Saturday, November 26, 2011


Yesterday afternoon I went to see the new Martin Scorcese film Hugo, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (which is going to be read by yours truly at the earliest available opportunity). This is an extraordinary film that as far as I'm concerned deserves every accolade it has received in so many reviews -- heartwarming in the very best, non-sappy sense of the term, Hugo is nothing less than a love letter to the magic of the movies, and by extension the magic of living life to the fullest. It's a gorgeously rendered story of the power and joy that comes from living life as you're wired to do, a reminder of the precious gift it is to find and follow your calling. Amazing, lovely, wonderful film -- highly, HIGHLY recommended.

Hugo Cabret is a young boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s, where unbeknownst to the station regulars he cleans and maintains the clocks. In a heart-breaking flashback (featuring a wonderful cameo by Jude Law!), we learn that Hugo and his father, a master clockmaker, shared an affinity for all things mechanical and a love of the movies. When his father tragically perishes in a museum fire, Hugo is taken to live with his drunk uncle, also a watchmaker whose job it is to maintain the train station clocks. All Hugo has left of his former life is a broken automaton that his father rescued from the attic of the museum prior to his death. Hugo is driven to repair the mechanical man as a last connection to his father, so when his uncle disappears he stays on as the clock worker, filching food to survive and mechanical parts from the toy shop in order to continue working on the automaton. When the toy shop owner, Monsieur Georges, catches Hugo in the act of stealing, he's unexpectedly shocked by the boy's notebook detailing the mechanical workings of the automaton. Georges refuses to disclose why Hugo's book upsets him, and Hugo is equally determined to finish his father's work, whatever it takes. With the help of Georges's goddaughter Isabelle, the two children embark on an adventure to discover the truth behind the broken automaton, Georges's broken heart, and the power of dreams.

Let me get this out of the way first -- story aside, on visuals alone this film is STUNNING. I saw it in 2D and was completely blown away by its recreation of 1930s Paris -- oh it was a glorious world to watch unfold on-screen! And Hugo's home, the inner workings of the train station, were absolutely fascinating -- it's almost as if he lived inside his own automaton, the train station itself. The costumes, the sets, the attention to detail is a feast for period drama lovers' eyes. I feel sure this is a film that visually will reveal new treasures on each subsequent viewing.

Hugo is anchored by a stellar performance by Asa Butterfield as the young hero. Prior to this film I was most familiar with Butterfield from his work as young Mordred in the Merlin TV show (unbelievably creepy!) and last year in Nanny McPhee Returns. Butterfield is a terrific actor in the making and I predict he'll be a face to watch for years to come. I couldn't help thinking, leaving this film, that if Harry Potter were being made today (starting at the beginning), Butterfield would be pretty near perfect. As Hugo, Butterfield will just break your heart with his determination and sincerity, his search for belonging and purpose against the odds. His on-screen counterpart, Isabelle, is played by American actress Chloe Grace Mortez. I was quite impressed with her performance, and the sweet hint of a teenage romance in the offing between her and Butterfield on-screen. Isabelle is a delightfully nerdy (I mean that in a nice way!), bookish girl with a fantastic vocabulary which I just loved, a nice quirk.

The crotchety Monsieur Georges is brought to life by Ben Kingsley, and if Oscar nods were given out solely based on the ability to break my  heart I'd say he deserved one. This performance was a treasure. Since I have yet to read the book, I wasn't aware until I started reading reviews of this film that actual historical characters featured in the plot. Monsieur Georges is in fact Georges Melies, a visionary French filmmaker. If the name is not familiar to you, perhaps this still from one of his most famous surviving films will be:

That image is from Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902). To try and make a long and fascinating history short for the purposes of this post, Melies made over 500 films before being forced into bankruptcy during World War I. Tastes had changed and his magical, fantastical films were no longer in style. He sold hundreds of feet of film, which were melted down and made into shoe heels. And this is where the fictional Hugo comes into play -- seeing a master "magician," heartbroken over the loss of his art and his purpose, Hugo's desire to rebuild the broken automaton becomes a quest to remind Melies who he really is, and that his art has not been forgotten as he so long believed.

I knew Scorcese was an vocal advocate of film preservation, and Hugo drives the importance of this venture home with heartbreaking clarity. Melies's lost films were not just throwaway whims, were not even just about his imagination -- his films speak of his time, the dreams of the creator and his contemporaries brought to life on celluloid. Films like A Trip to the Moon are reminders to mankind today of where we've come from, who we were, and who we hope to be -- oh the possibilities of unfettered imagination!

To speak a bit to my earlier point that the train station is a kind of automaton, a film set in which the young Hugo makes his home, I have to give a nod to the colorful characters that inhabit his world. This film is chock-full of Harry Potter alum. Frances del la Tour (Madame Maxime) is Madame Emilie, who is the proprietress of a restaurant. She is crushing on Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon!), a newspaper seller (if memory serves me correctly). The fact that her dog HATES him, and how he works around it, is hilarious. Georges's wife is played by Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), and can I just tell you how much I like her? She is class personified -- not to mention crazy-lucky in the husband department as she's married to Damian Lewis. And in the non-Potter, but really cool cameo category, Christopher Lee makes an appearance as Monsieur Labisse, a bookseller who seems to know just what his patrons need.

My favorite subplot, though, is the Station Inspector with the mechancial brace on his leg, played by Sacha Baren Cohen and the flower seller Lisette played by Emily Mortimer. Cohen provides a lot of comic relief, as is to be expected, particularly when he and his Doberman mimic each other's poses and expressions. *wink* The Inspector is an interesting character -- secretly in love with Lisette, he feels he can't act on it because of his injury, and masks his inadequacy with bravado and legalism. I am a sap, I freely admit it, but I loved watching the Inspector just melt once he overcame his fear of speaking to Lisette -- Mortimer and Cohen are an unusal pair but I loved them in this film.

