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Hugo (2011)

December 2, 2011

8/10 Steampunk Fairy Tales

Not too shabby for Marty’s first stab at PG.

Hugo is about the orphaned son of a clockmaker in 1930s Paris who lives inside the walls of a train station. When he’s not winding the clocks and dodging the evil station inspector, the boys spends his days stealing mechanical parts from a local toymaker in order to repair a broken automaton – the one possession his late father left behind. Eventually the toymaker catches him red-handed and takes the boy on as his apprentice in exchange for the automaton’s blueprints. The more time the boy spends with the toymaker and his goddaughter, the closer he gets to unlocking the mystery of his father’s machine that leads him on an adventure of a lifetime.

Man, it’s been a really long time since I saw a Martin Scorsese movie that I liked. Still think the last half-hour of The Departed is bullshit, still think the last half-hour of Gangs of New York is bullshit, still not nuts about Shutter Island, and I still haven’t seen The Aviator since all I ever hear about is how many jars Leo gets to pee into. Not counting his documentaries, I think the last Scorsese movie I really dug was Bringing out the Dead. It’s not like the other movies were garbage, but that’s not much of a track record. So my first reaction to Marty taking on family fun in the third dimension was that the man had nuked the fridge. For a guy who’s best known for how many people he’s had whacked on camera, this didn’t seem like the most natural transition. But by the time it was all over, it seemed like a movie he’d been wanting to make for ever.

Not to give anything away, but what this movie starts out as is a far stretch from what it ends up being. When it begins, there are a number of things you’ll pick up on. You’ll realize that no one really talks for the first ten minutes of the movie and that everything you need to know is shown to you from a quiet distance. You’ll realize that there’s a lot to look at and all of it is pretty darn gorgeous. And you might just realize that this kind of movie with this kind of scale hasn’t been made in a long, long time. These things might fall to the wayside as you focus on what this movie’s about, but in time, you’ll come to realize that they’re exactly what this movie’s about.

What makes Hugo special and makes it more than just a fun adventure with eyegasms to spare is that, at its core, it’s a love letter from Martin Scorsese to the movies he grew up with. The difference between Marty and I (and I’m pretty sure this is the only difference) is that people still remember the movies I grew up with whereas people have forgotten his. Without jumping too far into an entirely separate review, I can’t help but be surprised at the way The Artist has been gaining so much attention as of late in a world where silent films are generally regarded as box office poison. That’s in no way a reflection on The Artist as it is on the moviegoing world we live in, a world where the next best thing is always bigger, louder, and dropkicking the “MUTE” button. For chrissakes, over the course of nearly 600 reviews, I still haven’t covered a silent film, and what’s worse, the only one I’ve ever seen is City Lights. Unfortunately, I’m part of the majority that has forgotten, and that’s a big reason why this movie resonates.

The whole thing is just magical, much in the way that A Trip to the Moon must have been for Marty the first time he saw it. Hugo’s world is one of living parts, one that lets out so much steam from every orifice you’d think the sewers of Paris were a lake of fire, one that would fall to pieces if just one of its countless cogs stopped turning. From one scene to the next, the set pieces are truly something to behold and are as integral to film as any of its characters. A lot of effort and creativity went into this movie, and there’s not a moment where it looks like Marty was cutting corners. I happened to see it in 3D, and while I don’t think it’s a requirement by any means to follow suit, it was a brilliant way to connect today’s technological advancements in film with the way people once reacted to the dawn of the medium.

So it’s pretty as sin, but then there’s the script. Now, as a writer’s rule of thumb, people tell you to “write what you know.” Writer John Logan could have very easily made this story about a boy who loves movies and use that as a way to remind audiences of these films that time forgot, but the fact that he doesn’t is something that really paid off for him. I really liked the way it kicks off as this Dickensian throwback about a boy just hanging onto the memory of his father and gradually evolves into this multi-layered puzzle that only gets more engaging with each new piece that falls into place. It’s as though Logan and Marty inserted themselves into the character of Hugo and took him on all of their favorite movie moments from when they were his age, and it’s as unexpected as it is fun. It’s not a flawless approach by any means and they could have afforded to trim the fat in some areas (am I the only one who hates dream-within-a-dream sequences?), but there’s something very inspired about honoring the movies you love by turning your movie into one.

And as a movie nerd who’s always wanted an excuse to get into the silent era, I owe Hugo one. From the automaton’s striking resemblance to Fritz Lang’s Maria, to the scene on the poster that screams of Harold Lloyd, there’s something awesome about movies that make you want to watch more movies. But that’s me, a twenty-something guy with a movie blog and an endless Netflix queue that’ll take two lifetimes to get through. If I were a kid seeing this or even a casual moviegoer at best, I don’t think I’d come away with the same impression and want to start YouTubing Buster Keaton’s greatest hits, but I’m sure most anyone would have a time just soaking in the adventure. Think I’m more intrigued than anything else as to what this is like for someone who’s not already ass over elbows for movies.

