Friday, February 10, 2012

49. HUGO (2011)

Martin Scorsese's latest feature -- made at his wife's request so that his daughter might understand what he did for a living -- is a glorious fluke in a career heretofore determined by holding to an altogether different direction, and sometimes unfortunately bereft of a direction worthy of his immense gifts. Despite his extensive work in documentaries on the subject, HUGO is also Scorsese's most impassioned love letter to cinema and plea for film restoration, and as such, quite possibly the most important film he will ever make. Unlike any other film he has made before, Scorsese seems to have found here his true wingspan as an artist. If he was defined by MEAN STREETS, a film that also defined the cinematic voice of his generation, HUGO is his redefining moment -- something few artists are conscious enough to pursue, and even fewer achieve.

It's a superbly imaginative valentine addressed to French film pioneer Georges Méliès, based on THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, a 533-page children's novel with illustrations, drawn and written by Brian Selznick, whose earlier novels for children include valentines addressed to Harry Houdini and Lon Chaney (THE BOY OF A THOUSAND FACES). HUGO expands upon a footnote in the history of French cinema -- that Méliès (the founder of trick photography, special effects, the docudrama, and even the adult film) was forgotten by the industry he founded within his lifetime and was reduced to selling toys at a humble railway kiosk -- into a fuller, panoramic story about craftsmanship, culture, war and escapism, orphans and veterans, and the invisible complex ties that exist between friends and strangers and indeed between the living and the dead. Mind you, it doesn't tell a true story -- Méliès' downfall had more to do with failure to protect his copyrights and ownership than with melting his prints down to make boot heels (a resonant truth, given the current news stories about Marvel's legal bullying of GHOST RIDER artist Gary Friedrich) -- but it encompasses the truth of Méliès' story and gives him the happy ending his life of service and entertainment deserved. As such, it's immensely satisfying, as is the fact that, for all the different microcosmic stories it addresses, all the referents within its reach (from the automoton to Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST), everything feels in balance and has a thematic value. I defy anyone who loves movies to keep a dry eye as Méliès' sets are brought to life in color and three dimensions.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are charming as the young leads, but for all the strength and vision the filmmakers bring to the task at hand, HUGO would not have worked so well for this viewer if not for the central performance of Ben Kingsley -- not merely reverent, not always likeable or easily understood, but believably formidable and complex. It's impossible to say how true he is to the personality of the real Méliès, but he is such an astonishing replica that there was no need for him to be digitally inserted into the original silent footage the film accomodates -- he becomes the real Méliès to such an extent that no dissolves or other digital trickery are needed to bridge past and present. (As wonderful as she is, this could not be done with Helen McCrory, whose Madame Méliès is far more svelte than the original, who was lovely in the full-figured style of her time.) It is also a particular pleasure to see the venerable Sir Christopher Lee in a long-awaited collaboration with Scorsese and adding one more classic to his remarkable filmography, as a grandfatherly bookstore owner.

HUGO is being shown at different theaters in standard and 3D prints, but this is a film that must be seen in 3D; not only because it is probably the most remarkable use of this technology to date, but because this is a film about parlor tricks and 3D is the parlor trick invention of our time. Only if seen this way can the film communicate its points whole-heartedly and show how closely we related we still are to Méliès and the audiences of his time.

Viewed in a theater!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great piece, Tim. HUGO was my favorite movie of the year (not that I see many new movies), and I've had such trouble convincing some people that it is actually worth seeing. I think the trailer turned a lot of people off. I will direct friends here in hopes that your review may change a few minds.

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