The opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s latest film tracks across Golden Age Paris; swooping and snooping around with a childlike sense of wonder and speed. It tracks through the sky, admiring the various landmarks, and then speeds through the train station, narrowly avoiding people and then closing in on the eyes of a young boy. This boy is Hugo. This movie is “Hugo”. They are both very special.
Hugo is someone without a home — parents killed, orphanages too cruel to care for, no apparent friends. He lives behind the walls of the aforementioned train station, using his father’s expertise with clockwork to help keep the station’s mechanics working. To get by he often lifts food from the various vendors — making him a top enemy for the station’s bumbling inspector, played by Sacha Baren Cohen (or, as you may know him, “Bruno” and “Borat”).
All that seems to keep him going is a mechanical man his father left behind, or, “automaton”. It carries a secret message, one that’s only unlocked by a heart-shaped key he can’t seem to find. But when Hugo is caught stealing from an elusive toy vendor (played by Ben Kingsley, in top, grizzled form) and befriends his quirky granddaughter, Isabelle, Hugo begins a path to realizing what the machine means, what his father wanted him to know, and ultimately, if he can find a family or not.
The promotional materials for “Hugo” have done it no justice, nor, admittedly, has my plot summary. I concede some of my experience with “Hugo” was tainted, given that walking in the theater, some vital plot-points had been ruined. I advise you do the opposite and keep as much of this film as fresh as you can make it.
A tremendous cast has been gathered here. Scorsese wisely chooses his supporting actors — Jude Law, Michael Stuhlberg and Sacha Baron Cohen first come to mind. I even think I spotted Johnny Depp briefly, as a French guitarist. Ben Kingsley’s role is one that’s given much more attention than one would expect, and I firmly believe he deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work. The work of the young actors is something to be marveled as well. Chloe Moretz, fresh off excellent work in “Kick-Ass” and “Let Me In”, plays a Hermione-type with grace and excitement. But Asa Butterfield, a youth totally off my radar, makes Hugo a sympathetic character with depth, wisdom, and more than a bit of mischief. There is no frame of this film where his presence isn’t felt, where his energy isn’t conveyed.
This film’s tremendous sense of scope and depth, only heightened by the 3D camerawork, totally envelops you in a world faithful to reality, yet whimsical in appearance. I’ve said this a time or two while reviewing films — but “Hugo” is easily the best use of 3D that I’ve ever seen. So often, filmmakers use 3-D to make the obvious even moreso — a prime example is this summer’s “Transformers 3”, in which director Michael Bay took it upon himself to literally demolish Chicago and throw it all in your face. Scorsese uses it to let little nuances pop out, things one wouldn’t notice — snow falling on a winter night, dust floating in a run-down apartment, burnt remains of paper flying through the air.
But the visual attention to minute detail doesn’t mean “Hugo” doesn’t have spectacle — au contraire, actually. This film has train crashes, foot chases, and explosions to spare, and they all look spectacular. It makes the mundane magical and the large-scale out-of-this world. A great shot where a threatening character’s face slowly comes towards the audience proves too, that 3-D can enhance character-driven interactions.
Scorsese uses the frame-work of a “children’s fantasy” (his first outing in both genres) to craft a film that looks to the past while using the technology of the future. It’s a balance that could have veered too much into kitsch or sentimentality, which are funny concerns given that this film’s director has delivered us such disturbed fare as “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “Cape Fear”. But if there’s one thing I can take away from “Hugo”, it’s that one of the greatest filmmakers to walk the planet still has new things to explore, new tricks to show us. How exciting is that? A