Sunday, December 18, 2011

Film's Future and Past Arrive - "Hugo" Review

Much has been made of the revolutionary 3-D work in James Cameron's Avatar, but despite all that excitement no film has stepped forward to utilize the effect in the same way.  Instead, theaters have been plagued with films that suffer horribly from a postproduction 3-D conversion, which typically looks absolutely horrendous (The Last Airbender, Clash of the Titans), or whose effects are so subtle that the 3-D is unnoticeable (Toy Story 3).

So it came as quite a surprise when director Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, The Departed) announced that he would be directing an adaptation of the popular children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret in no less than three dimensions.  With the release of Hugo there is one question that the film begs to answer:  Has Scorsese proven that 3-D, when used by a master artist, can be an effective storytelling tool that can take film to new heights?

From the first frame of Hugo to the last, the definitive answer is yes.  Martin Scorsese has created the definitive 3-D film that will likely never be topped.  His mastery of technique and storytelling allows the 3-D to not only operate in a psychological way but also in a more physical way than audiences have ever seen before.  Characters lean in and out of the screen, the city of Paris sprawls for miles, and every single speck of dust that floats in the air has weight thanks to the spectacular 3-D rendering.

Hugo is a bold representation of all of the modern advancements of film but its most surprising element is its ties to the history of all film.  Every meticulous moment demonstrates Scorsese's passions for filmmaking and film history.  It is a film about making films and the power that cinema has wielded since its inception.

More specifically, Hugo follows the story of a young, scruffy boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who has lived alone in a Parisian train station for several months, since the death of his father (Jude Law) and his drunken uncle's (Ray Winstone) mysterious disappearance.  In order to not be noticed by the semi-villainous Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), Hugo continues his uncle's job of keeping the station's clocks running and lives amongst the giant gears that pump out steam and spin endlessly.

Hugo's only continual friend is a broken mechanical man that he and his father were attempting to fix before his father's untimely death.  Hugo thinks that if he were to fix the automaton that it might reveal a secret message from his late father that would explain Hugo's very purpose for existing.

In order to fix his mechanical man, Hugo steals tools and clockwork pieces from the train station's toyshop and lands himself in a spot of trouble with the icy man who runs the booth, Georges (Robert Kinglsey).  Only with the help of Georges' goddaughter, the intellectual Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), can Hugo hope to fix the automaton, find his purpose in life, and reveal the secret that Georges is hiding.

Screenwriter John Logan has created a wonderful adaptation of Brain Selznick's award-winning book.  Every character in the film is well utilized and on their own compelling personal journey.  Even the villainous Station Inspector is shown to be multi-dimensional; his quest to romance the adorable flower girl is full of heartbreak and delicate eccentricity.

All of these characters are brought to life by an assortment of some of the most notable actors, young and old, that span all generations of film history.  From Ben Kingsley to Asa Butterfield, every cast member is superb; even Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings, Horror of Dracula) appears briefly.

Hugo's second half is where the film takes on a completely different trajectory and reveals why it is the perfect story for a filmmaker like Scorsese to tell.  Through various means, Hugo and Isabelle find themselves on an adventure through film history.  Scorsese doesn't hold back, the film becomes a true love letter to the beginning of film, even discussing the powerful effect of The Great Train Robbery and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.

However, it isn't enough for Scorsese to just comment on the history of film because before long Scorsese recreates these scenes in a modern context and in full 3-D.  It is a powerful effect and one that very clearly demonstrates just how much film has grown since its beginnings at the end of the 19th century.

While this exploration into film history is fantastical and one of the most celebratory moments of filmmaking this year, it takes Hugo away from its adventurous beginnings.  The story finds a way to link Hugo's own quest for self-identity to that of the history of film but it never really connects on an emotional level.  In this way, Hugo feels like two separate films that work well together but don't fully serve each other's goals and themes.

Either way, Hugo has to be seen to be believed.  Not only does it feature a wonderfully crafted world, revolutionary 3-D effects, and lovable fully-realized characters but it operates as an adventure into film history that any fan of the medium will quickly fall in love with.

3 / 4 Reels


1 comment:

  1. I can't tell you how much I loved those specks of dust. Great review.