Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) Review

Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield discover the magic of movies in Scorsese's Hugo...

A small Parisian café, 1895. The Lumière brothers are holding the first ever public screening of L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat. The audience takes their seats, patiently waiting for what has been advertised to them as a "moving picture show." The curtain opens, and projected onto the flat screen is one of the great miracles of the modern world - cinema. Dust dances in that beam of light which provides for them a window into dreams, or in this case, a nightmare. Indeed, legend has it that the audience was so scared of the advancing train that they ducked for cover, and some ran from the café screaming for their lives. 116 years later and we have Scorsese's Hugo, a 3D family adventure which not only exhibits the Lumière's classic (this time at a carnival) but also recreates the scene (nodding toward the Gare Montparnasse tragedy) with modern technology - launching the train into the audience's laps as they chew on their popcorn. Ironically, the Lumière's re-imagined L'arrivée in 3D themselves, at a 1935 exhibition for the French Academy Of Science. Unsurprisingly, it didn't work, and for the most part neither does Scorsese's effort - it has the best 3D of any film to date, and yet the technology remains entirely superfluous.

The Lumière's were important pioneers of early cinema, but perhaps more important was Georges Méliès, director of Le voyage dans la lune (1902), and one of the main characters of Hugo. Based on Brian Selznick's 2007 novel, Scorsese's latest tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a doe-eyed orphan obsessed with mechanisms and contraptions, who seeks the heart shaped key to his deceased father's automaton. He lives in the walls of a Parisian train station, running back and forth in its labyrinthe networks to keep the clocks well oiled and ticking. He steals ratchets and sprockets from the station's toymaker, who turns out to be none other than an aging, embittered Méliès (Ben Kingsley). His goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), equally doe-eyed, is in desperate need for an adventure when she befriends Hugo, and one day they visit the cinema together, for a screening of Harold Lloyd's hilarious Safety Last! (Newmeyer, Taylor, 1923). Eventually it is uncovered that Isabelle holds the heart shaped key on a chain around her neck, and the truth of Méliès life begins to unfold. But make no mistake - despite the soft, dreamy colour palette and Jeunet-like tableaus of incomplete romance (Amélie is a notable reference point), this isn't exactly a kid's film. Indeed, the plodding adventure which makes up the bulk of the running time is its least interesting element. What really shines through is the biopic of a genius which lies at its centre...

It's not that the Hugo/Isabelle story is bad, but rather that it's completely unremarkable. Is it refreshing to find a Christmas blockbuster with two smart, appealing kids who care about other people and don't fall into a clichéd romance? Yes. Is it refreshing to find them so in love with cinema - especially such early cinema, which many audience members won't have seen? Of course. But their story is such a convoluted confection that I found it hard to care, and was always eager for Méliès to reappear. Maybe this is just because I'm a 20-year-old cinephile, but I'm curious about how the experience will translate the other way, and how much kids are going to care about the life story of cinema's greatest magician. The film certainly plays to all audiences - a buffoonish Sacha Baron Cohen and his comical dog see to that - but I wonder how many kids will be left wanting more of Hugo, and how many adults will be left wishing Scorsese had just made a Méliès biopic. Certainly I fall into the latter camp, and the director's affections seem to lie in the same place. For example, the emerging romance between Cohen's Station Inspector and florist Lisette, played by Emily Mortimer. Their relationship could have been an interesting one, but instead Cohen is relegated to bumbling slapstick and Mortimer barely registers as a screen presence with five barely audible lines, each as incidental as the last. When they finally do get together it's through a series of unutterable contrivances, and nothing in their poorly judged previous encounter had hinted toward such an ending. Also consider the silent romance between Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths - what purpose does it serve other than plain-faced whimsy and a few cute dog shots for the kids?

But almost every pitfall of the Hugo/Isabelle story is forgotten about when Scorsese shifts the focus to Méliès', whose tale ends, regrettably, on his film stock being melted down to make shoe heels. The meticulous reconstruction of his sets are genuinely jaw-dropping, and even in 3D their palette (Méliès hand painted his films, which were always intended to be shown in colour) is incredibly striking. Kingsley perfectly embodies the spirit of a man whose obsession was the cinema; to him an artform of dreams. His awe, upon a first screening of L'arrivée, clearly displays the beginnings of a life in movies, and watching his passion dissolve in the wake of WWI is a truly heart-wrenching experience. I'm not embarrassed to admit that I shed a tear when learning of the night that he burned all the old sets and costumes of his films. The flickering bonfire of memories holds a poignancy which Scorsese hasn't tapped into for well over a decade. The spectacle and heart of this sequence ensures that the film is worth recommending, but the fact that it directly precedes a series of dull third-act clichés (a chase through the train station that ends on a weak homage to Safety Last!) is disappointing. Cohen's mugging finally reaches the apex of its annoyance, and film's charm runs dry. An element I've forgotten to mention though is the film enthusiast Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who reignites Méliès zeal; in many ways he represents audience members like myself, who live in wonder of cinema's power. Stuhlbarg excels in the part, and is an undoubtable highlight.

But what of the 3D? The argument of depth is one I've had out on this blog before, and I don't wish to sound like a broken record, so I'll simply provide a reason why Hugo not only doesn't need its 3D, but also why it works against the film. This is Scorsese's celebration of early cinema, and it's true that filmmakers were experimenting with 3D as early as 1915. But every important innovation was made in 2D - filmmakers created the illusion of depth through the tools of their artform; photography, music and performance. The only 2D segments of Hugo are the exhibitions of old films - Safety Last!, L'arrivée and Le voyage - and viewing these sequences through 3D glasses we realise how superfluous the technology is, as it does not directly impact our reaction toward the film. Take the glasses off and Hugo will be the same, it'll still have the same problems, but it will not have the superficiality of 3D, which for me draws attention to the film's artifice. We are still seeing images projected onto a flat screen, head-on. We are not enveloped by the image, as it still has a cut-off point; the horizon has a dip, but 3D does not enhance our view of it. The 2D films screened in Hugo are exciting and funny because they are moving photographs of reality. Hugo, save for the sequences where it celebrates 2D film, is not exciting or funny, because it is an illusion aware of itself. It didn't allow me to get lost in the fantasy. But it did give me a headache.

2 comments:

  1. The film is so much like the movie, as far as I noticed, they only got rid of one character, the man with the eyepatch. Even with this character gone, the plot stayed very simmilar to the book. They also added things to this movie to make it more entertaining, a love scenario between the station guard and the flower shop lady. This movie is a movie that kids, adults, and people of all ages will love.

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