Friday, December 2, 2011

Hugo (2011) – Review

Review: Hugo is beautifully made from an aesthetics point of view, rich with passion (especially for cinema’s silent film era) but ultimately disappointing due to its slow pacing and meandering first act. The film is about Hugo, an orphaned boy who lives in a train station in Paris (it sort of looks like Gare de Lyon) fixing and maintaining the clocks, while trying to fix an automaton his father rescued from a museum shortly before his death. Hugo engages in an adventure to solve the mystery of the automaton as he believes there is a message from his father. At first, I wondered why director Martin Scorsese would make a family film in 3D (though, I saw it in 2D) – and then I saw it. The characters and story almost take a back seat to Scorsese’s passion for old movies (and really these sequences detailing the highlights of the silent film era are the best part of Hugo). I loved the references to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, The Lumiere BrothersArrival of a Train at La Ciotat, and George Melies’s A Trip to the Moon (who is also a character in the film), as well as many others. These sequences detailing the great films, filmmakers and stars of the era rejuvenated me as a cinema fan (and almost made me forget that the film did not work all that well up until that scene). Scorsese obviously loves that era (and he is known for his work to preserve old films) and it comes through in this film (and I think is probably the reason he made it). Back to the film itself – Scorsese opens it with a prologue that negatively impacts much of the rest of the film. He goes through the station and introduces the main players, and does so with many of the themes from the score. The issue is however that this scene is overly long, not very interesting and the score is so overblown that it, in a sense, ruins it for the rest of the film. From there, Scorsese ever so slowly develops the story and character of Hugo – when the mystery surrounding the automaton is much more interesting and needed to be addressed far quicker (at just over two hours, the film could have lost probably thirty minutes and played a lot tighter without losing any essential character development). Many of the ancillary characters, while important in the book, are essentially meaningless to the film’s narrative and yet time is still used to vaguely address them, again dragging things along. What works the best is Hugo’s friendship with Isabelle, and the mystery surrounding the automaton – everything else just bogs the film down. The first act is almost terrible, and it never really recovers even with a good third act – as the audience has already lost their connection to the characters. At best, Hugo is a beautiful tribute to silent film; at worst, a disappointing effort from a great director.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Martin Scorsese’s venture into kids’ movies is not totally fruitless, as there are many things to like, but it develops way too slowly to work. I do not expect to see another film like Hugo from Scorsese anytime soon (it felt like one of Robert Zemeckis’s recent Christmas films, but better and a lot more aesthetically interesting – but tonally similar). Howard Shore’s score is fitting to the material and tone of the film and yet for me its use in the prologue ruined it. The best moments musically come during the silent film expose with the use of Camille Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre and Erik Satrie’s Gnossienne No. 1. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is very good. I particularly liked how he shot the exteriors in snowy Paris. Dante Ferretti’s sets are good as well. My favorites are his book store set and the graveyard. The cast is good, but many are just sort of there to take up space. Christopher Lee and Helen McCrory do the best work among the smaller supporting roles, while Sacha Baron Cohen plays his Station Inspector very oddly. He is so awkward and strange in his manner that the viewer is not sure whether to laugh or feel uncomfortable (it is actually kind of brilliant in its own way). Ben Kingsley is very good playing Melies with such intensity and sadness, but also with a hidden joy. Chloe Grace Moretz brings so much needed life to the film, that it really does not start to work until she shows up and starts interacting with Hugo. She just has so much positive energy and charisma. Asa Butterfield is sort of an enigma. While he is good in the film, he does not carry it very well, needing Moretz to balance out the cloud of depression that follows him around, and his performance is not helped by the slow pacing in the beginning.

Summary & score: While Hugo is Scorsese’s love letter to cinema and its fans (particularly those with knowledge of the silent film era), it does not live up to the films it is paying tribute. 6/10

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