REVIEW: Hugo

10 01 2012

It’s slightly disingenuous to make a film all about the magic of the movies and then have little to offer itself in the way of enchantment, but that’s what Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is – take it or leave it.  His ode to the pioneering days of cinema, when trailblazers like the Lumière Brothers began making movies and Georges Méliès invented special effects, is definitely heartfelt and powerful enough to awaken plenty of latent nostalgia.  However, his movie serves as a better tribute to their genius than it does as an equally majestic film deserving to stand alongside them in the annals of history.

What I left the theater being nostalgic for was “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York.”  While I certainly admire Scorsese for taking on a radically different project, and good for Paramount to give him $150 million to realize this passion of his, I missed the bullet-riddled, F-bomb filled director that I’ve come to love.  It’s a very finely crafted movie, clearly the work of an expert like Scorsese.  All of the below-the-line elements are as good as ever with his usual suspects – editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Robert Richardson – returning to whisk us away to a train station in 1930s Paris with astounding precision.

While all that craftsmanship will likely win over Academy voters, it wins little more than my admiration and respect.  While there are plenty of things to praise about “Hugo,” its ability to evoke the childlike sense of wonder of watching a movie is not one of them, and this is where the crew could have swept in and delivered.  Not even the much heralded 3D – which I found to be rather ordinary – made me stop and surrender totally to the movie.

I think the uneven, choppy script by John Logan is the root of the movie’s issues.  While it works in bits and pieces, the story seems to ramble off in strange directions when it should be focused on the main narrative of young, orphaned Hugo Cabret and his quest to find his purpose in the mechanism of life.  The events of the train station are amusing, sure, but they feel like cutting-room floor material or DVD extras expanding on bit parts we don’t have time to see much.  Then, he quickly changes gears to focus less on the characters and more on crafting the most expensive and preachy PSA ever made … and it’s for film preservation.  I will be the first person to argue for the importance of film in capturing our history and our culture, but this seems like hardly the time or place to bring up the issue.

Indeed, the children’s movie format allows Scorsese to be incredibly didactic and less artistic about bringing up the need to preserve film, something that irked me as it felt like I was immersed only to be inculcated.  He practically crafts himself a surrogate in Michael Stuhlbarg’s film historian, René Tabard.  Given the incredible canon of films he has directed, surely such a lowball emotional ploy could have been more cleverly presented.  But perhaps “Hugo” signals a new Scorsese – older and more willing to scream his values from the rooftoop.

Nonetheless, this gentler Scorsese does know how to make one heck of a kids movie, mixing the entertaining with the thought-provoking and moral quite daftly.  Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the movie-loving clock-fixer, befriending Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) is one of the – dare I say – sweeter companionships I’ve seen in movies geared toward younger audiences.  He teaches her to marvel at the movies too, and soon, their passion and ingenuity will resurrect the disillusioned filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) from his self-imposed moratorium on cinema after World War I.  He grapples with very adult themes in a way that doesn’t insult them by dumbing them down but makes them relatable and understandable in more sentimental terms, so calling “Hugo” a kids movie almost seems to miss the point.

Oh, and they also run away from a dim-witted train inspector played with headache-inducing inaneness by Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, Brüno and Borat).  If Scorsese wants to keep making movies like this, I just ask that he find the magic and dump Cohen in a straight-to-DVD “Home Alone” sequel where his cartoonish antics belong.  B / 

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8 responses

11 01 2012
CMrok93

Good review right here Marshall. The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D.

11 01 2012
nevertooearlymp

Great review! It does feel a little bit like a PSA, and I can’t help but wonder whether a kid would really be so impressed that his invention took him on a history adventure. But indeed, the Academy is going to eat this one up.

11 01 2012
Marshall

Although I think “The Artist” has the charm to beat this one out in a few categories. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scorsese were to win Best Director simply because of the name, but 5 years is an awfully short gap. It happened to Spielberg, David Lean, and Oliver Stone, so it’s not unprecedented though.

11 01 2012
Castor

It seems like we are in agreement about this movie. While it’s a decent enough film, the first half was terribly slow and the movie lacks a certain element of charm and enchantment that would have made it much more compelling. I’m just not convinced that kids enjoyed this much as a whole and that’s problematic when this is marketed as a family film.

11 01 2012
Marshall

That’s true. I hinted at it a bit in the review, but it’s very much an adult movie made like a kids movie. A family film that tilts much more towards the parents.

14 01 2012
Matt Stewart

Well this one is nothing short of a masterpiece for me, but hey we all have our opinions! I think Hugo really hit me on a personal level, and maybe that’s why I loved it so much.

20 01 2012
Andrew

I don’t think the Scorsese of the 90’s exists anymore. He’s certainly not present in The Departed— not in full force anyhow, as that film is simply a commercial version of a Martin Scorsese film made for a mainstream audience, with nothing of the darker, more subversive director of the 70s. In other words, seeing him step outside of that milieu and try his hand at something else should be encouraged, unless he can tap into that grimmer side of himself again.

It’s no secret that I love this unabashedly. Interestingly, Logan’s script is problematic in a few ways– notably in how it approaches its mystery with cheap tactics, specifically the way characters hold back information that would progress the mystery for no appreciable reason. And the two halves of the film gel together rather strangely. But Hugo isn’t a film about celebrating the screenwriter, it’s a film about the power of the director. Scorsese directs the hell out of this. It’s not vintage Scorsese, but I wouldn’t expect that of him, and what he does with this is nothing short of marvelous. Hugo is transporting, and conveys the emotions on which it so heavily rides with perfect accuracy; it’s a movie that lives or dies on its ability to enchant you and sway you with its magic. For me, that’s exactly what it did.

You’re not the first person to express hate for Cohen. What gives? If anything I think he should be looking for more “real” roles and give up on his retinue of personae. He’s better here playing the oafish, rigid, but good-at-heart policeman than he has any business being. Then again, I did think he was the best thing about 2007’s horrendous Sweeney Todd.

6 02 2012
C.V.

I was very disappointed to read this review. I saw “Hugo” yesterday and it truly is a masterpiece. The 3-D was absolutely spectacular, not to mention the story that was emotional, fun, and philosophical. The film history intertwined within the movie added to the depth of the project and was quite interesting. You are wondering where the where the gritty side of Martin Scorsese went? Well I applaud him for his exemption of violence, nudity, and general profanity and focus on a heartwarming and inspirational story that is told spectacularly. You found the side train station plots off topic, but I saw them as a certain “Rear Window” way to show small snippets of people’s lives through the eyes of one boy behind glass. The philosophical element to time, machines, and mans place in society is both deep and thought provoking. Everything was spot on: from the cinematography and editing, to the costumes, music, sound effects, and acting. I am wondering if we saw the same movie; I am still in awe of the cinematic masterpiece I saw.

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