Hugo is a film that begs to be seen on the big-screen. It is a rare film that I feel is so joy-filled, so life-affirming, so hopeful. Yes there's heartbreak and pain and peril -- like the best stories this doesn't sugar-coat or ignore those realities of life. But what it will remind you of is the power of dreams and art and the magic of unfettered imagination. From the opening shot you'll be fully immersed in Hugo's world -- the art direction, the score (thank you, Howard Shore), the acting -- everything works in concert to weave its glorious spell, to draw you into the world of the film. A movie about the power of movies, the power of imagination, and the ability of art to connect people, Hugo is a treasure not to be missed, and one I'll enjoy revisiting time and again.


Joanne said...

Lovely review, and certainly makes me want to see it soon!

Fanny/iz4blue said...

It's on my list to see in 3D - lovely review :) - love the smorgasbord of the actors you mention & didn't realize HOW Lucky Helen was! Only recently saw her performance in Charles II with Rufus -

Patti said...

Thanks for this great review, Ruth. It does sound wonderful and very worthwhile.

I have a classic movie blog friend who has also been blogging about this...he saw it the day before Thanksgiving and again yesterday. He is raving about it as you are.

So, while I rarely watch movies made after 1960, I think I will definitely have to see this one.


Kristin said...

I am in love with the book (and I've got Brian Selznick's new book "Wonderstruck" waiting to be read). It is really gorgeous and unique, and I would recommend it to everyone, but especially classic movie fans. I think it's wonderful that there is a children's book out there that has a plot that focuses so much on old movies- kids sure do need to know about them! :)

So of course, I'm super anxious to see the film! But unfortunately it isn't playing yet anywhere near by. I hope this won't be like Jane Eyre and never come to a theater close by.


Joy Tamsin David said...

What a great review. I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday and I sat for about an hour reading the book this movie was based off of. The book was visually stunning as well and I think I'm going to pick it up for my kids for Christmas. I guess I'll have to take them to see the movie too.

Rissi said...

Awww, this does look/sound like a sweet little movie. I'll had to check it out on DVD. =)

As always, thanks for the review, Ruth!

Charleybrown said...

Glad to hear such a hearty recommendation from you! I was curious about this one but not sure if I was going to seek it out.

Btw, have you seen Asa Butterfield in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? Gripping film!

Heidenkind said...

I loved the book, but the film worries me a bit. I'm not a huge Scorsese fan and this isn't the type of subject matter he normally goes for. I'll probably catch it on DVD, though. :)

Unknown said...

@Joanne - Hope you enjoy it! :)

@Fanny/iz4blue - Oh, that Charles II performance sounds awesome. Yes indeed, Helen is a lucky woman. :)

@Patti - I am tempted to see it twice too! I think, especially given the classic film connection, that you will really enjoy this one. Hope so! :)

@Kristin - I ordered the book from Amazon yesterday. :) Thanks for the rec! Given that this is a Scorcese film I hope it expands into your area ASAP!

@Joy - Oh I hope you & your kids enjoy the book AND the film! Let me know! :)

@Rissi - Definitely check it out! And you're welcome. :)

@Charleybrown - This movie took me completely by surprise. :) I think you will enjoy it! And I haven't seen the Striped Pyjamas movie yet -- it is on my to-see list!

@heidenkind - Okay here's the thing -- you were one of the first people I thought of that would love this movie (at least that is my hope). I am not a huge Scorcese fan either, so take that into account -- he's earned a whole lotta respect for this outing from me though! Definitely let me know what you think! :)

Natalie said...

So I might be leaving this twice. Blogger is being cranky - just ignore if I've already said hi :) First, this is a great review (as always) and I can't wait to see Hugo. I'd planned to go this weekend. But I'm so jet-lagged that I'm not changing out of my PJ's for anything (TMI?) You described it so perfectly though - it really is a love letter to the power of story. I hope Brian Selznick writes a billion more books.

Second, I read about this musical in the paper today. Then, I googled. And then, I became obsessed. It has Ruth written all over it (with the gorgeous costumes and the love story and what not):

One of us needs to hit the lottery so we can have a broadway week.

Lori Benton said...

You are such a gifted reviewer, Ruth. You've convinced me to go see this on the big screen. I haven't read the book, but my husband has.

Unknown said...

@Natalie - Nope, you only left this comment once! ;) Thank you -- I can't wait to hear what you think of Hugo! (Can't have TMI among friends, you're safe!) :) And THANK YOU for sharing the link to that musical promo -- that does indeed have Ruth written all over it -- I had no idea such a show was in the works!

@Lori - Oh thank you my friend! I think you will LOVE this film, at least I certainly hope so! I ordered the book from Amazon, should be getting it the end of this week -- can't wait to dive in!

Kristin said...

Just saw your Elvis shirt comment, and it made me bust (burst?) out laughing. :)

I don't care what department in Target it came from, yellow + Elvis = awesome.


Rachel said...

this was an absolutely breath-taking film~ I waited until after seeing it to read your review and completely agree with everything you said--- especially appreciated your nod to howard shore's score--- which was perfect.

Unknown said...

@Kristin - That shirt we have is awesome. The end. :)

@Rachel - Oh I so agree with you -- and I'm so happy that you loved the film too! I've been listening to Shore's score and it is simply GORGEOUS, even sans the film's visuals.