Hugo (2011) [9/10]

Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (Four and a half stars out of five, or 9/10)

In Short: One of the greatest of recent years; Scorsese’s most magical achievement

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of recent years. It employs a modern special effect (3D) and parallels it with the story of the invention of special effects in the 1890s. It challenges many cinephiles expectations of the 3D medium, which is generally that it is a tacky, pointless gimmick, and reverses them. This is the first film I have ever seen which uses 3D, but does not overuse it. There are no big explosions throwing sharp objects at the screen; adversely, the opening shot consists of the purity and beauty of snowflakes as they pass through the screen and into the audience.

Hugo also taught me another lesson, one I already knew, but was nevertheless shocked to rediscover: never, never, never trust a trailer. The trailer for this film is nothing short of spinelessly atrocious, disastrously formulaic and cliché ridden, the complete opposite of the film itself. It paints the movie as the story of a boy’s adventure through a train station, using largely footage from only the first half of the film. It is in the dazzling second half that the film really shines, and wherein true cinephiles and even those with only a passing interest in film will find themselves glued to the screen in admiration and (for the older cinephiles, or the fans of older movies) nostalgia. The film is a love story, not between two people, but between film lovers and the cinema. The image of the child protagonists, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) watching such classic films as Safety Last has become one of the most legendary images of the year. The only sense in which this film is an adventure – a journey to new places – is that the new places an adventure entails are the places in the screen itself; the magical realms of cinema, the sweeping lands that we are drawn to from the moment we sit in our seat. This point is most emphatic of the early films, and the way audiences were drawn to them with wonder and a magical sense of discovery: they were going to new places and finding new things, simply by staring at a screen. Is there any greater achievement than this?

The titular orphan arrives at these discoveries first as an enemy of their creator. Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a toy shop owner in the 1930s who regards his history as a filmmaker with contempt and bitter regret, a regret which he has used to substitute for his true longing for the wondrous period in which not only was he a selfless king, but he could make whole audiences feel exhilarated and amazed; for him there was no greater achievement. He discovers around the neck of Méliès granddaughter Isabelle a key that matches a lock in an automaton that his father was rebuilding, after a rescue from a museum. He activates the small robot, which promptly draws a sketch of one of cinema’s most iconic images, if not the first great image of cinema: a space rocket striking the moon directly in its ‘eye,’ from Méliès timeless classic La voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). This leads them to the discovery of who Méliès really is, and a wondrous journey of flashbacks triggered by a viewing of the aforementioned classic. Within these flashbacks, we see the evolution of early cinema: Méliès saw the Lumiere Brothers’ original Cinematographe, and built one himself, making hundreds of films over a career of mere years. Despite the fact that many of them were lost, we are greeted with fantastic images from many of them as Méliès recalls their creation.

These flashbacks of those amazing years more than a century ago are vividly beautiful, lusciously recreated and superbly directed. After seeing the film I promptly declared it Scorsese’s best directorial effort since Goodfellas, and while this might not be his best directorial job of his whole career, it is certainly one of, if not the most impressive. If anyone other than Scorsese had directed it, it would be a far poorer film. I gave this film 9/10, and it would’ve been 10, but there are things other than the glorious plot and direction that one notices in the film, and not all of them I enjoyed. For starters, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is a fantastic comedian, is frankly annoying and painful here, and should stick to his more controversial adult comedy, an area where he is arguably more useful. His character, the villain of the film, is still pathetic and unlikable even after he is “transformed” in the end, and his terrible attempts to court a woman are not painful in a funny way, they are just painful. But it is a small criticism, as on a whole he is not a part of many of the more important scenes (not counting the amazing recreation of Harold Lloyd hanging from clock hands) and does the job as a suitably contemptuous and heartless villain.

Nitpicks aside, Hugo is of course one of the greatest films of the year, and right up there with Day for Night (1973) as one of the best films about how fun it can be to make a movie, or just simply watch one. Francois Truffaut, the director of Day for Night, once said something beautiful that I see as as good a place as any to finish this review:

“The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a movie theatre, is to go down to the front and turn around, and look at all the uplifted faces, the light from the screen reflected upon them.”

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Posted on January 30, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Haven’t seen Hugo yet,but Truffaut’s words made it a worthy read for me.

  2. I’m so glad that you dug this. I’m surprised that so many film-lovers haven’t gone for this, which I guess is fair enough since it is not a perfect film. The second half, though, is absolutely wonderful, and it definitely put a few tears to my eyes. Nice review!

    • It should rack up plenty Oscar-time, along with THE ARTIST. I haven’t seen THE ARTIST of course, but I actually think HUGO’s more deserving, and that the only reason THE ARTIST is getting the nominations (and probably the wins) is because it’s a silent film and the Academy want to show that they’re not completely heartless. Idiots.

  3. It will still be a couple of weeks before it’s out in The Netherlands, but I’m looking forward to seeing this!

  4. Really loved ‘Hugo’; I hope it wins SOME Oscars this year instead of The Artist stealing them all (I just have a hunch…) 🙂

  5. I am pretty chuffed you enjoyed this one so much matey. Great review

  6. There are so many great things to take away from Hugo, but weeks after I’m still stunned by the score. Howard Shore’s work was excellent.

    I’m so happy to see people responding positively to this one.

    (And, wasn’t Helen McRory just lovely in that small role?)

  7. Glad you liked it Tyler. While I thought it was a solid movie, I felt it was poorly paced especially in the first hour. I’m also not sure it was all that endearing to kids, given that it was marketed as a family film.

    • I can’t disagree with you there, the first half was far less interesting than the remainder of the film. I think they were unsure how to market it because it’s a film that really evades one single genre.

  8. I am so glad you liked this as much as I did, it literally blew me away. Those damn flashbacks just killed me. I too may consider it Scorsese’s best flick since Goodfellas. Tough call there.

  9. Great review! The flashbacks scenes are definitely a major highlight for me, I do agree w/ Castor that the beginning started out rather slow and a bit uneven, but at least it pays off in the end!

  10. Great write up, Tyler. On the whole I enjoyed the film but I’m not in a rush to see it again. The scenes I enjoyed the most where when you saw Méliès directing and creating his films. I kinda drifted off for the rest of it, though…

  11. One of the few movies I’ve bothered to watch in 3D, and it was definitely worthwhile. Definitely an amazing story and adventure.

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