Film Reviews

Hugo Martin Scorsese

Rating - 7/10

With Hugo, Martin Scorsese explores his love of movies through a unique hybrid of the fictional drama, childhood adventure, and biopic.  Set primarily in the train station Gare Montparnasse in the late 1920s, the film’s first part follows the shrewd twelve-year-old nephew of a watchmaker, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), and his desire to learn more about his family.  One particular day while mending the clocks in the station, Hugo attempts to pilfer a wind-up mouse from a dour elderly man, Georges (Sir Ben Kingsley), in his toy shop.  The man traps him and confiscates a pocket notebook filled with mechanical drawings/blueprints of an automaton, or a self-writing mechanical boy, lifted straight out of steampunk lore.  Demanding he return the notebook, Hugo pursues Georges to his house and attracts the attention of his bookworm goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Moretz).  Eager for adventure outside of the literary sense, she follows him on a whim, and the two develop a friendship that flirts with elements of a first crush at times with screenplay writer John Logan’s appropriate restraints.  Less than twenty minutes into the film, Hugo’s unnamed father suddenly perishes in a mysterious museum fire where he works as a repairman; audiences are then burdened with the weight of a scarcely represented fatherly bond.  While Hugo is hindered early on by this oversight, it offers glimpses of their experiences later on, but then his Uncle Claude swiftly disappears.  Perhaps these elements in the film’s pacing can be attributed to its seeming epic running time to younger audiences (of 127 minutes), intense focus on Hugo’s journey and his budding rapport with once-orphan Isabelle during the first hour, and the origin of film medium itself in the remaining sixty minutes.  Length and subject matter certainly prompt questions about the film’s intended audience; while its advertising campaigns promoted it as a kids’ film with the accompanying PG-rating, the minutia to which Scorsese explores may seem esoteric or technical to them and only snare interested cinephiles (or their parents/guardians).  Scorsese essentially gives himself the task of creating a familial drama juxtaposed with a nostalgic introductory course on silent cinema (with literal inclusions of many silent classics including a signature homage to Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!), as well as a biopic that chronicles a creative artist of a century ago.

Adapted from Brian Selznick’s historical novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the existence of Hugo may have been inevitable, but if Scorsese’s name seems like a surprising inclusion, one must trace his involvement back to The Film Foundation beginning in 1990, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of film stock.  Handily, the latter half of Hugo shifts almost exclusively to the glorification of the Golden Age of film.  Yet, this is prefaced with a somewhat somber narrative tone in the first half after Hugo’s father departs him with just the automation salvaged from the museum.  Believing it to hold a personal written message, Hugo pleads with Georges to return the notebook to no avail.  He resorts to other restorative measures to unlock the automaton’s secret through a heart-shaped keyhole on the back of its neck.  Convenient, then, that Isabelle wears the key around her own neck.  From this point, the film points its nostalgia for the wonderment of adventure toward the reality of dream-like cinema.  When the automaton is wound, its hand produces a drawing from the 1902 short “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” with the signature of Georges Méliès.  The hunt to operate the mechanical boy becomes a quest to unveil the relationship between the sketch and the identity of Isabelle’s godfather as the former magician and filmmaker.  Before the confrontation is made, Hugo and Isabelle visit the Film Academy Library and pull a fictitious textbook by René Tabard called The Invention of Dreams about the very first movies at the end of the nineteenth century.  Tabard, working at the library, sneaks up behind the two reading his book and reveals his collection of film memorabilia and unwavering admiration for Méliès’ work but with news of the filmmaker’s death during the First World War.  The teens discuss the man Isabelle lovingly refers to as “Papa Georges,” his hidden surname, and now-modest life while touching upon the film’s themes of restoration and revival.  Hugo sympathetically discloses, “Everything has a purpose, even machines.  …Broken machines make me so sad.  They can’t do what they’re meant to do.  Maybe it’s the same with people.  If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.”

The reveal of Méliès in Hugo is significant but not in its alteration of the tone; in fact, the film retains that slightly doleful yet resilient optimism in its later stages as much as its introduction.  This event ultimately realizes the power of Hugo and Isabelle’s determination and imagination.  Scorsese’s version of a late 1920s Paris, however, has invariably undergone some Hollywood re-polishing and romanticizing; the CGI renders the city in an unnatural, luminous gloss that can be immediately observed during the camera’s earthbound swoop through the station in the opening sequence.  In his Slant Magazine review, Phil Coldiron further constructs that image.  “(Scorsese’s) digital Paris, with its plastic gloss surfaces and artificial snow, is less of a blue-gold fantasy than it is the dream of a new reality….”  If taken to compliment the fantastic dream worlds of Méliès, Paris may seem to be in proper perspective.  But as the man himself comes to point out in a detailed retrospective, post-WWI attitudes disregarded his craft.  “The war came, and youth and hope were at an end… The world had no time for magic tricks and movie shows.  Tastes had changed, but I had not changed with them,” Georges laments.  Therefore, the Paris seen in the former section of the film should accurately reflect this sentiment in a more prosaic gray to make the transition from gloom of neglect to illuminative appreciation all the more stark and vivid.  The obvious transformation may be a conventionality of children’s cinema, but Scorsese’s triumph is instead the trust in the two principal actors who exemplify a mature curiosity and appetite for adventure and history.  Isabelle’s refined dialogue features at least half a dozen literary names as nostalgic notations.
Scorsese’s film auspiciously coincides with a restored interest in Méliès’ work and renaissance of early twentieth century art in general.  French electronic duo Air’s most recent release is an original score for his fifteen-minute “Le Voyage Dans La Lune.”  Several year-end articles prior to this year’s Oscars, particularly Matt Zoller Seitz’s article for Salon, “Nostalgic for Everything,” poignantly examine 2011’s fascination with nostalgic considerations of previous eras.  While his article lifts a quote from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to showcase nostalgia as a flaw (“nostalgia is denial of the painful present”), this phenomenon is the result of a decade that is invariably forcing dramatic changes in the film medium, rending 35mm film obsolete and phasing out physical rental copies.  In a humorous turn of science fiction, Seitz expounds a dystopian cinematic vision about the control of artistic endeavors: “…It’ll all be virtual soon, an endless stream of data held on gigantic servers in undisclosed locations and ‘licensed’ to us for private use on our computers and mobile devices and perhaps soon in the chips that will be installed on the brain stem of every American newborn, along with the port that allows them to jack into the Matrix.”  Current generation (4G) smart phones really allow viewing in limitless settings but at the expense of intimacy, usurping the traditional movie house and home theatre experience for something more sterile, isolated, and prone to disruption.  Within Hugo’s two-hour span, Scorsese captures his fondness for twentieth century cinema that allowed him to hone his craft.  Sharing Méliès’ belief that “films have the power to capture dreams” and showing it on a literal scale with the film’s release, Scorsese’s belief in the preservation and truth of the cinema experience is channeled into the children’s search of the truth of their adult world.