5 December 2011

HUGO- Review

The thing about Hugo is that it's one of those films that pivots on a great twist, midway through the film, which makes it difficult to review without giving away spoilers. I shan't give it away myself, but if you haven't yet seen Martin Scorsese's first film for children, a heartfelt ode to silent cinema that also happens to have the best use of Real-D 3D ever... then I'd say give it a chance without reading the rest of this review first. Go see it, and then come back. I'll wait.

So, from the director of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed, comes this U-certificate family movie, based on a popular children's novel by Brian Selznick. Hugo Cabret is an intelligent and technically-minded boy, who is orphaned after his father dies in a tragic museum-related accident. His drunken uncle, Claude, decides to skive off his job, winding the clocks in a Paris railway station, and put Hugo to work in his place. Hugo moves into the station, living in a hidden apartment and scavenging parts to try and repair his father's legacy- an old-timey automaton that they were restoring together.

It doesn't happen often, but when a director, principally known for his crime epics, suddenly decides to make a children's film, titled for the first name of the young protagonist, I'm involuntarily reminded of Francis Ford Coppola's Jack. Yes, he really did direct that- look it up. Happily, Scorsese dispels any doubts about his passion project within the first five minutes, a joyful introduction to the status quo of the train station, as young Hugo eludes the buffoon-ish station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and leaves chaos in his wake. This might not be the Scorsese you know, but his skill as a filmmaker, built over decades of experience, is all up there on screen.

Scorsese's most recent film, Shutter Island, was one of my favourites of last year, and I think it was also something of an experiment. It was a B-movie at heart, albeit with the calibre of a Hitchcock melodrama, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. And now, his first foray into kids' movies, which takes the form of an accessible and diverting lecture on film preservation, and the early days of cinema. The director even employs an avatar, a film historian played by Michael Stuhlbarg, to ambitiously and effectively convey his passion to a new audience.

Speaking of avatars, if 3D is a bitter pill, it's not only that Scorsese uses it better than any other film to date, but also the potential of the then-new technology of cinema, within the story itself, that makes it easier to swallow. It feels like we've had hundreds of lazy, cash-grab post-conversions, but here's a film that really puts the medium through its paces. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson gleefully get right in the audience's faces with the technology. Although they never say it, the 3D goes hand in hand with the story of the audiences who first saw the Lumiere brothers' Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which is also directly referenced once the film delves into the beginning of cinema. It's like the train was really coming towards them...

The passion for cinema is effectively translated for a young audience, who are clearly being underestimated by those critics who say that this is merely a movie for adults and film fans. If kids have trouble with any of Hugo, I'd expect that it would be, contrary to the thrust of the advertising, the portions of the film that focus on Hugo and the automaton. Once it hits that twist I mentioned, the film becomes much more about early cinema than you had even realised from the silent passages and slapstick humour. And because that's the part about which the director is most passionate, all else seems less buoyant by comparison.

Still, it's never less than watchable, and there are a few constants keeping the film afloat on the way to the real meat of the plot. The carnivalesque cast of characters is led by Baron Cohen, in a terrifically physical run as the tragi-comic station inspector, but also includes Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in an oddball romantic subplot, and Christopher Lee as the kindly owner of a bookshop. The star is arguably Ben Kingsley, continuing from Shutter Island with another cracking performance, increasingly important to the film as it carries on. In the lead kid roles, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz are disappointingly average, but then their characters are more like ciphers than many of the others.

Hugo has rather cynically been marketed on the basis of the automaton, which is probably the least part of the actual plot. It's a shame that families would have to be hoodwinked into seeing this, especially as there's plenty to excite and enchant young and old audiences alike, once they give it a chance. And if the kids learn something about cinema history along the way, then all the better. With an unprecedented mastery of 3D, Martin Scorsese gives a dissertation on a subject close to his heart, by way of a Lemony Snicket adventure. While it's always gorgeous, it's not consistently exciting, but once it gets going, it's true cinematic magic.

Hugo is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Hugo, why not share your comments below? If you see it in 3D, tell me if you don't think it was worth it. Y'know, so I can tell you that you're wrong.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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