Friday, December 9, 2011

Not Quite Magical: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s modern children’s classic The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is both an impressive achievement and a disappointing movie. On the one hand, it marks something of a return to form for director Martin Scorsese, who’s floundered of late with choppy films like Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed  (2006), and superficial ones like Shutter Island (2010). Yet, while he directs the picture with supreme self-confidence, he doesn’t quite bring the right light and airy tone to the movie's subject matter.

That story owes something to the magic of early cinema, and also to the recent steampunk genre, which marries Victorian attitudes to advanced technology to create alternate worlds that are similar but not quite like our own. (It’s a pallid genre that usually leaves me cold, but in Hugo it actually possesses some frisson and verve.) It’s also a classic tale of a boy finding himself, growing up and learning that life contains both hardships and joys.

The earliest parts of the film fare the best as Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan (Rango) and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Shutter Island, Inglourious Basterds) craft a unique world, mostly set in the main train station in Paris in the early 1930s. Shot in 3D, Hugo is a live action movie with a lovely animated, fantastical look and feel. I’m still not a fan of the process, but this is one case where it nevertheless adds something to the whole.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young, sensitive boy who lives in the train station where he makes sure the giant clocks run on time, and does his level best to stay out of the clutches of the station’s police inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) – a disaffected war veteran who loves to catch the boys who hide out at the station and send them to (presumably nasty) orphanages. When Hugo is caught stealing by toy shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), events are set in motion whereby he will find out who the mysterious Georges really is, meet Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and discover where the broken automaton brought to him by his inventor father (Jude Law) actually came from. (It was his attempt to steal parts for the robot which saw him caught by the store owner.) That journey is compelling and richly depicted, but also emotionally flat.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo

When it comes to the action-filled sequences of Hugo, the movie really lifts off, capturing the day to day life of the train station’s passengers, shopkeepers and staff with exquisite attention and detail. (It also feels very French, though it’s shot in English.) Paris, outside the walls of the station, is also suitably picturesque and realistic. And the film’s performances for the most part, are letter perfect. Kingsley as Georges – a bitter man who has lost his raison d’etre for existing – is riveting; as is Baron Cohen’s Gustav whose leg has been damaged in The Great War, and whose nasty side is balanced by a soft one, which pines after the local flower shop girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer). Cohen deserves special praise here because his notoriety as a fiercely satirical actor/writer (Borat, Bruno) tends to overshadow his genuine acting talents, which are best showcased in movies, such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, where he was often the only worthwhile element of the project. His recent casting as the late Queen singer Freddie Mercury in A Kind of Magic is spot-on. I can’t wait to see what he does with the role.

Also worth noting are Moretz, as the precocious Isabelle, who delights in using new words like “clandestine” and “reprobate,” to show off her new-found knowledge; she’s got an appealing edge to her. And veteran actor Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), who has an extraordinary 275 film credits to his name, bring some sweetness and warmth to his part as Monsieur Labissse, the bookshop owner who befriends Hugo and Isabelle and plays a part in the film’s mystery.

Director Martin Scorsese
Only Butterfield, as Hugo himself, falls short. His is a one-note performance which fails to capture the perpetual anguish afflicting the boy. (Butterfield was equally unimpressive as the German boy, son of a Nazi, in the facile The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.) That’s also where Scorsese falters, as his is not the right fit for an emotionally affecting children’s tale. Steven Spielberg (E.T., War Horse) could have pulled this type of movie off in his sleep. (Scorsese’s fine Kundun (1997) about the life of the Dalai Lama had a portrait of a child at its start, but it was mostly an adult political and spiritual drama.) Scorsese, who is too intellectual and distanced in his approach to the fantasy that is Hugo, brings a forced, over-emphatic quality to the material, not least when Georges’ identity is revealed. SPOILERS FOLLOW Ultimately Hugo is about the love of early silent cinema, notably of the work of French genius filmmaker Geogres Méliès, whose 1902 short A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la Lune), wherein the moon has a giant face and the rocket which lands there pokes it in the eye, remains one of cinema’s most famous and brilliant accomplishments. (In an interesting coincidence, silent movies are also at the heart of another current release, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which goes Hugo one better by not only being set in the silent film era, but is actually a silent movie itself.) 

So why does Scorsese, who loves movies so much, fail to capture the artform’s power, even in a scene where Hugo and Isabelle go to see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, gasping with fear as the actor clings to the hands of a giant clock high above a city skyline? It’s primarily the characters’ response to the movie, and the glories of Lloyd's film itself, that make that sequence work. It may have to do with the difference between loving movies and breathing them, as Spielberg does. In any case, the homage to Méliès lacks passion and emotion, almost as if Scorsese is embarrassed to show that aspect of his personality, though he has in documentaries about his adoration of cinema. His best movies, after all, such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, are generally darker and tougher than Hugo is. Ironically, and despite its many other virtues,  Hugo is a movie about the magic of cinema that lacks that selfsame magic itself. 

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Schlomo (that's my Hebrew name too, btw!),
    I guess you shd really stay at large as a critic. Readers of this piece, go see Hugo and make up your own mind. THis film is a masterpiece, beautifully composed, emotional scenes are lighthanded and maybe this is what Mr. Critic here can't appreciate. The special effects are mind-boggling yet are fluidly integrated in the story-telling. The marriage between the homage to the beginnings of cinema and the latest technology in 3D, with almost 24 film quotations per second, could fill a tome.
    Also criminally unmentioned here, and in itself worth the admission ticket is the first scene (a reference to the Lumiere brothers's first film in history: L'Arrivée en gare de la Ciotat), courtesy of Goerge Lucas' ILM film trick company.The film pedigree also includes Johnny Depp as Producer. Congrats to him for spreading some of that well-earned fortune he's making with the Pirates franchise.
    Anyway, space is too short here to rebuke Schlomo's 'opinion'. Other sites share the opinion that Hugo could well be Mr. Scorcese's best film and I suscribe to that. To think that Harvey Fucking Bullstein is stomping his feet everywhere like a brat so that the movie he distributes (The Artist, piece of crap) will be rewarded at Oscarfest and that in all likelihood Hugo wont' even be nominated in any category shows the sad condition of film appreciation in this country, which is pretty much the subject of Hugo.
    Schlomo, thanks for the space here to rant a bit against your sorry critique.