Friday, November 25, 2011

Hugo: A true sense of wonder

Hugo (2011) • View trailer for Hugo
4.5 stars. Rating: PG, and too harshly, for mild peril and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.25.11

This Thanksgiving weekend is impressively stuffed with family films, and the best is the one you’ve heard the least about.

Hugo isn’t merely a great film; it’s a spellbinding experience: one of the most loving, heartfelt valentines to the art of movie-making since 1988’s Cinema Paradiso.
After Hugo (Asa Butterfield, left) finally wins the grudging tolerance of the train
station toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), the older man delights the boy with
sleight-of-hand card tricks. As Hugo soon is to discover, this gruff gentleman
possesses a wealth of hidden talent.

It’s also stunningly gorgeous, from cinematographer Robert Richardson’s first sweeping pan of France’s Gare Montparnasse train station — the story’s primary setting — to the luxurious vistas of a postcard-perfect Paris. It’s the sort of heightened-reality Paris that never really existed, except in the minds of those who adore the city ... and in on-screen fantasies such as An American in Paris, Amélie and this year’s Midnight in Paris.

Indeed, director Martin Scorsese’s sparkling approach here strongly evokes the playful, exquisite oeuvre of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has granted us access to his creatively whimsical dreams in films such as Amélie, City of Lost Children and Micmacs.

I hesitate to explain too much about Hugo, because much of its charm derives from not knowing where John Logan’s captivating screenplay will go next. Those familiar with Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret — on which Logan based his script — will know, but everybody else deserves an opportunity to be swept along for a truly enthralling ride.

Hugo is one of those rare films that truly exploits the medium. This isn’t merely radio with pictures; you’ll want to savor every frame, every inch of production designer Dante Ferretti’s opulent sets. Too few movies deliver a true sense of wonder; this one does.

The year is 1931: a time of euphoria for those who believed that “the Great War” had put an end to conflict between nations. The year also is significant as the last gasp of silent filmmaking, before talkies would take over: a fact central to this story.

The Gare Montparnasse hustles and bustles with arrivals and departures, the waves of humanity tempted to linger at the little shops, stalls and cafés deposited, almost capriciously, within the cavernous building’s maze-like corners and hallways.

High overhead, unobserved by all those below, young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) tends the station’s many clocks, making his way along a concealed rabbit warren of tiny corridors, narrow stairways and dangerous ladders in order to oil, wind and repair — as necessary — all the magnificently detailed clockwork mechanisms that help travelers reach their destinations on time.

Hugo has the scruffy, ill-kempt appearance of a boy on his own: a life to which he has become accustomed, for reasons we’ll eventually learn. He has the station’s rhythm down to a science, and has become proficient at the art of snatching warm croissants and the occasional bottle of milk.

But he’s careful to avoid the stern, malevolent Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a vision of menace in his bright blue uniform and injured left leg, which he’s able to use only with the aid of a grim, clanking metal brace that has a tendency to lock at the worst moments. This visible handicap is profoundly embarrassing to the Station Inspector, who takes out his frustration by collaring any parentless children foolish enough to venture into the station, and sending them off to the local orphanage.

The Station Inspector is chillingly efficient at this task, thanks also to his equally scary companion: a towering Doberman named Maximillian.

Unexpectedly, though, when Hugo finally does get caught, it’s by somebody else: the owner of the toy stall (Ben Kingsley), who grabs the boy’s hand when he attempts to steal a tiny mechanical mouse. The furious shop owner demands that the boy empty his pockets; the older man is surprised by the assemblage of gears and mechanical bits that Hugo reluctantly dumps onto the counter.

The final item, a notebook, catches the aging gentleman’s eye for a different reason. He keeps the notebook, despite Hugo’s desperate wails of protest. The boy follows the stall owner home, then meets the young ward (Chloë Grace Moretz, as Isabelle) who lives with this man and his companion (Helen McCrory, as Mama Jeanne).

Isabelle, surprised but soon intrigued by this stranger, promises to prevent “Papa Georges” — as she knows the old man — from burning the notebook, as he has threatened.

