Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Movie Magic: HUGO

Orson Welles reportedly called filmmaking “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” This line seems apt for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a film which is built around a gorgeous recreation of 1930’s Paris, in particular a massive train station in which most of the film takes place. It builds a convincing world with several employees getting charming through-lines like a café owner (Frances de la Tour), a newsstand owner (Richard Griffiths), a florist (Emily Mortimer), and a security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen). The virtuosic opening starts high above Paris and in one fluid shot dips down into the train station, slides through the entire building, and comes to rest at a giant clock face, behind which we see a pair of eyes. This is Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a young boy who is the center of the film’s story. He sees all of these characters in the station as he scampers through the walls, winding the clocks and stealing just enough to survive. His uncle (Ray Winstone) had the job before him, but now his uncle has disappeared. As long as the clocks continue to run, no one will suspect that there’s an orphan in the walls.

His father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker and a repairman, with a house full of gears and switches, the air filled with soft, perpetual ticking. One night he brought home a silver, metallic wind-up doll, a rusty, neglected automaton that was full of promise and mystery. Hugo was helping him fix it when his uncle suddenly appeared informing him that his father was killed in a fire at the museum where he found some extra work. This is how Hugo came to be in the train station and why he is drawn to the shop run by a toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who stocks it with magic tricks and wind-up figures. When the timing is right, Hugo sneaks mechanical pieces and toys back to his hideaway where he uses them to continue to work on the broken automaton his father left behind.

The toymaker catches Hugo and confiscates the contents of his pockets, which includes a notebook in which his father had sketched plans for the mechanical man’s fixing. Distraught, Hugo follows the toymaker through the wintry streets of Paris but is so helpless and filled with conflicting emotions that he can’t figure out what to do next. Outside the toymaker’s house, he meets the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who promises to help him. Together they try to find a way to fix the automaton, but along the way they realize that another, perhaps more important, thing that needs repair is the toymaker himself. Papa Georges, as Isabelle calls him, is a man who was an early filmmaking innovator who fell on hard times and pushed his passion away out of necessity. He’s lost access to his passion and lost his films to the cruelties of his situation. It’s as if a part of him is now missing.

This is a film of marvelously fluid tone, contemplative and emotionally involving while shot through with terrific humor and quietly earned thrills. The kids are on a quest to fix the mechanical man and get involved along the way in a journey filled with learning. An elderly librarian (Christopher Lee) and a learned film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) are happy to help them. There’s a love of facts and knowledge here that is thrilling. There’s also a very real sense of a childhood friendship developing that’s balanced quite nicely with the deep vein of sorrow and grief that runs through the film, of death and destruction, of lives shattered by war and by accidents, of people who need to continue to move forward, to do what they feel called to do, despite all their personal setbacks.

And in all this weighty material there lies a more conventional kid-friendly plot with Hugo scrambling to hide from the lanky guard who will surely send him to the orphanage. This is played for broad comedy at times (Baron Cohen is very good at it, after all), but it’s laced with such a spiky threat to Hugo that it feels funny and adventurous without pandering to the children in the audience or cheapening the film’s so very moving themes. In fact, this guard, as comedic as he is, is also a character wounded by his past, an orphan himself, and a limping veteran of the Great War as well. There’s no such thing as a simple character here. They all serve a purpose.

Masterful filmmaking is in evidence here, inventive and visually striking in ways that support the enthralling magic of the film. Scorsese is playing with all kinds of technological tricks new and old, from wonderfully expressive, layered and dynamic 3D angles (this is a rare film for which a 3D screening would be essential) to sweeping, fluid tracking shots. The plot, when you get right down to it, is rather simple and certainly was of no surface need to last over two hours. But any shorter and Scorsese wouldn’t have had time to explore such wonderful emotion, to show us all he wanted to show, his gorgeous, fully realized world with cinematography from Robert Richardson and production design from Dante Ferretti. This is a beautiful film to regard with a color palate of icy blue and rich gold. It’s easy to get enfolded into the film’s warmth and power. Much like Brian Selznick’s incredible book, on which the film is based, didn’t need all those pages of beautifully sketched illustrations, but would certainly be less distinctive and less artful without them, Scorsese creates a fully realized cinematic environment that doesn’t slip away easily.

There’s a bit of Scorsese in the characters, the curious boy, the bookish girl, the bearded scholar, and the clever toymaker. In them is the a man who loves finding what makes things tick, who loves stories, who loves learning, and who loves to entertain. This feels like an intensely personal film, a lovely interior adventure, a small-scale epic of character and emotion that is also a moving tribute to the importance of film history and film preservation, a cause near to Scorsese’s heart. One of the most spellbinding moments of the film – of the year, even – is a sequence that dives deeper into the past and gives us an enchanting montage that offers a look at the career of film pioneer Georges Méliès. In another delightful moment, the kids sit in the library and read to each other from an early history of cinema and the pages come alive. Here is a film with an absorbing narrative that also effectively communicates the deep core reasons for why I love film. When Hugo tells Isabelle his fond memories of going to the movies with his father, the words he spoke resonated not just with his story but also with my own. It was a nearly overwhelming moment. For all of Scorsese’s work teaching the importance of preserving and appreciating the cultural heritage of cinema, this might be his most important and vital teaching tool yet.

I saw the film in a theater that had several young kids in the audience. They were having a great time and left the theater saying to each other “What a great movie!” Maybe, just maybe, one of them will be inspired to learn more about the movies. (Perhaps the best Christmas present for a child who loves Hugo would be a kid-friendly book about film and a box set of early cinema, especially the comedies). Scorsese isn’t content to say that movies are magical and then simply show us familiar clips of great silent films (no matter how surprising and joyful the appearance of Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, and more on the screen of a modern multiplex was to this cinephile). Instead, Scorsese goes ahead and makes a magical film about movie magic, proving his point in practice.

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