Hugo: in which Scorsese awkwardly attempts to show his love for cinema

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Title: Hugo
Director: Martin Scorsese
Language: English
Year: 2011
Critical Reception: Metacritic score 85
Psych Index: Family relations, Self-identity
In Brief: Hugo, an orphaned boy living inside the walls of a French train station, tried to fix an automaton left to him by his father. On his journey to retrieve what he believed was a message from his father through the working automaton, he discovered a cinematic dream long lost in the deep of a toy shop owner's trove. Hugo is neither an adult nor a child's film; it is Scorsese's awkwardly sentimental love letter to cinema that perhaps only the very dedicated film enthusiasts might appreciate. **1/2
Comment (SPOILERS ALERT): As 3D films become more common place, for better or worse, the time is probably ripe for a look into past major cinematic transitions. Hugo is the latest film I'd seen in recent months that devoted its screen love to the early-times cinema, and unfortunately - given its acclaimed director at the helm - was the least successful of all.

The film has its charms, for certain. There was an off kilter feel to the pacing that succeeded at times in transporting the film to a different time. Sasha Baron Cohen delivered one of the most pitch perfect performances of the year as the train station inspector, lighting up the down-trodden film whenever he was on screen (even though at times a little of Borat peeked through). The train station set fantasized a simpler time in cinema when people were transparent in their intentions and would automatically draw their eyes to each other just because the film demanded them to. Most notably, the 3D effect was properly utilized and made a strong argument for its place in cinema's history moving forward.

As impressive as the Eiffel Tower looked glowing at the end of a run-through of the train station clocks' internal working, however, the wonder worn off after the nth time the audience was forced to "discover" the set. Despite some well-placed 3D moments, fascinating footage of early cinema, and a beautiful, dreamy set in the old, out-of-time train station, the picture is a clunky, repetitive, uninspired piece of sentimental film making. For a film that celebrates the magic of films, there's a disappointing lack of wonder on screen, even as it tries to make some plot lines "magically" disappear (whatever happened to the notebook inquiry?).

Films move forward by the momentum of words or visuals (and at times, both). John Logan, Scorsese's screen writer for Hugo, produced a listless script, seemingly with the hope that either the actors or the director would fill it out and give it life. While Cohen succeeded in infusing the picture with his oddly fitting comedic timing, the rest of the acting cast tried hard but their strained effort failed to give much substance to the thin storybook. They were not helped by the director, as Scorsese seemed lost in the maze of his clocks. Since Hugo acted as a silent film for the most part, the directing was crucial in connecting its story to the audience. Yet, the film was languid in too many places where either words or visuals could have imbued it with some much needed kinetic energy.

It may have been the case that Scorsese attempted to make a picture in a more sentimental Spielbergian vein (Hugo featured both Jude Law and a robot-like automaton, a nod to Spielberg's A.I.?). As we've discovered in the case of Super 8 (Abrams, 2011) earlier this year, being good at Spielbergian is no easy feat. Whereas Super 8 got help by a very charming cast of natural-acting children and Abrams' intentional direction, Scorsese seemed unsure what picture he wanted to make. At times, the tone of the picture shifted dramatically from Spielbergian lost-boy family feel-good drama to horror to quirky comedy to documentary-like story about the movies. The visuals were surprisingly bland, outside of periodic flashes of 3D pop. The use of Hugo as our access to Georges Méliès, a film pioneer in many important ways, may have been a miscalculated move. Removed from Méliès' perspective, it was difficult to feel the crushing effect of burying a life's dream. Perhaps it could've been rescued by more effective directing, but as it was, the climax did not carry the emotional heft it should have.

Méliès was a technical wizard, but there was no wizardry in this homage to him. If you wanted to get your fill of meta cinema love, you'd be better off seeing Le Havre or The Arist. Both are superior films doing what Scorsese should have done with Hugo. While his love for cinema was obvious to Scorsese, the film did not make it clear why we should care to preserve the past. Just because Hugo was a love letter to cinema, and thereby the people who love the art of films like us, it doesn't make it any better than other films we examine. Méliès' work was much more interesting than the film itself. The connecting story has to matter, fundamentally, to our human experience somehow. Hugo just didn't seem to matter, and that's a shame for Méliès, a VIP of who's who in cinema.


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