And the cast is also fantastic. Never seen Asa Butterfield before, but he’s really solid as Hugo; Chloe Moretz can do no wrong and she continues her amazing streak as the toymaker’s goddaughter, Chloe; it’s always great to see the untouchable Sir Ben Kingsley take roles that live up to his knighthood as the toymaker; and Sacha Baron Cohen is fine as the train station inspector, even though he never had a chance with the gags he was given. Nonetheless, a wonderful job done by all.

When I first saw the reviews, I was surprised by how much everyone else liked this, and even though I was skeptical from the get-go, I’m twice as surprised at how much I ended up liking it. There were a number of times where I considered dropping this down to a 7, but aside from the humor that falls flat, the occasional side plot that doesn’t add much of anything to the story, and the nagging feeling that I should have had a more emotional connection to what I was watching, Hugo really is one wonderful time capsule of a movie. At the very least, it’s just a warm, whimsical, kind-hearted story about helping oneself through helping others, and that’s alright by me. Way go to, Marty.

Been one hell of a big week for the world of PG movies.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011 1:33 am

    Glad to see another great review for this film! I saw it last week and fell in love– I really like your review– totally spot-on.

    (Right after the dream-within-dream sequence, though, in the theater I yelled “inception!!!” smack in the middle of the movie. I made people laugh.)

    • December 2, 2011 11:53 am

      Thanks! And that’s hilarious! That was the first thing that came to mind, pretty sure it was one everyone else’s too. What an out-of-place scene.

      Thanks for stopping by and don’t be a stranger!

  2. December 2, 2011 5:22 pm

    Didn’t think Scorsese would pull this off but he did! Though I got a weird look from the ticket guy at the theatre when I said I wanted to see Hugo.

    • December 6, 2011 9:28 am

      Hahaha. That’s why I went for the kiosk. Then again, I don’t think there was a single kid in the showing I went to. Weird.

  3. bob permalink
    December 2, 2011 8:26 pm

    You guys are absolutely nuts. This movie was crap!!!!!!!! Can you say SLOOOOOOOOW.

    • December 6, 2011 9:28 am

      Oh boy…

    • Frances J permalink
      December 10, 2011 4:39 am

      THANK YOU! I was looking forward to seeing a nice ‘warm up to xmas’ film and was so disappointed! It was slow, didn’t really go anywhere and I feel like I paid £7+ to go sit in an uncomfurtable chair, listening to 2 kids talking about something I (a) Didnt care about and (b) Didnt understand. The only thing that made me not storm out was that the 3d was pretty good and…. OH YEAH THATS IT! I would or rather watched the new Chimpmunk movie.

      • December 12, 2011 10:44 am

        Oh, man. That is some hate! Sorry to hear it was such a disappointment, but hey, can’t win ’em all, right?

  4. December 3, 2011 1:18 pm

    This was a film that I did not want to go and see considering the trailer had that crappy 30 Seconds to Mars song but I have to say that the film was beautiful and it really is Marty expressing his love for films and the art that lies within all of them. Great review Aiden. Glad you liked this as much as I did dude.

    • December 6, 2011 9:33 am

      Thanks, man! And first off, fuck 30 Seconds to Mars. Second, totally agree. Had no desire to see this until I saw the outrageous amount of praise it was getting. Wasn’t at all what I expected it to be, but that’s a big reason why it made such an impression.

  5. Sheila Leavitt permalink
    December 9, 2011 10:18 am

    Hi. Do you remember sacha b c’s line about poetry and train stations? Like “I like poetry but not in train stations. Train stations are for getting on and off trains.” Or something.

    Nice review. I liked how sorcese set us up for a typical Hollywood back-story of tragedy/loss/estrangement/reunion and then the great tragedy was only the loss of the man’s life’s work, or really, only the loss of appreciation by a public out of whom reality had crushed the love of fantasy — but wait! Did we say (to ourselves) that this is not really such a great tragedy, and gedoverit mister? What were we thinking? And so on. So gorgeous. I wish I was film-savvy enough to catch more than a few of the references. Thanks again.

    • December 12, 2011 10:35 am

      Don’t remember the line verbatim, but it does ring a bell.

      And thanks! I loved the way this transformed into something else entirely from what it starts out as. Wish I could have caught more references as well, but I’ll start doing my homework on the silent era come January – the worst moviegoing month of the year.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. December 13, 2011 1:44 pm

    I think this is all about the way Scorsese enraptures his audience in the first half– which is where all of the film’s narrative issues lie– before springing the second upon them. Witness a master filmmaker at work. There are problems with the way that the first half approaches the central mystery, and yet they never once matter because Scorsese so adeptly transports us into his world and dazzles us with his storytelling proclivities and an abundance of style and technical flair.

    One could call this his love note to Melies and early cinema, but it’s really just an exultation of the medium as a whole meant to remind us why we love the movies and why the movies are so utterly essential. And it’s also about people discovering the movies for themselves, and coming together to heal their emotional wounds through the power of film.

    I think you’ve got it nailed here, Aiden. Wonderful movie all over and easily one of the best of 2011.

    • December 21, 2011 10:52 am

      Well said, man. Really is one of the more personal movies Marty’s made in a while, and a lot of why it worked is due to the way it changes from the first half to the second. Hope this is one of those movies that’ll get people interested in movies they never would have seen of their own volition, at the very least, it worked wonders on me in that regard.


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