December 8, 2011


"Hugo" is Martin Scorsese's engaging adaptation of the children's book by the same name. What's it about? Get this: It's an elaborate introduction to a slice of film history. Yup.

The book was written by Brian Selznick—no doubt to pass on his own love of film history to a new generation. It’s interesting to note that Selznick has written other children’s books, including a book about Houdini (you’ll get the connection if you see “Hugo.”)

The threads in “Hugo” are: tinkering with machines, fixing things, everything having a purpose, magician’s tricks, dreams, imagination, film. I would say that another theme is that of children coming too soon and unbeckoned into our lives to mess up our tidy little frameworks, neat little plans. To pry into our secrets and closed boxes and expose us. And in doing so, they save us.

The all-British cast plays out the story set in a 1930’s train station in Paris. At first, the story seems to be a misfortunate orphan-urchin tale in the line of “Oliver,” but we can’t help noting this is no ordinary orphan. Hugo is very good at fixing things because his deceased father was a watch/clockmaker (horologist) and taught Hugo the tricks of the trade. Hugo lives in the train station unbeknownst to anyone and keeps all its clocks running like, well, clockwork. “Hugo” is a total nod to steampunk. There are puffing trains, vents, pipes, chimneys, sewers, as well as plenty of ticking and undulating gears in almost every shot. Even things like a mechanical toy store and live musicians with their instruments play into the “moving parts” theme. Bygones such as horses and (quel horreur!) mounds of hardcover books seem to be meant to make us yearn for a return to them.

Steampunk (see also the newest “Sherlock Holmes” movies) is a movement that celebrates the mechanical age of actual, physical, clanking, whirring parts—hardware—that kept everything going, as opposed to our digital world of software and intangible “cloud computing.” The iPod is the ultimate anti-steampunk: impossible to break into, take apart and put together again, mysterious, internal, unseen.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has an unpleasant run-in with a bitter old toy shop keeper (Ben Kingsley) who recognizes the boy’s genius and eventually takes him under his wing, but Hugo doesn’t seem to be able to keep himself from unintentionally betraying and hurting the already-wounded man. Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) is the shopkeeper’s goddaughter—also an orphan—who befriends Hugo.

There are some interesting but inchoate thoughts (Robin Hood, “time is all we have,” Hugo and Isabelle’s parents, etc.) that could have been continued or woven in to the story more. There are quick breaks from one action to another to move the story ahead, without each reveal and development flowing out of/being the outcome of another action (bad screen-storytelling).

The editing (Scorsese’s long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker) really needed to be tighter and faster-paced (with a few disjointed scene-cuts sticking out like sore thumbs). There could have been more camera angles and cuts in general, but on the whole, it’s an eminently watchable film, especially when the film history is delved into and recreated.

Strong THEOLOGY OF THE BODY theme: “Everything has a purpose, even a machine. They do what they’re meant to do.” “If you lose your purpose, you’re broken.” “When something can’t do its work, it’s sad.” (Hugo and Isabelle wonder out loud what THEIR purpose is. Being young, they realize they haven’t found it yet. Isabelle wonders if she WOULD know what her purpose is if she had known her parents!)


--For the first time in my life, the 3D glasses worked! I wonder why. Usually they do nothing—I put them on and see them same blurry mess as without. I actually loved the use of 3D for real human beings (rather than animation). It was like Ben Kingsley was hovering over our seats in the middle of the cinema like a hologram. Kewl.

--The usually crude Sacha Baron Cohen does an amazing job playing a bumbling station inspector who has a particular dislike of little orphan-urchin types. I would love to see him in more performances like this. He seizes the role in a very alive and generous way, twinkling with kid-friendly mischief.

--Great film-within-a film.

--Great build-up to the film-within-a-film!

--I gasped aloud in the theater when they told the fate of certain precious old celluloid films (among the first films in the world)! You will too, I hope!

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