cabret which saw its release by Scholastic in June 2007.  As Selznick put it, "...the images in my new book don't just illustrate the story; they help tell it."  He defers from referring to it as a picture book or graphic novel, instead settling for "a combination".  This unique dual function of images and words working toward a single purpose is something Selznick credits to one of his favorite authors growing up, Remy Charlip.

Anyway it only took a matter of months for director and producer Martin Scorsese to snatch up the rights to the book.  Once writer John Logan put the finishing touches on the adaptive screenplay, production went into full swing.  The majority of filming was done in a London studio with some on location work done in London and Paris as well.
Brian Selznick
It's probably one of the most cliché lines in movie criticism to mention something about "recapturing the magic of going to the movies" or to declare "this is what going to the movies is all about" but it seems painfully appropriate in describing Hugo.  Scorsese, a director you'd not likely associate with the letters "PG", takes us on a truly magical adventure from the first moments of flying through a bustling 1930s Parisian train station to the very last involving a special theater presentation.  Not once did it feel as though the 3D format was superfluous or awkwardly utilized during the course of the film.  On the contrary, Scorsese and his longtime collaborating cinematographer Robert Richardson orchestrate a fantastic world where magic and dreams are as believably conveyed as those harsh trials in life all of us know too well for real.  There is something to be said of the style and unifying texture of Hugo as well.  From the many gears and sprockets that often appear in the clock tower to the props in old movie sets, and similarly, in the Metropolis-like views of a wintry Paris, virtually every scene emits that old dusty mystical sense of nostalgia.  There is just the right balance of foreboding darkness and familiar warmth to aptly set the story.

But let's talk about the story.  We are introduced to an orphaned boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lost his clockmaking father (briefly played by Jude Law) to a fatal accident.  He was taken in by his drunken uncle the night of the death who hurriedly instructs him to take his belongings so he could come live with him and apprentice at the clocktower above the train station.  The only thing Hugo keeps is a rusty old automaton (an anthropomorphic wind-up robotic toy with the function to write) his father and he were hoping to one day restore to functionality. Because of his need for spare parts (and food), Hugo steals from the shops in the train station, most notably a small toy stand owned by Georges Méliès, played masterfully by Ben Kingsley.  The grouchy old keep catches Hugo in the act and his retribution leads to a series of adventures for Hugo and a new companion, god-daughter of Méliès, Isabelle played by Chloë Grace Moretz.  Moretz, known for her precocious roles in Kick-Ass and 500 Days of Summer delivers a charming performance and a nonabrasive British/general European accent to boot (she is the only star not to hail from the UK).

Left: Remy Charlip.  Right: Ben Kingsley as Méliès.
The two children find their way into trouble and triumph while delving into a history that piques their passions and entangles their loved ones.  Kingsley puts his heart into the character of Méliès and excels equally at the younger and older versions he must portray.  Interestingly, Selznick has said that he inadvertently visually depicted the character of Méliès as Charlip in his book.  For Kingsley's near clone-level likeness the casting director and design team must receive credit. Asa Butterfield delivers a job well done with Hugo Cabret, seamlessly transitioning from tears to smiles to awe as the part calls for it.  Perhaps the most memorable role, however, belongs to Sasha Baron Cohen as the goofy, villainous Station Inspector, constantly on the prowl with his guard dog to nab another "thieving" orphan loitering the rails.  Much as he does in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as the nefarious yet hilarious Pirelli, Cohen delivers nearly all his lines to the comic delight of the audience and in such a way that we find ourselves torn labeling him as a pure antagonist (as often is the case in children's literature).
A ways into the just over 2 hour-long runtime, a central theme of a melancholic nostalgia for early cinema develops.  In this way the film takes on a meta quality as it not only alludes to films within its own realm, but real staples of the classical era featuring archival clips of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the like.  Growing up a Selznick, one can assume there was a bit of Hollywood lore passed through the generations and made felt in the author's life which surely manifests itself in Hugo.  In it, the gradual disregard of early groundbreaking artists like Méliès is presented as both travesty and tragedy.  Responsively, Selznick pays tribute to the early masters by instilling in the youth of a later generation an avid interest and determination in reshedding light on them.

So while Hugo does make you want to advise to your friends that it is "fun the whole family can enjoy" and forces tabooed phrases like "this is what going to the movies is all about" to surface in your mind, there is a wonderful depth and quality to it that should preclude you from doing so.  Instead, submit to an artfully told story of a boy fulfilling his so-called "purpose", marvel at the 3D graphics Scorsese expertly employs and connect to those emotions the main characters  all share in discovering a forgotten past.  Hugo is many great things; to see it is to find which most stir you.
~ Review by Mike Dorfman

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