Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hugo / **** (PG)

Hugo Cabret: Asa Butterfield
Georges Méliès: Ben Kingsley
Isabelle: Chloë Grace Moretz
Station Inspector: Sacha Baron Cohen
Mama Jeanne: Helen McCrory
Rene Tabard: Michael Stuhlbarg

Paramount Pictures and GK Films present a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by John Logan. Based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking).

I love movies. I absolutely love them. I love new movies and old movies. I love good movies. I even love bad movies. I just can’t get enough of them. I love writing about movies. I love talking about movies. I love taking movie quizzes. I love talking incessantly about movies at my wife, even though I know she’s not listening. I’d like to make a movie one day. And yet, all the love I hold for movies can’t even scratch the surface of the love filmmaker Martin Scorsese has for them.

At its heart, that’s what his new movie “Hugo” is about. It’s a fantasy based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, which imagines a history of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès as seen through the eyes of an industrious orphan. As a fantasy, there is little fact to be found here about Méliès beyond those that he started as a magician and created many cinematic conventions in the more than 500 movies he made throughout his career. But, Scorsese has made a movie celebrating the man responsible for the famous film “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) by inventing thrilling cinema in the same spirit of Méliès. In doing so, Scorsese is able to highlight many of his own passions about cinema, such as film preservation, special effects, over the top characters, and even 3D.

The story gives us Hugo Cabret, a brave performance by Asa Butterfield (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”), who is a watchmaker trained by his father (Jude Law, “Contagion”). When his father is killed in a fire, his uncle (Ray Winstone, “The Departed”), a drunk, puts him to work maintaining the clocks in a Parisian train station. This is where the majority of Hugo’s story will take place.

Hugo’s biggest threat is the Station Inspector. Played fairly broadly, but with heart, by Sacha Baron Cohen (“Sweeney Todd”), the Station Inspector makes sending vagrant children to the orphanage his number one priority. Hindered by a leg brace due to a war injury, the Station Inspector, never named, uses a Doberman to help corner his “victims.”

In a stunning opening sequence, which includes a chase by the Station Inspector, we are introduced to him and Hugo and the regular train station vendors that occupy their own little community on a daily basis. There’s the flower girl (Emily Mortimer, “Shutter Island”) for whom the Station Inspector has feelings. There is the station romance between the café owner and an art vendor (Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, both of “Harry Potter” fame). And, there’s the glowering bookseller (Christopher Lee, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), who warms up pretty quick if you get to know him.

Finally, there is the toy maker played by Ben Kingsly (“The Wackness”), who holds a deep secret that will unravel once he decides to uncover Hugo’s secret. Hugo has been stealing mechanical clockwork parts from the toy maker for some time, and the toy maker is finally fed up with it. He takes a book of plans the boy has for an automaton. The boy’s father found these plans and tried to build the automaton before his death. The book deeply affects the toy maker, whose name is Georges. Georges takes the book from Hugo but can tell the boy has a talent with machines. He hires the boy on as an apprentice. Hugo recruits Georges’s ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Let Me In”), to help him get the book back so he can finish re-building the automaton.

The automaton is a mechanical humanoid figure that Hugo’s father assumed could replicate the act of writing. What the automaton really does and what connection it holds with the toy maker I will leave for you to discover. Mystery is one of the storytelling devises that Scorsese ("The Aviator") uses and celebrates here. He also uses a classical story structure and a luxurious production design that captures the mystique and romance of Paris and the spirit of Hollywood’s Golden Age. This picture is even more beautiful than the alien worlds of Pandora. It provides a fantasy version of post-war Paris that makes you wish you existed in that place at that time.

As for the 3D, even Scorsese is unable to convince me it is a necessary element to the movie; but in a movie that celebrates the innovations of cinema, it’s a fitting use of the technology. It does add some amount of thrill to the action sequences and a small amount of wonder to everything else, but nothing compared to the overall beauty of the production or the solid storytelling that acts as this fantasy’s foundation.

“Hugo” might seem slower and more introspective compared to the latest “Alvin and the Chipmunks” high seas adventure, but I hardly site that as a negative element. This is a movie that will work on everyone’s childlike sense of wonder, and it gives back so much more than your standard family film. For audiences who are film enthusiasts, the power of the movie is increased ten fold. There is so much for a cineaste to feast on here. Perhaps when Scorsese’s game is up, as it is on this film, I do have as much love for cinema as he does. 

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