Friday, November 25, 2011

You Go, Marty Scorsese!

Film Review by Regina Robbins
There are many reasons that Hugo is a major film event. The book on which it is based, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, caused a sensation upon its release four years ago: it’s a whopping 526 pages which combine text and pictures, and won the Caldecott Medal for illustration, never before awarded to a novel. Because of this unique form, and because its plot is intimately tied to the history of cinema itself, the book practically cries out to be filmed. So it’s obvious why Martin Scorsese, best known for his tableaux of New York’s underbelly, was attracted to the project. The 69-year-old auteur makes his “family film” debut with a movie one might have expected to be made by Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (or, God help us, Robert Zemeckis). Just to make things even more mind-blowing, he shot in 3D.

Hugo looks amazing; it’s set in 1930’s Paris, and is crammed full of gorgeous street scenes and men in hats and mustaches. The central character, the orphaned son of a clockmaker, lives in a train station and is surrounded by metal gears and rusty cogs, which can be made to look beautiful, mysterious, or frightening, depending on the scene. Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo, is a strong young actor whose pale face and dark, bedraggled hair endear him to us immediately; Chloë Grace Moretz (the young star of such child-unfriendly entertainments as Kick-Ass and Let Me In) plays Isabelle, Hugo’s only friend and a bit of young drama queen. (This is the point at which I lodge my formal complaint about boys always being protagonists and girls always being spunky sidekicks in big Hollywood adventure films. Okay, let’s move on.) The rest of the cast is a dream, featuring Ben Kingsley (awesome as usual), Sacha Baron Cohen, and Christopher Lee, as well as a rogue’s gallery of ridiculously talented people who were all likely thrilled to pieces to be in a film directed by Martin Scorsese.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read Selznick’s book. However, I do have more than a passing familiarity with the work of early filmmakers. For people who, like Martin Scorsese and myself, get emotional about the history of movies, Hugo will be irresistible. Clips and images from French and American silent classics (including The General, Safety Last, and most importantly A Trip to the Moon) appear throughout; those who recognize them will be delighted, and those who don’t will be charmed by the simplicity and playfulness of these early explorations of cinema. A flashback sequence, in which we see reconstructed the making of some of the earliest science-fiction films, takes Hugo, previously an appealing, well-made entertainment, to another level.

3D or not 3D? I fervently believe that even in two dimensions, this film would entertain both children and parents. For me, after about the first twenty minutes, the excitement of 3D wears off, and I’m much more involved in the storytelling and the characters than in any visual elements. Also, if you’re one of those folks who gets a headache at 3D movies, bring the Tylenol; Hugo runs over two hours. However, other critics have lauded Scorsese’s use of 3D as particularly effective, and why wouldn’t it be? He’s only among the greatest filmmakers currently working, possibly ever. As in his other non-crime-related films (including The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and The Aviator), Scorsese shows he can work masterfully even without gushing blood and a rock soundtrack.

Because of its length, complicated plot, and darker elements (multiple adult deaths, scary nightmares, dog chases), kids under 10 should wait a few years before seeing Hugo. Some reviews have complained that it is too somber, too measured for young audiences; if this is true, I feel sorry for those young audiences. There are plenty of busy, noisy holiday cartoons on the way for those who want their kids’ brains to remain untroubled by anything approaching thought, but for families who don’t think learning is a punishment, Hugo is an experience that will enchant adults (I went kid-free) and engage children. An all-time classic it’s not—that’s coming to theaters in January, when Beauty and the Beast gets a limited re-release (in 3D, of course!). But it’s a Martin Scorsese film you can take the kids to—get ’em started early, Mom and Dad.

Regina Robbins is a theater and film artist. She has worked with several New York City stage companies, including Manhattan Theatre Source, the Looking Glass Theatre, UTC #61, and the Directors Company, and her films have been screened at venues in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Chicago, Asheville, and NYC. She also teaches kids how to write and perform, and is a four-time champion on the game show Jeopardy!

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