It's clear that Martin Scorsese has all of the tools that a director needs to create incredible and fascinating films that deal with violence and criminals barely holding on the edge of our society. Whether it be Robert DeNiro portraying Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), men with violent tempers and even more horrible minds, or Daniel Day-Lewis playing the murderous Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, Scorsese's knack for crazy characters, quick cuts, tracking shots, and wounds spurting blood raises heart rates and turns stomachs (in the best way possible). Scorsese's newest film, Hugo, does a complete 180° compared to his usual subject matter. You won't see heads getting squished into vices or pens getting jabbed into jugulars here; Hugo is one for the family. And if this is what family entertainment is like, consider me a family man: Hugo is an epic story that is different than any other picture Scorsese has directed, yet it ranks among some of his greats.
Don't call this a kids movie though. It surely isn't just that. A big-budget movie released during the holiday season (in 3-D no less!) may seem like the typical family fare. Instead, it's atypical: filled with an innocence that is lost in just about every other film played by and played for children (other than this year's super Super 8) and many hidden metaphors--the most noticeable of which deals with a plea of film preservation--Hugo defies even the most skeptical of expectations.
Hugo the film is based on a 2007 book titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret written by Brian Selznick. Like the book, the story is about a boy named Hugo (played well by Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Paris railway station, taking care of all of the clocks that need tuning and setting every day. This ain't the digital age: these clocks are super fucking intricate, with thousands of mechanical pieces and moving parts, some of which are ten times the size of Hugo himself. Hugo has no family to speak of, so instead of getting dragged off to the orphanage (a place that the film portrays as horrible), he lives in secret rooms and passages throughout the walls of the huge train station. Hugo is like a mouse, rarely making a peep and stealing food and mechanical parts when he gets the chance. Most mice have entities that want to destroy them, and Hugo is no different: Mr. Inspector Gustav (a great role for Mr. Ali G himself, playing more subtle than showy, which is a nice change) is constantly on guard with his ferocious dog, ready to pull any orphan boy kicking and screaming to the cage in his office.
Hugo's father was a clock maker and his uncle was the former clock tinkerer in the train station. The last time Hugo saw his father, Hugo left with dad's most prized possession: a broken automaton, a self-operating machine with the intricacies of a clock, the look of a human-like robot, and a wind-up keyhole with no key. Figuring out the Automaton and the missing key is the mystery for the rest of the film. Will the machine wake up with a message from father? Will it stand up and dance, like this freak? Or will it stay broken forever, its difficulty of operation sealing its secrets? Scorsese's deft direction of the adventure is God damned great. Hugo meets many colorful characters along the way, the most significant of which are train station toy shop owner Papa Georges (acted by Ben Kingsley, always awesome) and his granddaughter, who hold many important secrets of their own.
As the extravagant adventure unfolds, the real metaphor of the film takes shape: it's truly a call-to-arms about film preservation and the importance of cinema as a whole. Films are like dreams, and nobody in their right mind would want to live without either. They transport us to places we never expected or never even knew we wanted to go. It's an interesting choice, to say the least, that Scorsese chose Hugo as his first 3-D movie, a technology that has grown totally tiresome over the last year. Thankfully, Hugo, which was shot with 3-D cameras and not converted-to later, like most of the shit-stained films that try to "utilize" the technology, is easily the best 3-D film to date (sorry, Avatards). Like with subtitled films, you know the movie is good when you forget about them. You forget about the 3-D here because it's so seamlessly used in the enchanting world that is this peculiar Paris train station.
Hugo, ultimately, is about the birth of many things: the world of film and special effects, the first spark of love when holding hands with another, the discovery of what you were meant to do in this machine-like world. It teaches us a lesson: you don't have to be forgotten, as long as you do something that you find meaning in. And it does what movies do best, transporting you from the problems and concerns of everyday life to another world in which love blooms and dreams are born. Ben Kingsley's character Papa Georges has a line that's sad but all too often seems true: "Life has no happy endings." But I disagree. With directors like Scorsese and films like Hugo, how can one not be hopeful of their own happiness? (A)