Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hugo - Theatrical Review


Release Date: November 23, 2011

From the maker of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas comes...a family film? A fantasy family film in 3D no less. Check your expectations whatever they may be at the door because this movie is not what you are expecting. Unlock the secret of Hugo and discover how the magic of the movies came to be.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time: 7:15 pm November 23, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 3D

Loves: Martin Scoresese, Chloe Grace Moretz, fantasies, the magic of the movies
Likes: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley
Neutral: Fantasy films with very little fantasy
Hates: Forgotten story threads
Biopic: About one of history's greatest filmmakers

Hugo isn't the fantasy film it is selling itself as or the experience you might be expecting, but is that such a bad thing? It is if you feel cheated out of the fantasy adventure aspect it was promising I suppose. But I knew going into this that I was in store for something extraordinary, this was a Martin Scorsese film after all. The legendary filmmaker was attempting something I never thought he had any interest in, a family film. My mind swam with all sorts of possibilities, would it be a traditional fantasy with a more adult tone or how about something more along the lines of an adventure that both adults and kids alike could partake in but told with the deft touch of a true film artist. Alas this movie is nothing of the sort and the reason for Scorsese's interest in such a family film becomes very apparent near the end. Its magic is more akin to a fairy tale set in a more down to Earth reality. Martin Scorsese's first entry into the family film market is a wonder to behold and while most may feel this isn't the type of fantastical adventure they signed up for it still stands as one of the most magical film experiences I have had this year and is quite honestly the only family film I think Scorsese could have ever made.

Set in 1930's Paris, this is the story of a young orphan named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives inside the walls of a magnificent looking train station. Hugo, on his own after a tragedy took his father away, must keep himself out of the orphanage by continuing the work of his drunken and absent Uncle by maintaining all the clocks within the station. Meanwhile he passes the time by observing the bustling station from above looking down at the all the different people and ventures out to steal food and tools to repair the mysterious automaton his father left him while constantly avoiding detection by the very committed station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). His fascination with mechanical devices and thieving tendencies leads him to the owner of the local toy shop inside the station owned by a very angry and bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) who one day catches him red handed stealing from his shop. Hugo is then forced to work for the man while also searching for a way to unlock the mysteries that his father's automaton may hold.

Hugo meets the mysterious automaton his father has found.

This film is one giant ruse by Scorsese, he has devised a masterful way of luring an unsuspecting public into what at first appears to be a very traditional fairy tale which later is revealed to be something much more. I had avoided almost every single trailer for the film and thanks to a fairly low key promotional campaign (I only ever saw the one poster featuring the giant key) I had almost no idea what was in store for me. That approach was both a blessing and a curse though because despite my dedication to not having anything spoiled, the few things I did catch led me to believe I was going to see a fantasy film about a boy who discovers something magical. Well, he does discover something magical but its probably not the type of magic you are expecting.

Martin Scorsese is more than just a student of film, he is a man who truly loves the art of filmmaking. When you watch a Scorsese film (even the less inspired ones) you can tell how much he loves to play with the audience. He loves to set you up for something and eventually pull the rug out from under your feat but you never feel cheated by it. He likes to play on expectations and is a master at constructing a compelling world for his stories to take place in. Hugo is no different in that respect, when we are first introduced to the train station that Hugo lives in it is not only visually striking but also filled with a great sense of mystery but with the brief glimpses of the people that inhabit it we are forced to wonder how they will all eventually come into play.

Papa George runs his toyshop with a strange bit of sadness.

When we are inside the walls of the station and follow Hugo through his overly complicated but beautifully realized inner sanctum the camera moves through the environment in such a way that we immediately feel as though we are in that world (the well executed 3D most certainly helped as well). With this being the very fist fantasy style film Scorsese has ever made he nailed the look and feel of it perfectly while also adding his own spin to the genre. Somehow he has found a way to evoke the magic of the fantasy genre without it ever becoming a true fantasy movie. At no point did I ever feel like I was not part of the world in Hugo and that was not accomplished with just simple camera tricks and visual effects. The people he populates it with deserve just as much praise since one of the key elements to any sort of fantasy based story are the characters that inhabit that world and the world of Hugo is rife with colorful personalities.

The main cast all did a superb job, Butterfield as Hugo was more than adequate in the role. Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle was unfortunately saddled with a rather one note and inconsequential  character but her natural talent and bountiful screen presence was enough to help overcome any shortcomings her character (as written) had. Ben Kingsley brought a lot of heart and emotion to a character that is so broken and lost that its hard not to feel something for him while Helen McCrory as his wife was a welcome and radiant presence as well. There were so many other talented actors brought on for very minor roles and sprinkled throughout, Christopher Lee as the book shop owner, Emily Mortimer as the shy flower girl and Micahel Stuhlbarg as an overly zealous student of film are just a handful of examples. They all added their own distinct uniqueness to the proceedings and the film was only better for it. But there was one man in particular that stood above all else and that man is none other than Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector.

