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Posts Tagged ‘Hugo’

Well, the Christmas blockbuster season is descending upon us as usual, and it’s interesting to consider how it compares to its larger summer cousin: fewer films, obviously, perhaps slightly more aimed at a younger audience (not that many summer movies aren’t utterly juvenile), sometimes more of an aura of quality (no doubt due to the overlap with the release of Oscar-bait movies). But apart from that the big Christmas releases aren’t that different from the summer ones – there’s the usual reliance on sequels, series, and big-name properties (skewed more towards the traditionally literary than comic books, though).

Which makes Hugo a bit of an anomaly, in some ways – while this is a big, lavish movie with virtually an all-star cast, it’s based on a novel that I’d never heard of (and I suspect most other people haven’t, either). So what are the makers relying on to draw in the crowds? Well, it seems to me they’re relying on something rather unusual – not just the use of 3D, which is not the novelty it was even last year, but 3D in the hands of a master director, an acclaimed film-maker not usually associated with what is – let’s face it – still a gimmick.

The man in question is Martin Scorsese, someone with a stellar reputation but not much associated with family entertainment. Parents need not fear: no-one’s head is put in a vice, no pimps are executed, and no-one gouges one of their own eyes out with a knife. What we get instead is the classically-told tale of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the main railway station of Paris in the late 1920s. Hugo is the last of a family of clockmakers – his mother died when he was very young (i.e., off-screen), and his father (Jude Law, briefly) in a museum fire. Now in the nominal care of his boozy uncle (Ray Winstone, even more briefly), he is maintaining all the clocks, while trying to avoid the station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and repair the automaton (a clockwork man who basically looks like Maria from Metropolis‘ grandad) he and his father were renovating when he died.

Hugo’s quest for parts for the automaton leads him to meet the proprietor of the station toy booth (Ben Kingsley) – well, basically he steals clockwork toys. The old man, when he learns of Hugo’s obsession, is inexplicably appalled, and confiscates Hugo’s notebooks about the mechanism. Hugo is forced to ask the old man’s god-daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) for help, and together they set out to discover the secret of the automaton and its connection to the toy store owner…

Well, as you possibly tell, there’s not a huge amount there that screams ‘big movie potential’ – but if Hugo proves anything, it’s that it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it. In almost every department this is a film made to the highest possible standards. Scorsese demonstrates his usual utter mastery of composition and camera movement, John Logan’s script is dense with imagery and detail, yet still always unfolds cleanly and clearly, and the production values are faultless.

The actors are all impeccable too, for all that there is something inescapably odd about a film set in Paris, featuring an almost exclusively British cast, who all speak in an American idiom (so ‘figure something out’ rather than ‘work something out’, ‘get mad’ rather than ‘get angry’, and so on), but this is only a minor distraction most of the time. Possibly more of an issue is Sacha Baron Cohen’s very broadly comedic performance – very much Basil Fawlty meets Inspector Clouseau – which seems to have wandered in from a rather less subtle movie.

There is real strength in depth amongst the supporting cast, too – popping up here are the likes of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Helen McCrory,¬†Emily Mortimer, and – a total surprise to me – Christopher Lee, as potent a screen presence as ever (and still obviously knowing his own mind: he’s the only person present who actually does a French accent).

And what about the 3D? Well, it’s an integral part of the conception of the movie, as far as I can see, but the strange thing is that after a while I barely noticed it was there. The even stranger thing is that, for me, if 3D has a future then Scorsese has shown us the way to it – not intrusive or gimmicky, but considered and understated. It’s a fundamental element of the movie – the opening sequence of this movie is a stunning piece of work, and nothing that follows quite matches it – but it is only an element, rather than the sine qua non of the film.

The 3D is also pertinent to one of the themes of the film, which is the story of the birth of cinema – Scorsese is using cutting-edge 21st century movie technology to illuminate the earliest history of 19th century films. A number of these very old films are referenced in the course of the narrative, which will doubtless please other movie geeks. Then again, already being aware of the massive achievements of the first great movie directors, I was perhaps more ready than most to indulge the film in what at times feels like a slightly didactic and digressive commentary on the subject. Certainly the second half of the film, though finishing strongly and satisfyingly, lacks the involving narrative drive of the first.

If I had to describe Hugo concisely, I would have to say that it rather reminded of a live-action Studio Ghibli movie. This may sound strange, but this movie has had the same meticulous attention to detail lavished upon it, it has the same eye for the baroque and mildly grotesque, and the same classic narrative virtues. It also has virtually no trace of an American sensibility beyond a few idiosyncrasies amongst the dialogue – not in and of itself a good thing, of course, but refreshingly different from most films of this size. But then this is a refreshingly different, very well-made, and consistently interesting and enjoyable film.

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