Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Hugo", not Weaving

There might not be a more celebrated director in Hollywood today than Martin Scorcese. The artist, who has been making groundbreaking films since the seventies, is renowned not only for his ability to create great cinema, but for also building a fundamentally different experience every time out, a skill not many of his peers can claim. For all that however, Scorcese has never made a film like Hugo until now. It must have surprised some when he announced he was going to make a PG-rated film in 3D (two firsts for the director) based on the not-exceptionally-well-known children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. I mean, this is the guy who made serious adult fare like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; Goodfellas and Casino; Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed. Compared to these awe-inducing titles, at first glance Hugo feels grossly out of place; a rogue family film hanging with the big boys.

We needn't have worried, however. After seeing Hugo, I'm quite happy naming it one of 2011's best films, and possibly one of Scorcese's best works in recent years. The story follows young orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives within the walls of a Parisian rail station, maintaining the building's clocks without anyone knowing. While trying to stay out of the way of the station's security inspector Gustav (Sasha Baron Cohen), Hugo attempts to fix an old automaton, or wind-up machine, that he used to work on with his father, a deceased clockmaker (Jude Law). This eventually gets him into trouble, but a chance encounter and budding friendship with the curious Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) helps him put together the final pieces of the puzzle and try to find his purpose in the world.

Yes, Ben Kingsley is in this film. No, that doesn't automatically mean it's bad
Because this film is based on a book that's not mainstream enough to be common knowledge, most viewers probably won't and can't automatically assume what is going to happen as the story is presented to them. Unlike the Twilight or Harry Potter set, Hugo won't be seen almost entirely by fans of the intellectual property, and that's good because Hugo is one of the more original titles to arrive in theaters in 2011. With an unusual setting (post-Great War Paris), interesting characters, and a multitude of plot twists, turning points, and unique messages, prediction of what comes next is an exercise in futility. You simply don't know what's happening until it passed, and the fact that you can't predict the future means that each moment is a treasure, unwrapped and beloved for every moment you remain in the theater.

Personally, I want to remain on THIS side of the clock, thank you
Another Scorcese strength is in the characters he brings to the screen, and on that front, he brings in some of the best cast members for any title this year. Staying away from his usual casts of De Niro's and DiCaprio's, he surrounds young Asa Butterfield with a shockingly deep core of actors that do everything asked of them and more. Butterfield, best known for his role in 2008's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,  is himself compelling and exceedingly talented, more than a match for the many paths the script takes young Hugo Cabret. Despite not having to carry the film on his shoulders, Butterfield carries what he can, and often his performance is the best on screen. Still, if he were all that the title offered, it wouldn't have been enough, and thankfully for that he's not alone. Ben Kingsley surprises in a comeback role of sorts, when you consider just how many horrid movies he's appeared in over the years. Playing a toy merchant at the train station, Kingsley doesn't disappoint and for the first time in years shows the versatility for which he was once cheered. Chloe Grace Moretz also impresses; the former Kick-Ass and Let Me In actress is even good in relatively "normal" roles, in this case as an adventure-craving, book-loving young woman. While Butterfield is good, Moretz makes a perfect pairing, as the two play well with their character's differences and make each other more interesting. Jude Law appears only briefly in flashbacks but actually comes off well in the only role in which I've really liked him that wasn't Sherlock Holmes. And Sasha Baron Cohen is humorous and impressive as the station's crippled Inspector, thankfully not as evil as we're at first led to believe. In fact, many of the film's supporting characters are made more interesting when we look over Hugo's shoulder in seeing their daily lives sort out, especially the budding romances in the most romantic city on Earth.

He's very... European...
The three-dimensional character development is somewhat better than the actual three-dimensional effects, of course. This doesn't really come as a surprise since Scorcese has no real experience in the medium. Of course, his first try is better than most people's, and if you can get past the visual distractions it really isn't much of a problem. There are some establishing shots that try to take advantage of the 3D early on, but to be frank they're impressive enough without the added technology brought to bear. Still, it is an impressive first take for Scorcese, who doesn't usually get kudos for his special effects use.

Yes, Jude Law is there too. No, I really DID love this movie!
Martin Scorcese has made a large number of treasured films. I don't think I've ever seen a release from him that I DIDN'T like, and Hugo is no different; at least not in that regard. While on the surface different from anything the director has achieved before, Hugo is always as good as his previous efforts, and at time even better. It's for that reason and more that it knocks just about everything else down a notch, coming in as the #4 film of 2011. You might have no idea what this film is about going in, but that's no reason not to go. If you haven't caught this unexpected gem, take a moment to check it out with your younger family members, as children and adults of all ages should get more than enough entertainment out of this strong presentation..

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