Sunday, December 11, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: Hugo

When the trailer hit for Hugo, I think a lot of folks were bemused or confused. Scorsese made his bones with some tough subject material, is closely associated with his gangster work like Casino and Goodfellas, and still turns out good stuff, the most recent that pops to mind for me is The Departed and the doc Public Speaking.

Of his contemporaries, Scorsese never went off the rails as much as Coppola and Lucas seemed to after their initial decade or two of success. He's been consistent, usually sticking to fairly mature material even when handling a costume drama like The Age of Innocence.  Thus it may have been, I raised an eyebrow when I saw he was doing a family movie for release at Christmas with 3D, storybook sets, a bright-eyed little boy a lead and dogs.  I still wanted to see what he'd cooked up, but more or less planned to write it off as Scorsese's holiday-film lark.

Firstly, Hugo is not at all the movie I believed it would be from the trailer. Nor the poster. And, I'd argue, its barely a kids' movie. Or, if it is for kids, its not going to slow down for your dopey kids as it goes about telling very exactly the story it has in mind.

From the trailer, I assumed we were getting a whimsical fantasy movie with bits of high-flying, but not-too-scary adventure. That's not really accurate. There's certainly a certain story-book element to the movie, but this isn't a movie of magic realism.

spoilers to follow

The movie is, at its heart, a love-letter to the earliest and most inspired filmmakers, whose work mostly survives in film school screenings, film academic libraries and as copyright-free footage you might find baffling cut into a Mountain Dew commercial or something. Its about a little orphaned boy who, unlike most kids in these situations, is actually devastated by the fate that's befallen him and while plenty bright and resourceful, is having a very hard time getting by (well, maybe Batman can be included in this camp).

Like most Scorsese movies, the plot winds and weaves, ducking away from the plot I had assumed from watching the preview we'd all be enjoying sometimes about the end of the first act, veering off into tougher, perhaps more mature themes than I'd expected.  The childish "let's have an adventure" tone of the first act is replaced with the fact that uncovering mysteries is usually also part and parcel of uncovering old wounds and unhappiness that someone tried to bury for a reason.

The treasure of the movie is not a horde of gold or some amazing macguffin.  Its the fairly concrete history of a man's personal failure and how history and the tides of real-life in Europe of the first half of the 20th Century has seemingly swept away a man's dream, leaving him a shell of his former self.

very serious spoilers below

Tucked into the folds of a compelling story of a child seeking what he believes are his father's message to him from beyond the grave via a beautifully crafted robot-like device, is a terrific history lesson and story from the pages of film history.  For anyone whose not seen the movie, its about early film artist Georges Méliès, who is most famous these days for his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.  None of this is obvious in the trailer, of course, which focuses far more on the secret of the automaton, a robot-like wind-up device, which were in very real practice as entertainment devices all over Europe during the late 19th Century.

For those of us in Austin, anyone who regularly attends the Alamo Drafthouse on Anderson is likely to have seen more of Méliès than the average bear as its frequently slated as part of the pre-show.  In fact, I didn't think anything of the very Méliès-heavy pre-show just because I thought they'd just put that bit together to have something to run.


To be truthful, there were moments watching this movie I kind of freaked out just because I felt like I was watching some of the best filmmaking I'd seen in a long time unspool in front of me.  That may have just been me.

Its not saccharine sweet, its not a laugh-a-minute romp, nor does it revel in anachronistic pop culture references.  There are no wise-cracking sidekicks, but plenty of humor and even great silliness.  And, of course, the movie is tanking at the box office because where is the talking animal voiced by well-known-adult-friendly-celebrity?

It works to do what better kids' books do, and teach kids something about the adult world they're moving into in a way that makes sense to the kids involved in the story.  Novelistic and still the fulfillment of wishes, the movie stays true in the most meta of ways to the material its exploring, using all the tools at its disposal quite beautifully.  But it also takes those elements seriously.  Hugo's loss actually hurts rather than causes him inconvenience, and he's not actually doing very well during the course of the film.

From a technical perspective, clearly Scorsese got some damned fine talented folks in set-design, cinematography, 3D design, and costuming.  I felt like I saw the fourth movie* where the 3D was actually worth the cost of admission. Scorsese seems to have done what few others have and actually figured out why one would bother with the effort, and uses the effect to give depth to the surroundings and world of Hugo's train station and Paris. Its the sort of thing Pixar has worked out but live movies just sort of seemed to add it in because someone in an expensive suit thought it'd be "neat" (see Thor).

The various roles are all well acted, whether its Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen (and his doberman), the not-too-shocking-she's-this-good Chloe Moretz and the kid who plays Hugo, Asa Butterfield (who would make a dynamite young Clark Kent), and the rest of the cast, who all seem to very much understand their supporting roles.

I saw none of this coming, and went to see the movie based upon the word of a few trusted pals, especially JAL, who had already seen the movie twice when we spoke about it last night.  So, thanks to those who recommended it.

That said:  its a long movie.  The kids near me were all actually really pretty good and didn't talk or get restless.  There's little to scare them, but its also possible a lot of this is going to just fly right over their heads.  Its not a cartoon of a movie, and so if you're looking for 2 hours out of the house, just know that its likely you who will like this movie before your younger children care too much about it.

* the other three films were (a) Avatar, where the 3D and Sigourney Weaver getting to do sci-fi were the only draws, (b) Toy Story 3, (c) Piranha 3D, which just really embraced the possibilities of 3D mayhem from killer fish


Steven said...

I think you're spot on with the: "A Love Letter to Film Making and Films" angle. From the intermixed "Celluloid is decaying and we must preserve it!" message (that he has spent some serious coin to advance!) to the Méliès as patron / mentor angle it was a complete honoring of the medium and its pioneers. I loved Marty's cameo as the photographer as well as Jude Law's all-too-brief screen time.

There were some other delightful sight-gag references such as Dalí and Joyce dining at the Madame's café in the opening chase scene and, if I'm not mistaken, a poster for the "VICHY" party in the station (ominous overtones).

I can't say enough about how wonderfully warm the lighting was. Whenever I think back on Paris it always seems black as pitch outside, but golden and coppery and brass inside. I think that film's palette totally got that right (with all his multiple years at Cannes, Scorsese is probably pretty familiar with French decor ideal ;) )

A true surprise!

The League said...

See, I was in sensory overload during the chase scene. I'm not even surprised to hear what you say as there was so much detail in every frame, but I was so focused on how Scorsese was choreographing the chase and the general mayhem that I barely had a chance to see the faces in the crowd.

Justin has seen the movie twice in the theater, and I'm seriously considering going again, even though there's other stuff I need to see.

JAL said...

There is an abundance of nuance that makes for an enjoyable second viewing.

I have no idea how Scorsese keeps doing it. It is more and more clear that he is truly one of the most talented filmmakers to date.