Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Flick of The Day: Hugo

Hollywood's current obsession with 3D is yet another gimmick to extract more funds from the wallet of the average movie-goer. Once can only hope that this trend will run its course.  Very often it is used as a substitute for good storytelling and it is a pleasure then to report that Martin Scorsese's smart use of the medium in his recent Oscar nominee, Hugo, never detracts from the story and doesn't feel shoehorned in as it has on so many recent pictures. One could be forgiven for thinking that the director of Goodfellas and Casino would not be an obvious choice to direct a children's tale set in a Paris train station in the 1920's, however the fact that the film is a triumph on all fronts highlights once again that Scorsese is a master filmmaker regardless of genre.
The precocious Asa Butterfield plays Paris orphan Hugo Cabret, who after the tragic death of his father (A surprisingly non-irritating Jude Law)  is sent to live with his drunken Uncle Claude played by Ray Winstone who looks after the winding of the clocks in the mammoth Montparnasse station. After his Uncle's disappearance, Hugo maintains the clocks and roams the station while avoiding the watchful eye of the station's police officer played by Sacha Baron Cohen and also attempting to steal clockwork parts from the toy store of Georges Melies, played by a brilliantly cranky Ben Kingsley. Hugo needs the spare parts to fix a clockwork automaton which his father had been attempting to fix at the time of his death. Unfortunately Georges catches Hugo in the act and threatens to turn him over the police however Georges run in with Hugo leads the latter to form a friendship with Georges granddaughter Isabelle played by Chloe Grace Moretz and together they try and fix the automaton while also discovering the mysteries of Georges past.
This is a film with a big heart and a grand sweeping tale of the birth of cinema. Scorsese has always had a fine eye for detail and in his reconstruction of 1920's Paris, he is meticulous. It is a feast for the visual senses as much as anything else. The intricate clock work that hides behind the grand fa├žade of the station is stunningly rendered while the imagery of the early pioneers of cinema is a reminder that this can be a whimsical and colourful art, something which can be forgotten in the race for the next big blockbuster franchise.

"Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do... Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose... it's like you're broken. "

The real emotional heart of the film is the tale of loss which binds the characters together. Hugo has lost his father and any hope of a normal childhood, Georges has lost his purpose in life and his achievements as a director have been forgotten while Isabelle has also lost her parents and even the police officer pines for the leg he lost in the war. It is this loss which drives them and the plot forward to its conclusion and along the way allows Scorsese to indulge in recreating some of the most well known imagery of the early days of cinema. In a sense, he tries to capture the magic that makes cinema that most accessible of art forms.
He is aided in this effort by a really stellar cast. When an actor of the calibre of Christopher Lee appears in a tiny role as book seller and is joined along the way by the immortal Richard Griffiths then you know you are in for a fine film. It is these small ancillary tales of life in the station that keep things moving along: Griffiths attempts to woo a fellow Parisian despite the murderous intent of her little dog and the budding romance between Baron-Cohen's policeman and Emily Mortimer's flower seller are highlights.

This praise is without even getting to the main characters of which Ben Kingsley gives a typically measured performance as Georges, a man deeply embittered by his personal failures much to the dismay of his wife. The child actors Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz manage that almost impossible task of giving both a fine performance and also not treading too far into the land of saccharine.
All in all, this is a really lovely film and manages to hold its own amongst some of Scorsese's best work in terms of its visual sweep and the warmth of its storytelling. It makes uses of 3D without using it as a crutch and saints be praised relies on actors acting and speaking dialogue and other unfashionable things to tell its tale. A triumph.

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