Thursday, November 24, 2011

Where dreams are made

"Hugo" is a rare and wonderful thing -- an openly sentimental love letter, a deeply personal film, and a striking experiment all rolled into a package that feels more like a gift than a highly calibrated exercise. In making one from the heart, Martin Scorsese has defied the odds and made one of the most beautiful films of the year.

If you have any kind of sentimentality for the movies, if the child inside you seeks to rediscover the magic of the screen -- see "Hugo" now.

Although Martin Scorsese is most well-known for his urban crime thrillers/gangster movies (from "Mean Streets" to "The Departed") it still bewilders me that every time he makes a movie that isn't in this genre (which is often), people freak out. He's made intimate character dramas ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"), rich period romances ("The Age of Innocence"), horror movies ("Cape Fear") and even biblical epics ("The Last Temptation of Christ"). It doesn't matter the genre, to me Scorsese's films are united by several things, including the desire to belong. In as likely places as the social outcast Travis Bickle and unlikely places as the Dalai Lama, those on the margins -- on the outside looking in -- usually come to the fore of Scorsese's work.

Is it no surprise then that the first shot of young orphan Hugo Cabret (the charming Asa Butterfield) is of him looking from behind a clock, peering out into the 1930 Parisian train station he calls home? Borrowing a moment or two from "Rear Window," Hugo's existence at the start of the film is confined to looking. He keeps the clocks running in the train stations -- though the comically nefarious Station Inspector (a wonderful Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn't know he's taken up residence.

With no parents and no friends, Hugo watches the dramas of the shop owners and ventures out only to steal food and spare parts for an automaton his father recovered from a museum shortly before his death. Hugo's existence is driven by the singular goal of getting the very elaborate automaton to work, believing it can unlock a secret message from his father and allow him to maintain a connection to some kind of family.

In the first, mostly silent, ten or so minutes of the film, Scorsese introduces us to a world both fluid and imaginative. Beautiful tracking shots wander through Hugo's world, following him from clock to clock as trains, passengers and steam zig and zag through his elaborate little space. The 3D (the single most fantastic use of the technology I've seen thus far) brings this world even more to life. Depth is stunning, colors pop, and motion feels even more fluid. Working with Robert Richardson again (the two last teamed on "Shutter Island"), every shot in the film seems to perfectly account for ways 3D can bring more life to a shot. With expert lighting and beautiful tracking shots, this is every bit a visual splendor as we would expect from Scorsese.

The power of the visuals comes much more from their imagination than their compositions, as Scorsese and his team feel genuinely awe-struck by the technology's capabilities. Their desire to explore is a true next-step-forward for the technology, one that takes it out of gimmicks and sheer spectacle and anchors it as part of the narrative.

It's not long into the film that Hugo gets into trouble with curmudgeonly toy store owner Georges Melies (a best-in-show Ben Kingsley), who catches Hugo trying to steal and gives the boy plenty of hell. Through his budding relationship with Melies's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, who proves with every film she can go toe-to-toe with anyone), the two learn more about Melies's past as a filmmaker, sparking a journey into their own discovery of a "cinematic consciousness." Working from a children's storybook by Brian Selznick, John Logan's adaptation is simple and effective -- the story has plenty of trajectory but is also simple enough to give Scorsese lots of room to play and to communicate its very deep ideas to any kind of audience.

In many ways, "Hugo" is about discovering movies. Hugo takes Isabelle to her first movie, and smiles at how she reacts to the thrills of the plot. As Melies becomes more prominent a character, Scorsese recreates some of his more famous films and the famed director's studio, providing a concise (some might say "Basic") version of the beginning of movies and their dream-like potential. While plenty of Scorsese's films have been movie-movies in the sense that they borrow and reappropriate different shots and sequences (his forays into horror, "Cape Fear" and "Shutter Island," are perhaps the best examples), this is the only one -- besides "The Aviator" -- that's actually about movies.

But where "The Aviator" was more about the industry and more a study of ego and compulsion, "Hugo" is about discovery and love. Kingsley gives Melies such fractured anger and frustration, communicating how devastated the man was when he truly believed his films had been forgotten. In this sense, "Hugo" is a rather direct plea for film preservation, something very close to Scorsese's heart.

Encasing all this in the ostensible guise of a children's movie may seem kind of odd, but there's nothing childish about "Hugo." It's a very serious, but very accessible, journey into the fantastic possibilities of the medium. He uses cinema's newest innovation to explore one of its great innovators (and, because Melies often shot his films on two cameras side-by-side so he could have two prints right away, he inadvertently created 3D -- something I was fortunate to see earlier this year and which is truly mind-blowing. If only he had known what he'd made!). I daresay it also packs enough sentimentality to crack even the deepest cynic, especially those who hold any kind of admiration for the cinema and any kind of childhood memories of experiencing it.

Georges Melies was a fantastical director. He used trick effects and elaborate designs to try and, in the words of Kingsley in the film, make dreams. In the film's argument, these works were made with the experience of watching in mind, propelled by a desire to play with the newborn medium. In "Hugo," we watch two children watch "A Trip to the Moon" for the first time. Scorsese somehow perfectly captures the joy of not only watching a film, but experiencing it.

Scorsese has said in many interviews he made this film as a parent, and that kind of approach perfectly explains why the film is so affecting and so tender. It breaks new ground in his artistry. He's always been a gifted filmmaker and storyteller, but here it seems like he's reading a bedtime story through the devices of the cinema, crafting a whole world for us spectators through all the devices of the imagination he can summon.

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