Mark Reviews Movies



4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Ray Winstone, Jude Law

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic material, some action/peril and smoking)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 11/23/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2011

In fashioning a tale that is at its core about the transcendental nature of art and craft, director Martin Scorsese has woven his own special class of delicate magic with Hugo, a fable that merges the adventures of a lonely orphan and the history of cinema with wondrous results. Here is a special film, overflowing with unanticipated delights.

It is a story of loss and acceptance, of regret and redemption, of the influence of the individual on society and the community's ability to restore the individual. It takes place in the everyday world yet bristles with the limitless possibility of imagination. It populates this world with characters of surprising depth and imbues them with mysteries that reach the very essence of their being. The film somehow enters the realm of the magical while keeping its feet planted firmly in reality.

The setting is early 1930s Paris, specifically a grand, central train station (A sweeping shot through the busy platform leads us into the hustle and bustle of the locale, and Scorsese stages a prologue that is almost entirely free of dialogue to further acquaint us with the characters and location) where young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) calls his home. His father (Jude Law) died in a tragic fire at the museum where he worked a second job. His first was as a clockmaker, and father and son's last project was working on an automaton dad discovered in one of the museum's vaults. Hugo's uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) unceremoniously broke the news of the boy's father's death and took him to the train station to be his apprentice. Claude was the maintenance man for the stations many clocks, though he has since left, leaving Hugo alone without a friend in the world, a family to call his own, and so many clocks to keep running.

Our first sense that Scorsese and Hugo have cinema on the mind comes when Hugo recalls the wretched events of his past. As he sits in his makeshift bedroom in some alcove in the bowels of the train station, a light appears behind him and begins to flicker as a projector would. Hugo later recalls how his father introduced him to the movies. They would go to the theater fairly regularly to "dream in the middle of the day" and attain a brief reprieve from the heartache of losing Hugo's mother. Now, Hugo dreams in seclusion of his unfortunate life and only in the few moments during which he has time to spare.

Hugo's solitary survival depends on his ability to sneak to and fro within the station to avoid Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), the hard-nosed chief station inspector. He has a seeming fondness for catching orphans, locking them in the tiny cell in his office, and having the police ship them away to the local orphanage for even the most petty of crimes (As it turns out, Gustav himself is an orphan, and a fate similar to the one he imposes upon these children taught him order and a certain kind of heartlessness).

Gustav has a loyal Doberman (that causes more chaos than it aids its master) and a leg brace that he obtained from an injury during the Great War. It constantly sticks, especially when he attempts to flirt with Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the station's lovely flower seller. Another burgeoning romance between Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) and Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) is repeatedly stopped in its tracks by her dog, and the two ancillary love stories offer bits of whimsical farce and screenwriter John Logan (adapting Brian Selznick's novel) the chance to flesh out the sense of kinship among the station's denizens.

One day, someone notices Hugo creeping about searching for materials to repair his automaton. He is the station's toy maker (Ben Kingsley), and when he catches Hugo in the act of trying to steal a toy mouse for the gears within it, the man takes the boy's notebook, which details the work his father had done and he continues to do on the mechanical man. The toy maker gives him a chance to retrieve the book: Work in the toy shop and prove that he is more than common thief. In the process, Hugo strikes up a sweet friendship with the toy maker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is also an orphan and, to Hugo's shock, has never seen a movie. She prefers to escape into the literary world and acts as a walking thesaurus.

The script's central mystery revolves around the automaton: Who made it, what message it gives when it is repaired, how Isabelle wound up wearing the key that starts it in motion around her neck. The answers lead the duo to a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has yet another sad story to tell—that of the filmmaker Georges Méliès, who sold everything after seeing a demonstration of Auguste and Louis Lumière's revolutionary invention of the motion picture camera for the chance to transfer his experience as a stage magician to create visionary films. Méliès' story is seen with rose-tinted glasses, as his studio is lovingly recreated by production designer Dante Ferretti and filmed with a subtle allusion to the tinting of Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" by cinematographer Robert Richardson.

The film is full of visual spectacle, from the towering citadel of the station's main clock with a panoramic view of the City of Lights (where Hugo has a harrowing climb to hide from Gustav that echoes the iconic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from hand of a clock in Safety Last!) to the courtyard of the toy maker's home guarded by statues of cloaked figure. The steamy underbelly of Hugo's living- and workspaces is a labyrinth of dread (Scorsese filmed in 3-D, and while the effect starts off shaky (too much business in the foreground), there are enough striking, intermittently stunning moments (the climb to the clock tower and the added depth of some archival footage, for example) to make it worth while).

As much as the film is Scorsese's valentine to cinema, it is the robust emotional undercurrent of lives interrupted and regained that gives Hugo's reverential awe of the art form its real weight. It only makes sense that Scorsese, an ardent advocate for the cause of film preservation, would bring such passion this project, which lives and breathes with a deeply rooted adoration of the medium and of the power of narrative itself.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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