Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is a thoughtful, visually-groundbreaking examination of the power of film

Film Rating: A

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is another entry in the 2011 sub-genre of films exploring the nature of art in relation to life, including “Midnight in Paris,” “The Artist,” and, yes, “The Muppets.”  It’s been an incredibly fruitful topic this year, and though I don’t immediately love “Hugo” as much as those three films, it may very well be the most accomplished of the bunch for its profundity and execution of vision.  

On the surface, “Hugo” is entirely unlike anything Scorsese has ever created, but like all of his greatest works, it contains total narrative, visual, and thematic unity from start to finish.  It is just as dense a work as “Taxi Driver,” if not more so, but after decades of observing the eccentricities of the world, Scorsese now aims his lens inward to create something very personal.  Though the film examines multiple forms of art, the narrative clearly favors film as the ultimate outlet for our dreams, a belief Scorsese must hold very dear in his heart.  “Hugo” is perhaps the ultimate statement he will leave behind as a filmmaker, an explanation of why he devoted his life to the art form he loves so much.  When future generations study the history of cinema, “Hugo” must be required viewing, a lesson in the worth and power of the cinematic medium straight from the mouth of one its greatest masters.  Continue reading after the jump...

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives alone in the walls of a massive Paris train station, maintaining the many clocks and stealing parts from a toy stand to work on a project his father left behind: a broken automaton, a mysterious mechanical man who Hugo believes carries a message from his late father, if only he could find the heart-shaped key to get the device moving.  He befriends a young girl, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who helps him in his quest, and is both scared of and fascinated by Isabelle’s godfather George (Ben Kingsley), the owner of the toy shop.

Describing the plot doesn’t do the film justice; this is a story that must be experienced, not explained, and I am wary of revealing any more.  “Hugo” is a mystery, and watching the story unfold is a pleasure I dare not spoil here.  One thing that must be understood in analyzing the film is that despite the light, family-friendly atmosphere, there is a dark undercurrent to the proceedings.  The Paris Hugo lives in is dangerous, especially for an orphan, as embodied by Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), an officer who prowls the train station for homeless, parentless children he can send off to the orphanage.  Hugo himself is scarred by his past, by the life of love that was violently ripped away from him when his father died, a pain Isabelle, also parentless, understands all too well.  George too is a broken man, for reasons that lie at the heart of the story. 

“Hugo” is a tale of damaged people living in a decaying world, and examines the steps people may take to fix their lives.  Art, we see, is one of our best outlets; Isabelle loves to escape into a good book and Hugo is obsessed with the then-infant medium of film.  Art is both a distraction from pain and a path to happiness, for it is created to heal and to guide, to capture and release our grief, and to make eternal fleeting moments of joy.  But we do this in our daily lives as well, and this is where the film’s heart truly lies.  Hugo’s actions heal others, and as he makes friends, he too begins putting his life back together.  This meaningful human contact is of course a form of art in and of itself, the most enigmatic and profound one of all.  Scorsese knows that filmmaking can capture this incredible process; that’s why cinema is magical, and that is why he, as a director, has devoted his life to this craft.

In that way, “Hugo” is essentially an elaborate study of the look of glee and wonder Hugo and Isabelle share as they sit in a theatre watching an early silent film.  This was the birth of a new medium and as the film demonstrates, those who lived to experience its inception arguably understood its power better than we, one-hundred-plus years removed, ever could.  Film is now an institution, a fact-of-life, something we take for granted, and under normal circumstances, the audience could not share in that same sense of discovery.  But as strong as the script and the themes and the pathos all are, Scorsese could not truly tap into his message about the value of film if he didn’t find a way to recreate that awe-inspiring feelings.

That’s where the 3D comes in.

If filmmakers today learn from what “Hugo” has to offer, I believe the film will hold a place in history as one of the pivotal turning points in how films are crafted.  I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that with “Hugo,” Scorsese has redefined the limits of a film’s visual power, and the 3D is a major component of that.  The inventive production design is absolutely wonderful, turning a simple train station into one of the most magical fantasy landscapes ever crafted, but it is the 3D that truly envelops us into this world, allowing us to see every nook, cranny, and detail on display.  More importantly, Scorsese uses 3D to change how we look at the image.  I’ve always thought of film as having lateral space; I examine the picture side-to-side, focusing on subjects arranged on a flat axis.  Even 3D landmarks like “Avatar” don’t inherently change those rules; they just add another layer.  With “Hugo,” Scorsese changes everything; this image has extending space.  I examine the picture front-to-back, and subjects are arranged on multiple axis extending far into the frame, in directions totally atypical of traditional photography.  Just compare a crowd scene from “Hugo” to a crowd scene in any other film to see how differently Scorsese handles space in three dimensions.

It’s absolutely brilliant; using 3D, Scorsese has crafted one of the year’s most rapturous visual experiences, one wholly different than anything I have before seen in a movie theatre.  That is how Scorsese recaptures the awe early audiences had watching black-and-white silent movies.  He gives us something new, film as it has never before been seen, and as such, we understand Hugo and Isabelle on multiple profound levels.  This is the first time 3D has ever been used to truly enhance the story and themes of a film.  If other directors can begin to embrace the power of 3D this fully, then I am ready to set aside my misconceptions and imagine a future full of 3D; Scorsese has proved, once and for all, that 3D used right is so much more than the empty gimmick we typically see. 

1100+ words and I haven’t even mentioned the performances.  That’s a shame, because “Hugo” features an incredible ensemble.  Asa Butterfield is magnificent in the title role; though only 14, he is wise and mature beyond his years, inhabiting his character on a level few child actors ever approach.  Chloe Grace Moretz, so fantastic in “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” continues to prove she is one of the best young actresses out there; this isn’t the film’s meatiest role, but she really hits it out of the park, adding personality and layers to the character that I suspect weren’t there on page.  As for the adults, I teared up during Ben Kingsley’s first scene; he’s been stuck playing the same one-dimensional character for years now, and it’s simply heartwarming to see him in a part truly worthy of his talents.  George is the film’s key character, and Kingsley brings him to life with nuance, grace, and warmth; this is a performance the Academy best not forget come Oscar time.  As the inspector, Sacha Baron Cohen is clearly having a blast; he doesn’t just provide the film’s big laughs, but also finds the humanity in what would normally be a one-dimensional character, once and for all establishing himself as this generation’s Peter Sellers.

As is typical of any Scorsese production, all of the supporting roles are filled with talented thespians, no matter how small the part; Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Frances de la Tour, and Richard Griffiths all add gravitas to each and every inch of the film’s world.  Howard Shore’s playful score is a character in and of itself, and possibly the composer’s best composition since “The Lord of the Rings.”

Despite having so much to love about “Hugo,” I am not yet fully in love with the film, and I can’t put my finger on why.  It is delicately paced, certainly, and doesn’t play its hand all at once.  It is a film designed to get better as it goes along, but is so densely and expertly constructed that I am sure repeat viewings with provide an even richer experience.  For now, I have no qualms giving it an “A.”  Critically speaking, its strengths are undeniable, and I cannot wait to watch it again, knowing what I know now, and hopefully being even more swept up by the experience. 

Martin Scorsese has probably made better movies, but never something this personal, and while I believe all audiences will find reasons to love the film, it’s those who believe in and study the power of art, especially film, who will walk away the most affected.  “Hugo” is a truly beautiful movie.

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