Monday, December 05, 2011


Like seeing your dreams in the middle of the day

By Edward Copeland
Throughout my years of reviewing, when the time came to write about the latest Martin Scorsese picture, I always felt compelled to try to craft the best piece my capabilities allowed. With Hugo marking the first time the director has used the advancements in 3D technology, I not only owed Hugo the best prose I could muster, but it required seeing Hugo the way Scorsese intended. However, because of the physical limitations that have burdened me since 2008, trips to a movie theater have become a daunting task that requires literal heavy lifting by others and a substantial expenditure of energy on my part to accomplish such a journey, even with my good friend Adderall's help. Because of the logistics involved to get me out of my bed and my home, I usually only get out for doctors' appointments and unplanned trips to the emergency room. However, when Martin Scorsese releases a new film to theaters in 3D, I had to do my damnedest to get there physically. I had to wait to see Shine a Light and Shutter Island on DVD. Hugo happens to be the first film I've seen in a movie theater in more than a year (and only my fourth since 2009) as well as my first in "real D" 3D ever. If Marty's name weren't attached, I wouldn't have made the effort, not just for any 3D movie. This creates perhaps the oddest start to a review of a Scorsese movie I've written, but when your life undergoes as massive a change as mine has in the past three years, it feels appropriate to begin my Hugo review by focusing first on what it took to get me to the movie in the first place.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I am bedridden. I won't repeat the details of what put me here, but you can read this if you don't know. To get out of bed requires at least two people setting me up on a sling and attaching it to our electric lift. For a trip that isn't to a doctor, some additional steps have to be taken. For those journeys, I can go in my usual hospital gown attire. To visit a more public place such as a movie theater, I first have to be helped to put on a semblance of clothing, which isn't the easiest task in the world when your legs don't move and you have to work the pants and shirt around a suprapubic catheter and its attached collection bag. When that's out of the way and I'm centered on the sling and its straps are attached to the hooks of the lift, one person uses the lift to raise me off the bed while the other stands behind my wheelchair to guide me in and make sure I'm tight against the back and won't slide out during transport. We strap belts around my chest and legs to help me maneuver the chair from my bedroom through the house, into the garage and up the ramp of our specially equipped van where I perform a 180 degree turn in a limited space. Then four tethered hooks and a seat belt are attached to me. Assuming all of this has gone OK — and sometimes it takes quite a bit of trial and error to make certain that I'm centered on the sling and that I'm firmly against the back of the wheelchair. Then we can ride. For trips to doctors, we receive the help of the local ambulance service that provides free "lift assist" support, sending one of their paramedic units to help my aging father get me up. Unfortunately, this service only applies to medical-related jaunts. So, unless I lied, we couldn't have them come out and help get me up so I could go see Hugo.

Three mornings a week, I have caregivers who help to give me baths, etc., from 8 a.m. to noon. According to the national website for Hugo, the theater closest to me would have its first 3D showing on the Monday after it opened at 10:15 a.m. So I decided to make my first plan be that my caregiver would come an hour later than usual and I'd eat breakfast before he got here. He'd help get me dressed and get me up and into the chair and go see Hugo with us and we'd take the bath afterward. Unfortunately, the website was incorrect and when I checked the actual theater's showtime, they weren't having a 3D showing of Hugo until 2:30 in the afternoon, which wouldn't work because of other commitments the caregiver had in the afternoon not to mention how much that would cost me in overtime. With Monday blown, I started looking at the other theaters showing Hugo in the city. The earliest 3D showtime for Hugo in the city was 11:30 a.m. at a different theater. Wednesday couldn't work for the caregiver because his son had a doctor's appointment during the time the movie would be playing. Finally, I hit upon a plan: Thankfully, the caregiver's Thursday was free so he came just to help me get dressed, out of the bed and into the wheelchair and to accompany us to the theater for Hugo.

I had been to this theater many times, but not since I'd been forced to use a wheelchair (which occurred prior to my bedridden status) so I didn't realize how piss-poor their seating arrangements for wheelchairs were. Because of my nearly constant leg pain, when I did go to the movies in the chair, to make things as comfortable as possible, I tilt-raise the chair and recline the back so the footrests can be folded to extend my legs out straight. At the other two theaters in the city I'd usually frequent, it was never a problem as handicapped seating would have recessed openings adjacent to them allowing plenty of room for this to take place. At this theater, the space between the ground level rows of seating and the start of the stadium seating is very narrow and I barely had enough room to do much of the recline or lifting of legs without smacking into either the railing behind me or the seats in front of me. I arranged myself the best I could and anxiously awaited Hugo's start.

Of course, first I had to endure the trailers, which in the non-3D portion previewed a film set for the January dumping ground co-starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton called Joyful Noise. The trailer even includes a joke about Parton's plastic surgery, which they really had to include since her mouth now resembles Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's Batman when he puts the flesh makeup over his disfigured visage. They then told us to put on our glasses for the 3D previews. All the animated films designed and made in the process such as The Lorax, The Adventures of Tintin and The Pirates: Band of Misfits looked impressive. However, the previews of re-releases of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace and James Cameron's Titanic, both retrofitted to appear to be in 3D, looked like shit. Both should carry the tag line: Think They Stunk in Two Dimensions? Wait Until You Catch a Whiff in Three! Finally, it was time for Hugo.