The dynamic shifts, over the next few days; Hugo and Isabelle become friends. The girl has a fondness for dropping big words into her conversation — an affectation that Moretz delivers with considerable panache — and she takes Hugo to her favorite place: a bookstore run by the ancient Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee, still vibrant at age 89).

Labisse’s shop is another gape-jawed delight of stacked books and laden shelves, thanks to Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo; they even include a regal cat, forever perched atop one of the piles of dusty old tomes.

Hugo, surprised to learn that Isabelle never has seen a movie — it’s the one thing the otherwise doting Papa Georges seems to have denied the girl — sneaks them into a local cinema, where she marvels at the acrobatic antics of Harold Lloyd, in Safety Last.

This is only one hint of cinema’s significance to this story; Hugo also speaks reverently of an astonishing movie he remembers seeing with his father (Jude Law): a fantasy in which people boarded a sort of spaceship that was fired from a huge cannon, ultimately landing smack in one eye of the “man in the moon.”

And that, gentle reader, is all you’ll get from me, regarding the core plot.

The developing relationship between Hugo and Isabelle — and the unlikely dynamic that soon evolves between Hugo and Papa Georges — unfolds against a backdrop of equally enchanting side-stories. One involves Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths), who runs the station newsstand, and Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), who manages the café. He’s sweet on her, but rebuffed at every turn by her teeth-baring, long-haired dachshund.

The Station Inspector, in turn, is smitten by the flower seller, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), who perceives this attention but waits for him to make the first move ... which, mortified by his handicap, he simply cannot do. One sequence, as the Inspector attempts to approach Lisette, then is betrayed by a piercing mechanical squeak from his leg — which, her back to him, she nonetheless hears and recognizes — achieves the impossible: It makes us feel sorry for the man who, up to this point, has behaved like a monster.

These ancillary vignettes unfold quietly, mostly wordlessly, the characters moving in and out of frame much as they would in a silent film. Indeed, this film’s lengthy prologue unfolds without dialogue, as we first meet Hugo and get to know his “responsibilities” at the station.

Such side characters, by the way, are another nod to the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s style; his films always are populated by engaging eccentrics whose separate sagas amplify the opulent richness of the story’s overall tapestry.

Although it’s difficult to tear our eyes away from all the marvelous mechanisms in this story — the many elaborate clocks are constructed by Joss Williams, of the film’s special effects team — we’re nonetheless transfixed by the central characters. First and foremost is Hugo, played with touching pathos by Butterfield, well remembered as the inquisitive commandant’s son in 2008’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Butterfield makes Hugo both resourceful and painfully vulnerable: a boy who has learned to make do, but nonetheless pines for the beloved father no longer at his side.

Moretz, as always, positively sparkles. Isabelle’s radiant smile can’t help easing Hugo’s inner misery; the developing bond between these two children is both touching and persuasive.

Kingsley, however, is this story’s secret weapon. At first blush a bitter, angry old man — potentially just as much a “villain” as the Station Inspector — Papa Georges eventually reveals his own vulnerabilities and hidden depths. His secrets prove key to a parallel mystery Hugo is trying to solve; the outcome to both leads to this saga’s fascinating third act, which blends just a touch of fantasy with an actual, little-known chapter in the history of early cinema.

As Kingsley himself observes, in the film’s press notes, “The nudge of history is delicate and charming.” True words, indeed.

The biggest surprise, of course, is that this magical, lovingly delicate movie comes from Scorsese, a filmmaker generally known for much grimmer, often more violent fare. But I guess we shouldn’t be astonished; true artistic talent is not impeded by genre, time, place or expectation: a lesson delivered gently by this sumptuous fantasy.

My one complaint — although it sounds churlish — is that, at 127 minutes, Scorsese’s approach is just a trifle too slow and self-indulgent. I imagine some folks, particularly children, may get restless. But that’s a minor issue.

Although begging to be seen on the big screen — where the 3D cinematography is employed to magnificent effect — I’ve no doubt that Hugo also will wind up in many, many home libraries, once the opportunity becomes available.

This is one for the ages.

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