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‘Hugo’ shows us the softer side of Scorsese

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, December 9, 2011 7:41 am

Just one review this week, as I didn’t make it to “My Week with Marilyn,” playing in limited release. A look at that will come next week, along with reviews of the wide releases “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and, time permitting, “The Sitter.” The studios’ insistence on conducting a take-no-prisoners December blitz with their prestige pictures has left things a tad crowded for the next few weeks, but I’ll do what I can…

For the past 40 years, Martin Scorsese has been one of the world’s most remarkably consistent film artists. Whereas most of Scorsese’s contemporaries — names like William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Milos Forman — have become irrelevant in the constantly evolving world of modern Hollywood, Scorsese stands alone as the one New Hollywood pioneer who today remains every bit as vital as he was back in the day. (An exception might be Steven Spielberg, but that’s a discussion for another time.) A master of form and tone, Scorsese, at this point, must be considered the greatest filmmaker to ever live. The inherent absurdity of picking one director as “the greatest” is not lost on me, but surely no other filmmaker has contributed so much to so many genres over so many years, without a single failure. His role as the world’s leading advocate of film preservation, too, helps cement his status as the grand sage of world cinema.

When one thinks of Scorsese, titles like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation  of Christ,” “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” spring immediately to mind — serious, adult-oriented fare for which the phrase “hard-hitting” was likely invented. Even his “lighter” films, like “The Aviator” and “The Age of Innocence,” and his comedies, like “The King of Comedy” and “After Hours,” have a sophisticated edge to them that lend them serious dramatic weight and credibility. So it might seem strange at first that Scorsese would be tapped for a movie like “Hugo,” based on the best-selling children’s novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick.

On a narrative level, this is about as old-fashioned as old-fashioned family films get, telling the relatively simple story of a young boy in 1930s Paris struggling to find his natural place in the world around him — not quite what you would expect from the man who gave us the pen scene in “Casino.” But armed with a mastery of filmmaking technique and a keen sense of character development, Scorsese proves once and for all that he truly is capable of anything. “Hugo” shows us a different side of the filmmaker — a charming, whimsical, thoroughly magically side that permeates through the entire picture and makes “Hugo” the one film from his repertoire that is guaranteed to leave you with the warm fuzzies.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old orphan who, as the film opens, lives as a squatter at a Paris train station where he tends to the many giant clocks — a job that used to be performed by Hugo’s alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) before he went missing after a particularly epic binge. Fascinated by the inner workings of all things mechanical, Hugo often swipes trinkets from a toy booth run by Georges (Ben Kingsley, currently my choice as the year’s best supporting actor for this magnificently under-stated performance), a bitter old curmudgeon who eventually catches the young thief in the act and confiscates Hugo’s notebook, which he assumes was stolen as well.

The notebook in fact belonged to Hugo’s father (Jude Law, seen in flashback), and contains detailed information pertaining to a broken automaton that he was rebuilding with Hugo before his death. But what secrets are held within the mechanical man, and why does Georges seem so disturbed by the corresponding notebook? Together with Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), Hugo works to solve the mystery while dodging a Javert-esque station attendant (Sacha Baron Cohen) who means to send the “street urchin” off to an orphanage.

In a fantastic twist, Georges is eventually revealed to be none other than Georges Melies, the mad genius of early film whose endlessly creative approach to filmmaking (at a time when most “movies” were two-minute shorts depicting mundane day-to-day activities, absent of any narrative whatsoever) paved the way for more than a century of movie magic. Like many great artists, Melies was not properly appreciated in his time and, as is accurately depicted in the film, spent his later years as a penniless toy merchant. In this fictionalized account, Melies is portrayed as a dreamer whose spirit was crushed by the emergence of film as big business, but has his heart restored by the cunning and courage of a young boy who dared to dream as well.

“Hugo” stands as the ultimate homage to Melies, thanks in no small part to its flawless and, indeed, revolutionary technical prowess. Melies would have marveled at what Scorsese has accomplished here: a stunning, remarkably detailed recreation of Paris that makes the city as much a character as Hugo or Melies himself; endless tracking shots in which the camera barrels through the train station, revealing minute details rendered in uncharacteristically crisp 3D effects. I don’t typically recommend that audiences pay extra for the 3D experience, as it’s usually unnecessary and often hinders rather than helps, but in this case it’s essential to the film’s effect.

For cinephiles, “Hugo” is clearly a must-see. However, I must concede that many audiences might simply be bored by the film’s very deliberate pace, and what may be perceived as a lack of momentum in the film’s screenplay. Young children, particularly, will find the whole affair rather dull. But if you go into the movie accepting that it is, above all else, a whimsical love letter to film history and a plea for the preservation of cinema’s relics, then you’ll definitely be more susceptible to the warm fuzzies.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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