Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hugo: Scorsese's whimsical homage to cinema

Hugo (2011)
Adventure, Drama, Family, 126 minutes
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz and Ben Kingsley

I didn't rush out to see Hugo in the theater because of the 3D aspect, but I wanted to see it before the Oscars. So I eagerly sat down to watch the 2D Blu-ray version when my review copy arrived this week.

When you think of Martin Scorsese, what comes to mind? My favorite Scorsese films are The Departed, Taxi Driver, Shutter Island, Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, but it would be easy to make the argument for Casino or Raging Bull to be on that list. Many of his films have moments of intense violence, but all of them illustrate how good he is at character studies. Hugo is a family film with no violence, but its characters are strong and I came away feeling like I knew the people being portrayed.

The opening scene sweeps us through a train station in 1930s Paris. We learn that Hugo (Butterfield) hides away in a giant clock tower and winds the clock. In fact, he's a genius when it comes to repairing machinery of all types. We see his father die in a flashback sequence and understand why Hugo is striving to repair a rusty old automaton that he worked on with his father. He has to stay hidden or risk being sent to the orphanage, so finding food and drink means he has to steal in order to survive. But there's never a sense that he's a criminal.

Hugo gets caught trying to steal cogs from a local toymaker (Kingsley), but finds a friend when he meets Isabelle (Moretz); the toymaker's granddaughter. The two spend a lot of time together. Her grandfather forbids her from seeing films, but Hugo sneaks her in to see a Buster Keaton movie at the local cinema.

The images of Paris as seen from the high clock tower are breathtaking. The whole look of the film makes it feel like an alternate reality, even though its world is largely contained within the train station.

The toymaker has a secret and Hugo's automaton has a secret. I won't reveal them here or dig any deeper into the story except to say that the conclusion of the film shows how passionate Scorsese is about cinema. Hugo wasn't quite what I thought it would be, but it turned out to be even better. I would still recommend the film as suitable for the whole family, but very young children might not grasp the significance of the conclusion to the story.

The quality of the acting is good across the board. Butterfield and Moretz carry the movie, but Kingsley's smaller role is memorable. The supporting cast includes Sasha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths. The characters all felt real and seemed as though they belonged in Hugo's world.

Is Hugo worth 11 Oscar nominations? I won't argue with any of them, although I don't think it will win any of the major categories, with the possible exception of Best Director. I could see the Academy rewarding Scorsese for making such a departure from his normal genres. What Hugo does deserve is recognition in some of the technical categories. The whole look of the film is superb and the Blu-ray presentation is just about perfect.

I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of story present in Hugo and I'm looking forward to seeing Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin if the movie adaptation of Ender's Game is released next year.

Overall score 4.5/5 

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  1. I agree on some points and disagree in others. Here's my review:

  2. Hi Fernando,

    I can see why it wouldn't work for everyone. Good review. I left a comment with my thoughts.