I’ve said it before (and I’ll probably say it again), Martin Scorsese is one of the directors I admire most. But it’s his “early work” – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, King of Comedy, New York New York (yes, I even love this one), Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, Last Temptation of Christ. I have, to one extent or another, felt let down by every fiction film he’s made in the past 15 years. I’m glad he’s survived, I’m glad he’s now loved and respected, but recently I’ve been more interested in his documentaries and film preservation work. With every new film, I cross my fingers, make a wish, and go … hoping ….
But I never would have expected that he would make a film that would rank among his best and that such a film would be … a family film … starring kids …. in 3D.
And then I saw Hugo.
“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.”
Hugo is several films rolled up in one. In its first hour, it’s the tale of an orphan in Paris circa 1931. Hugo Cabret’s father, a watchmaker, dies in a fire. His uncle drags him off to Montparnasse station and teaches him to take care of all the clocks there and then abandons him. Hugo lives inside the walls of the station, observing what goes on every day, stealing bits of food, his only companion a broken robot that his father found on a trash heap and was trying to repair. Hugo is convinced that if he can repair this robot it will give him a message from his father. (Sounds almost like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, eh?) Django Reinhardt plays guitar in a quintet in a cafe in which Salvador Dali sits sketching. (Sounds almost like Midnight in Paris, eh?)
The people in the station that he watches include the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a book seller (Christopher Lee), a newsstand dealer (Richard Griffiths), a cafe owner (Frances de la Tour), and a toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley). (Jude Law plays his father and Ray Winstone his drunken uncle. Michael Stuhlbarg plays a film professor.) Hugo is portrayed by Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz is the girl who becomes his friend.
And it’s the toy shop owner who provides the film with its purpose because he is none other than Georges Melies. His films have been destroyed, he is forgotten by the public that once adored him and thought dead, he spends his days sitting in a shop in an obscure corner of the station, existing only for his wife and god-daughter, a broken and bitter man.
So the second half of the film builds his legend, presents re-enacted scenes from his films and is basically a plea for film preservation, all done in a family-friendly, heart-warming way.
Trust me, I haven’t come close to trying to explain just how magical all of this is. And magic it is, indeed. Scorsese brings all of his prodigious technique to this film, together with the great cinematographer Robert Richardson, Scorsese’s long-time brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a score by Howard Shore, seamless digital effects. It’s completely real life (aside from one dream sequence) and yet it plays out like a fairy tale. Who knew that Scorsese could tug on one’s heartstrings so artistically?
I’ve now watched the film twice – first in 2D and honestly, you won’t miss out if you only see it this way. My second viewing was 3D and the 3D definitely enhances the experience but probably most important is to see it the one way I haven’t – on a really big screen. The film finally opens in HK this week Thursday and I’m seriously considering going to see it again.
Hugo has received the most Academy Award nominations this year – 11. Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects.
I’m sure there are going to be some people who won’t “get” this film, who will be bored in the second half when we see clips from Melies’ surviving work, when the film professor teaches the kids about the early history of cinema and explains to the audience what went into rescuing these films. And that’s a shame. I basically loved every second of this film from start to finish and I can’t think of the last time I said that about a Scorsese film.
Look, go see it, I guarantee you the first ten minutes, the bravura opening sequence, it will blow you away.
So I’ve now seen 7 of the 9 films nominated for the Oscar this year. The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life. I haven’t seen Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse. I still think that Tree of Life should be rewarded for being so wildly ambitious but I don’t think it stands a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. People seem to think The Artist is a shoo-in and I loved it but it’s simply not as ambitious or as emotional as Hugo – it does have a cute dog, it makes you smile, I won’t mind if it wins. I just have this sinking feeling that The Help might win. Feh.
Addendum: meant to add this last night – I think there’s a very conscious irony to this film that adds to its appeal. The irony is that it’s a $170 million budget film with state of the art computer effects and 3D all in tribute to someone who made hundreds of black and white silent films probably on a budget of a few dollars per film. I don’t detect any specific “winks” to this effect in the film but probably they’re there and I just haven’t spotted them yet.