Martin Scorsese's enchanting love letter to the movies

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Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloë Grace Moretz, Helen McCrory, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Pitt. Written by John Logan, from the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick.

Hugo, which is set in 1930s Paris and invokes images and memories of the dawn of cinema, from the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès to Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, has been endlessly referred to as director Martin Scorsese’s “love letter to the movies.” That’s as accurate a description as I can come up with: Hugo takes all of Scorsese’s well-documented love for cinema and beautifully lays it out on the screen.

The film exists in unusual territory: a big-budget (IMDb lists it at a ridiculous $170 million), 3D adaptation of the popular children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Scorsese risks alienating general audiences with too much silent-movie lore, and risks alienating cinephiles with too much mainstream catering. But he straddles the line magnificently, and for most audiences, Hugo will be a joy to watch.

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Still, this isn’t easily-digestible high concept entertainment. Asa Butterfield (who also starred in the underrated The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is the titular character, 12-year-old Hugo Cabret, who lives in the walls of Gare Montparnasse railway station and maintains the giant, intricately-detailed clocks. It’s a skill he learned from his uncle (Ray Winstone), an absent alcoholic, after his inventor-mechanic father (Jude Law) died in a fire.

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Hugo’s father left him a mechanical automaton, recovered from an old museum and left unrepaired. As Hugo endeavors to repair the robot, he comes into contact with an old toymaker (Ben Kingsley), who sells mechanical mice, and his granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). He has to move around the station carefully to evade the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman, who have made a habit of capturing runaway orphans and turning them in to the police.

More of the plot should not be divulged. Suffice it to say that the second half of the film bleeds cinema, both in the form of straightforward references – Hugo and Isabelle sneak into Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (and, of course, the famous clock-hanging sequence is later re-created), and Hugo recounts a story of Méliès’ Trip to the Moon told to him by his father – and thematic undercurrents. Ultimately, Méliès, his wife, and a film professor (played beautifully, as a stand-in for Scorsese, by A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg) are all key characters in the film.

I was especially moved by Hugo; not because of the storyline, though you’d have to be a cynic not to feel for Hugo, but because of the love for cinema – a love I share – evident in all the little details: the clips of silent cinema, the recreations of their sets, the breakdown of their magic, the power they held over their audience. It’s so incredibly rare to see a film so appreciative of all the great works that have come before it.

While the enormous reported budget (and expectedly light theatrical return) for the film is concerning, the technical aspects are without fault. The cast is terrific (Sacha Baron Cohen delivers an unexpectedly warm performance, and Helen McCrory is a standout), the sets – with their intricate clockwork – are magnificent, the cinematography (Ralph Richardson) beautiful. Howard Shore’s soundtrack wonderfully fits the Parisian setting.

My only concern is the 3D, which Avatar director James Cameron has called “absolutely the best 3D photography that I’ve seen.” Let me be less kind: from a technical standpoint, the 3D here is merely adequate, and not as sharply detailed as I’ve seen in other films. Some – or all – of that may come down to the projection particulars at my screening (at CineStar Anděl), though I saw Underworld: Awakening at the same cinema the following day and was more impressed.

I will say this: Scorsese uses 3D imaginatively in a few places, most notably in shots featuring a slow zoom-in, where the dimensionality really brings the image towards the audience, and in the famous shot of the Lumière Brothers’ train. But I daresay I would have appreciated Hugo just as much – if not more – in two dimensions.

Hugo leads the Oscar race with eleven nominations; yet, it’s not considered the favorite in any of the major categories (though it should be a lock in some of the others, including art direction). Instead, the odds-on favorite for Best Picture is The Artist (which opens in two weeks in the Czech Republic), a black-and-white silent film. Should it win the Oscar, it will be the first (and only) silent film to win since Wings in 1929. Something tells me Scorsese would appreciate the irony.

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