Isabelle and Hugo attempt to unlock the secret of the automaton.

I absolutely loved Borat, that movie had me laughing so hard I started losing my voice by the end of it. I had never heard of the man before that film despite his television career and to be honest I still wouldn't have known it was him even if I did know who he was. The man is a chameleon, he is one of those very few actors that doesn't play a part, he becomes it. His inspector in Hugo is quite frankly the best part of the entire film as far as I'm concerned. Yes, the movie is fantastic overall and delivers a meaningful message but if there is one thing I took away from the experience that has stuck with me it is Cohen's magnificent performance. He is just such an odd little man, that distinct limp he has due to a metal brace on his leg, his forced smiles, his obsessiveness to send lost children to the dreaded orphanage (you would think he was sending them to their deaths!) and that little bit of innocence we see in him whenever he attempts to profess his love for the flower girl all combine to make him an extremely likable personality that you just can't help but love by the end.

Now about that whole fantasy thing...there is something that needs to be said about that so that you understand (unlike me) what this movie is exactly before seeing it. Strip out any thoughts of kids being whisked away into a fantasy world or magical items containing mystical enchantments or even being transported to another world through the portal of a child's simple imagination. Scorsese has made a calculated decision to fill his film with all the trappings of a fantasy adventure and instead of making good on any of those promises has presented us with his very own love letter to one of the film industries early pioneers by using the fantasy framework as a vessel of sorts to deliver that message. This of course begs the question of whether or not his endeavor was a success.

The station Inspector is not to be trifled with.

My personal feelings on the matter is that I found the message of the film to be so endearing and well told that I quickly put aside any issue I took with the fact that this was not the movie I thought I was going to see. I wanted (and still want as a matter of fact) to see a traditional fantasy based family film from one of the greatest directors that ever lived and I didn't get that. What I got instead was what felt like a very personal project from someone that truly loves film and was using this children's story to convey those feelings in hopes that others would share his sentiments along with him. At this point I can't imagine this film being anything else. What he accomplished here is nothing short of breathtaking and I have to say that as far as I'm concerned the film is a resounding success and that calculated risk has paid off in spades.

There is another question that must be asked though and I think it is a much more pertinent one. Is this a film for kids? Well, that isn't such an easy question to answer. I want to believe that kids of all ages would find the film entertaining and come under the potent spell that it casts on its audience. As mentioned before Scorsese has captured the look and feel of a children's fantasy story to near perfection. It is the content that may discourage most younger audience members I'm afraid and while it is certainly age appropriate material (this really is a great family film all things considered) it is the underlining story that will most likely disinterest the younger crowd. Still, that being said I think any child that has an apparent fascination with movies and wants to learn more about the world of film in general will love this movie to pieces. It is an expertly crafted film from an expert filmmaker regardless of what your expectations for it are.

Isabelle is ready for an adventure...are you?

If I had to level one legitimate complaint or gripe about the film it would have to do with how the automaton is handled. As mentioned, Hugo carries with it an extreme sense of fantasy and much of those feelings are derived from the automatons role in the story. It IS the mystery that needs to be unraveled and the way the film puts it on a pedestal so to speak makes it feel as though it will have some sort of greater importance to the plot as the story moves forward but that isn't the case at all. Other than a key moment near the end of the film it is almost forgotten about for a good portion of the narrative. That's not to mention the fact that there is a very mystical aspect to the metal man that DOES feel magical once it is discovered, why it does what it does is a plot thread that is never followed through on. I can't help but think that the book the film is based on had a bigger focus on it. This is a very minor problem all things considered but it did leave a few unanswered questions once it was over that just kind of nagged at me.

With all this talk about how this "fantasy" film lacks any real fantastical elements I find myself compelled to qualify that statement a little bit. There is nothing outright magical that happens in this film, that is a fact. But this has to be one of the most magical films lacking any sort of literal magic I have ever seen. Martin Scorsese's Hugo stands as a stark reminder that you don't need fantasy or magic in your film for it to cast a spell on you. The magic of the movies is not so much what is on the celluloid itself but more in the people and process used to bring the filmmakers imagination to life on screen. Hugo is a must see as far as I'm concerned and I highly suggest that you...


Don't miss our latest episode of The LRA Show where we discuss Hugo in much greater detail. The episode can be downloaded or streamed at the following link:



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