Thursday, December 01, 2011

hugo is movie magic

The 3D version of Martin Scorsese's Hugo, his adaptation of Brian Selznick's wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was probably better than most of the 3D movies out there, but once and for all it convinced me that 3D is just not a necessary moviegoing experience. The fabulous look of Hugo is as much in honor of Selznick's visual tone-poem as it is Scorsese's moving homage to cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès. Méliès was a magician, both off and on screen, and would have fiddled with 3D technology in his time, if he could. But his films were full of imaginative special effects without it. I'm looking forward to going back and seeing Hugo again, but in 2D, so I can concentrate more on the compositions of the scenes than the realistic placement of objects in space. Hugo is the best-looking film Scorsese has created. Never known for his visuals, Scorsese's always been more of a storyteller, but for Hugo he and his production team (cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti) pulled out all the stops.

My 3D rant aside, Scorsese manages to take what is already a great work of art, and improve it in its translation to film. He builds up the character of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a humorous and surprisingly subtle and touching performance) and adds human dimension to all of the characters, which were a bit thin on the page. He also makes the Gare Montparnasse itself come alive as a character. Hugo the film is related to its original source, but transcends it, much like The Wizard of Oz.

The mostly British cast features young actors Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle. They are real kids, full of fun and adventure as they try to puzzle out why Isabelle's guardian, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), seems so disturbed by Hugo's notebook, which once belonged to his deceased father (Jude Law). The notebook contains a drawing of an automaton that should suggest the film Metropolis to many in the audience. Almost all of the secrets and discoveries in Hugo lead back to the magic of filmmaking. Hugo shares his love of movies with Isabelle, introducing her to the films of Harold Lloyd (especially Safety Last! ), Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. Scorsese and his make-up artists also pull some movie magic, depicting Kingsley and wife Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) in the past and present, effortlessly going from youthful to aged and back again. Other residents of the train station in small but important parts are played by Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, and Ray Winstone.

Scorcese has taken his natural exuberance for movies and brought it both emotionally and visually to Hugo. He allows himself a small cameo appearance, a la Alfred Hitchcock, but his real stand-in is played by Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), as Rene Tabard, Méliès biographer, fan boy and film enthusiast.

Not only will a whole new generation discover the work of Méliès — the creation of some of his most classic films are reproduced here, in a direct translation of wonder — but they may discover Scorsese as well. Scorsese understands that movie magic doesn't come from just the viewing of a single film, but the history of it, the catalogue of the auteur, the sheer enthusiasm for the medium. Hugo is pure magic.
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