Thursday, December 22, 2011

MAGIC! Stop Reading This Review And Go See The Movie "Hugo"

      Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by John Logan, is an artistic masterwork that should be a box office blockbuster.  We mistakenly thought it was a children’s movie so we skipped it at Thanksgiving and I didn’t connect to the fact that Scorsese had made it until the National Board of Review awarded it best film.  It is breathtaking from its first shots of Paris in the early 1930s that merge miniatures, sets, and actual exteriors that feel as timeless as an urban fairy tale and as current as 3-D technology will take the filmmaker and the audience.

Toy Store in Gare du Montparnasse
      The plot revolves around Hugo, an orphan who lives in the ceilings of a Paris railway station, and his developing relationship with the owner of the toy store in the mall of the station.  I thought the station was the Gare du Nord, but it’s actually supposed to be the Gare du Montparnasse.  Hugo assists his drunken lout of an uncle in maintaining the many clocks in the station behind walls and overhead, while looking to fix a broken automaton that is the only possession he has left of his father.  I’m not sure I want to say much else about the story because I don’t want
to give away too much and this is one of those movies that is a world of wonders, the type of epic that is unforgettable because it is so in love with the idea of the world and of art and their interdependence.  I felt similarly about the first times I saw Gone with the Wind, Rear Window, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, 8 ½, Touch of Evil, E.T., The Godfather, Chinatown, and Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver and New York, New York.  That’s a heady list and if I’d realized what I’d feel about this movie, we’d have waited on J. Edgar.

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz with the Automaton
      It’s a tween adventure story but, unlike the Harry Potter series, Isabelle is just as crucial to the twists and plot resolution as Hugo.  Papa Georges, the toy storeowner, is not whom he initially appears to be and that’s when Hugo takes off into the filmmaking stratosphere.  Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret provides a strong armature to the script, but putting the story on film is essential because it’s about filmmaking and the history of European cinema.  Again, I’m making this sound unbelievably heady and pretentious and it’s anything but.  

      Robert Richardson’s cinematography is glorious – the continually moving camera recalls Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de as well as Hitchcock’s Notorious.  Some of the scenes where French cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès is simultaneously acting, directing, and producing his films seem like scenes that Visconti forgot to make and the grand ceremonial retrospective in the theatre begins like Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which is appropriate because Méliès was one of Carné’s first mentors.  Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is elegant and - the real test of editing that always seems to pass over the heads of any awards group - there’s not a shot that can be cut.  Howard Shore’s score seems both in period and contemporary as well as believably French.

      There are two elements that require a suspension of disbelief.  One is that the 3-D is unnecessary.  Neil felt that this is the best live action usage of 3-D and he’s right, but my problem with it is that it doesn’t create a sculptural sense as it does with computerized animation.  Instead, it feels like the cells have been separated and that one plane is laid upon another.  It reminds me of looking at a Viewmaster – fun when you’re ten and you want to see slides from around the world or whatever, but a little eye deadening when it’s a two-hour movie.  The other element is that the whole cast, except for Chloë Grace Moretz, is British playing French characters.  I assume Scorsese decided to go for a consistent acting style and he filmed mainly in England at Shepperton Studios.  

      The acting, for the most part, is excellent.  Scorsese is not impeccable with actors the way that Allen, Eastwood, and the Coppolas are.  He’s elicited spectacular and mediocre performances and that is repeated here.  Sacha Baron Cohen is a gifted comic, but he’s only serviceable as an actor.  Neil wished for Daniel Day-Lewis and I wished for Johnny Depp, who produced the film, to play the part of the station Inspector because both of them would have offered a technically commanding acting approach with a range of emotions and a sense of ambivalence.  Emily Mortimer is sweet, but wan, as his longtime crush.  
Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour
On the plus side, old pros Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths offer performances that tell of the entire lives, hopes, and backgrounds of their characters in a few gestures with hardly any dialogue in the first five minutes of the movie.  As Neil said, de la Tour looks and acts like what Carol Burnett would be if she hadn't 'had work.'  Helen McCrory is beautiful and complex as Mama Jeanne, Georges’ wife, and the make up on her is great because she moves from a Belle Époque twentysomething to a fiftysomething housewife in a way that seems like the earlier sequences were filmed thirty years ago when she was that age.  She’s actually forty-three.  Ben Kingsley is commanding as Georges.  His stage technique and screen presence are so assured and mature and with a sense of cheekiness right from the start that it’s no surprise when he’s revealed as a forgotten genius.  It’s a performance that reminded me of Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City because of its professionalism and subtext of playfulness.  The make up is extraordinary on him as well because it’s seamless.  Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz are wonderful.  They have major credits coming in, but we didn’t see those films.  He may look like a young Elijah Wood but, as Neil pointed out, he has a point of view like a Johnny Weir – not that he’s like Weir in terms of gesture, but he is in terms of commitment and wit.  I thought Moretz was English and that she must’ve visited France many times because she’s that authentic.  She’s from Atlanta.  What she could have done with the role of Hermione in Potter sort of boggles my casting imagination.  This has been a great year for younger actors – this, Harry Potter (minus Hermione), the Super 8 ensemble, and the children and friend in The Descendants.

      At this stage in Scorsese's career, this work is akin to Wyler directing Ben-Hur or Kurosawa directing Ran.  My New Year’s wish:  After seeing this, I beg Scorsese to make the movie version of Gregory Maguire’s original book of Wicked with Natalie Portman as Elphaba, Kirsten Dunst or Michelle Williams as Galinda, and James Franco as Fiyero.

I loved how Hugo climbed around all the ceiling grids in the railway station.  I couldn't have done better myself!

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