Saturday 10 December 2011

Review: Hugo

Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Mortez, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee

Synopsis is here

To many people I know; Martin Scorsese is the "gangster guy". When the name comes up, most think Casino over The Age of innocence or Mean Streets over Kundun. So when Hugo was announced, the film was considered to some a major departure. It's not. In watching Hugo, I realise that this family film has Marty DNA richly ingrained. Those who know Marty from Goodfellas may feel a note get struck when The Great Train Robbery is referenced in the film. The sense of history and that roaming camera betrays the films position. Add to that the themes of film restoration and referencing and anyone whose read at least one interview of the man can see that this is Scorsese in personal mode. There's a lot in here that we've seen from the man before but under different guises. However this is not an ode to "trashy" genre like say Shutter Island, or a glitzy throwback to the golden age ( The Aviator) but a love letter to the very beginnings of cinema.

That Scorsese uses James Cameron's game changer (3D) to help construct this actually quite fascinating. The tool considered to some as the future of cinema (lets not bring up that 3D has been tried before in the past) is being utilised to help try and enrich the past. As a film viewer who doesn't have much time for 3D I will admit that the 3D is a vaguely interesting element of Hugo. Like so many (if not all) these 3D features I'm still not convinced of it's story telling aspects. I don't find putting on those ill fitting plastic glasses to watch a film helps make it a more immersed experience. However the 3D does enhance the Paris landscape somewhat. The thing is, I'd still be invested in the film's visuals, anyway as the film is gorgeous to look from the start. From the beautiful glass house "castle" of George Melies to the visual reference of Harold Lloyds Safety Last, to the set design of the station where most of the action is based. This a film that is beautiful to look at and very reminiscent of the jaunts of Jeunet

It is that beauty that kept me involved as the films first act is uncommonly unfocused and quite not very involving. From the opening prologue the film feels slightly disjointed and it's difficult to get a hold on the material. The film becomes much more comfortable in the second act when the film's plot and talk of silent cinema come into the foreground. This is great from a film student, cinephile, point of view. From a family film perspective however, the wish to combine the history of silent cinema into a film in which children are the main demographic places it in a similar place as fellow movie brat Spielberg with Tintin. We get a film which seems to be intended for children or family but seems to be more in touch with the geek crowd. Critics have given the film high praise and why wouldn't they, the history aspect caters to them. But the films awkward marketing and the U.S release of the film; placing it up against The Muppets when the week after had no wide releases, appears to betray a certain apprehension. In comparison to the opening act of Pixer's Wall-E which manages to combine aspects of early silent cinema, new age tech gimmicky and story and still keeps focus on the intended audience, I wouldn't be surprised if Hugo gets the same mixed response from kids that I saw from Rango this year.

While the film doesn't have as much charm as I expected, there's a sincerity that flows through the film constantly. The film (read Scorsese) is clearly in love with cinema. For someone like me it's hard not feel a chill as Ben Kingsley's Melies explaining a film set as thus: "If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they're made."  Hugo is a film that believes that cinema still has a certain power behind it. A highlight of this is a flashback situated in the middle of the film showing Melies creating one of his features and the ideals behind it. Similar scenes include the reacting of the first viewing of "Train arriving at a station" or when Chloe Mortez's character first witnesses a film for the first time. These moments seem lost and miles away when we now consider that we take the moving image for granted so easily nowadays. Hugo plays out like how those adverts which talk about "cinema only being worth seeing at the big screen" should play out. Scenes in which peoples love of cinema not only gets them to emote but come together are some of the films better moments.

This is fine for someone like me to go on about. Hugo tries to hack into that reason in why I love the cinema the way I do and to be honest I admire Scorsese's approach. The films lavish look, the nostalgic asides to story telling and dream making, the historical aspects that coincide with the story. It all falls into my romantic view of films and filmmaking; that it is more than just a happy go lucky diversion. That's fine for the 27 year old that I am now, but would the 8 year old approve? That I am not sure of.