Variable Zero

Hugo (2011) Movie Review

At this moment, I'm completely beside myself with joy, and maybe a little irritation at the very idea that not only did I catch this film weeks until release, but that there is only so much time remaining before this theatrical 3D event comes to an end. There is such a universe of loving craft to be shared within HUGO's heartfelt 127 minutes, that a simple one-off review from a simple blogger would only do it a fraction of service. As the film's marketing campaign completely failed to deliver; there is something of a completely different film, no doubt dodged intentionally. One can see a studio getting cold feet upon realizing that what manner of tapestry this master filmmaker has fashioned; it is a family-geared work of the most classical nature, complete with the wistful imagination and patience of those so clearly inspiring generations past. With the latest in technology, Martin Scorsese takes Brian Selznick's beautiful semi-biographical book, and composes a spectacular and sublime love letter to the power of not only film, but of human ingenuity as a healing force.

Set in a romanticized version of Paris in the early 1930s, little Hugo Cabret, the son of a clockmaker has recently lost his father, and has been surviving day to day, maintaining the clockworks of a large train station central to town. With no guardians, or school to contend with, his core struggle has been to finish repairing a mysterious find his father made in the days before his death. This rusty old automaton remains the final link between Hugo and his father, and with the parts he occasionally steals from a local toy booth run by an embittered old man, the feeling that a cycle could be closed by getting the machine to work. His daily fears of being apprehended not only by the old man, but of the station's dogged, yet simple-minded inspector begin to come to a head when he is finally caught attempting to steal a mechanical mouse. And it is within this event that he meets Isabelle, herself once an orphan, and now in the care of the old man, Papa Georges, and his wife, Mama Jeanne. A storybookworm in the extreme, Isabelle eventually begins to serve as a branching point between Hugo, and Georges when it is discovered that they both share pieces of a secret, one that could alter both lives forever.

Immediately, Scorsese's obsession to master what James Cameron had helped pioneer into almost cinema ghettodom  is made apparent with perhaps one of the most thrilling opening shots of any film, anywhere. We are not simply told the story through John Logan's solid prose, the director's eye, along with the ever terrific design work of Dante Feretti, we are thrust into Hugo's world with the kind of love and reverence that even AVATAR couldn't afford itself. In fact, one could go so far as to suggest that this is the film Cameron's work was meant to be; a epoch making crossroads charting & celebrating the evolution of visualized storytelling. And in that, it may surprise some to know just how disarmingly intimate the film is. With the cameras flowingly shadowing our central character's movements, we are given a solid geography of what Hugo's life has orbited around, and the sights he is privy to on a regular basis. (which also grants us more insight into one of the film's more endearing sentiments; everyone has a story.) So when it comes to his and Isabelle's discoveries, it does so within an unexpectedly small, yet somehow lush environment that offers volumes more to consider than an alien planet ever could. It is in the observational, that the film milks its greatest strengths, again owing great amounts to the filmmaking pioneers of the long past, an age when film was virtually inseparable from magic, and that risk, ingenuity and an enterprising spirit were at the forefront of capturing the stories and dreams of a world. It's that rare mesh of story and technique that makes for a virtuoso experience in how substance can be defined by style. Made all the more refined by Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant as ever editing.

In the performance realm, HUGO is packed with terrific work from Asa Butterfield, who's sad-eyed work is a terrific analogue for the director, and in turn the audience. Once again, Chloe Grace Moretz continues to impress as the adventurous counterpart who becomes key in the tale's engine. Her growing importance in the story, makes for an engrossing bait and switch theme-wise, and is only made greater by her sincerity in the role. Also great fun is Sacha Baron Cohen as Inspector Gustav, who's bumbling fool eventually becomes a complex & sympathetic extension of what is happening with the film's throughline. What could so easily have been what the marketing had suggested, becomes another arrow in the movie's arsenal, and it is effective. But the truest triumph of the film belongs to Ben Kinsgley and Helen McCrory in the roles of Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne, characters that truly evoke complete histories in almost miraculously short running time. Both shine so beautifully in these roles, that it become hard to not see them as the two they eventually are revealed to be.

Strangely enough, the sentiments brought about here, are not terribly far from what Scorsese had explored in the more adult-oriented Shutter Island, where inventiveness & patience run hard into harsh realities at the cost of forward progression. Themes of not only seeking self-purpose, but of how all good works fulfilling a human need flow like water throughout the narrative. These films embrace not so much technology, but of those seeking to heal and change their worlds through it. Unlike so many filmmakers who have come and gone over the decades, it is heartening to see such a legend embrace such changes by reminding viewers of the importance found in making peace and seeking solutions rather than avoiding past pains. In many instances, HUGO can be seen as an "antidote" response to Shutter Island, where hope thrives in the young and new, as well as respect & love to those that have come before. It is perhaps the most beautiful love letter to stories and film since Cinema Paradiso, and now my irritation has slipped into sadness because more people simply must experience this in the manner for which it was crafted. A unabashedly sincere, bravura performance.