I can't underestimate how excited I get when I'm about to see a new Martin Scorsese picture unfurl in a movie theater. I used to feel that way when I'd see the white-on-black titles of a Woody Allen film before he hit his slump and started repeating himself in the '90s. With the exceptions of Shine a Light and Shutter Island, I've seen every Scorsese feature in a theater starting with The King of Comedy. That includes After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ (which required driving to another state and standing in a line in the rain since no Oklahoma theater would show it), "Life Lessons" from New York Stories, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence (which I also drove out of state to see, but only because I was impatient), Casino (which I saw on a New York junket where I briefly spoke to Scorsese), Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed. I even saw A Personal Journey Through American Movies With Martin Scorsese when it was shown in a New York theater and was able to see The Last Waltz in a 20th anniversary theatrical re-release. Now, Hugo joins that list. That's 17 films. I may have seen more films in a theater directed by Scorsese than by any other director if it weren't for Woody Allen's prolific nature and my earlier start with Steven Spielberg (beginning with Jaws), though Hugo puts Scorsese ahead of Spielberg by one. When I worshipped Woody, I stuck with him well into his doldrums. My first Allen in a theater remains my choice for his best, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I saw them all that way through Curse of the Jade Scorpion. After that, I didn't have to see them and then it required too much work to see them. I've only seen one Allen in a theater since — Whatever Works — and that had as much to do with Larry David as with Woody. Still, that adds up to 20 films in a theater. It's been Spielberg's later years when I've been skipping out on theatrical showings (even when I could have attended).

Hugo starts with an awe-inspiring image that serves well as an introduction to live-action 3D for a skeptic who has felt, based on what he has read and heard, that 3D was little more than a gimmick to pump up movie ticket prices. With the exception of a couple of IMAX shorts in its early days, the last (and only) 3D movie I had ever watched in a theater was 1983's hokey-as-hell Jaws 3-D, back when the glasses were those cheap cardboard spectacle with plastic lenses of red and blue (or cyan if you want to get technical). In Hugo, we open on an FX shot that evokes an overhead shot of the entirety of a snowy Paris in the latter half of the 1920s, gliding past familiar landmarks until we arrive at its central train station and one of its huge clocks, only instead of the Arabic numeral 4, a boy's face peers out at us. The shot reminds me of young Henry Hill looking out his window at the gangsters' arrival at Tuddy's cab stand in Goodfellas. What Hugo shows us only gets more enthralling from there.

We learn that the 12-year-old boy is Hugo Cabret (played by the engaging Asa Butterworth, whose penetrating blue eyes might carry him far), who lives inside the walls of that Paris train station, winding all those clocks to make sure they keep running on time. It is a job that he inherited by default when his father (played by Jude Law in flashbacks) dies and his only living relative, Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), takes him in. Uncle Claude is a drunken lout whose job is winding the train station's clocks so — at the cost of Hugo's education — the uncle jerks Hugo out of school and makes him his apprentice at the train station, learning his job and living there as well. Soon, Uncle Claude vanishes and Hugo takes it upon himself to perform his uncle's duties. Since he's doing the job unofficially, Hugo must filch whatever he can for sustenance as well as parts to finish repairing the automaton that his father found languishing at the museum where he worked and brought home to restore. Hugo has continued working on the unusual piece, convinced that if he fixes it, he will find a message left behind by his much-missed father. Hugo creates his own universe within the train station, though he must be careful to escape the notice of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose main joy in life appears to be apprehending unattended children and shipping them off to orphanages. Separate from the use of 3D, once the movie takes us inside Hugo's world of the train station, the film proves to be a true triumph of production design that I imagine dazzles just as much in the 2D version. Dante Ferretti (Oscar winner for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and The Aviator) serves as production designer, the eighth time he's worked with Scorsese, and the sets for Hugo prove so elaborate that the credits list 10 art directors who assisted Ferretti. Francesca Lo Schiavo performed the role of set decorator, her 18th collaboration with Ferretti (she won her two Oscars for the same two films he did) and her fifth with Scorsese. Together, all the crafts people, their meticulous work filmed through the lens of master cinematographer Robert Richardson (Oscar winner for JFK and The Aviator and whose credits also include Inglourious Basterds, The Doors, City of Hope and Eight Men Out), create a visual feast that's a wonder to behold and would make a remarkable moviegoing experience even if it lacked sound, appropriate given its underlying subject matter.

Hugo has been adapted by John Logan from the unusual children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. The book, which Selznick (a first cousin, twice removed of the famous producer David O. Selznick) wrote and illustrated, is historical fiction that runs more than 500 pages long of which nearly half of those pages contain illustrations. Published in 2007, the book Selznick describes as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things" won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, the first for a "novel" since the prize goes to picture books. No wonder it attracted Scorsese.

In the train station, one of the main places where Hugo finds parts to swipe for his automaton is the toy shop, run by a very grumpy man (Ben Kingsley, always good, but giving another memorable performance in a career full of diverse roles). Believing he's dozing, Hugo reaches up to pinch some parts when the man grabs him and harangues him for being the thief who has been stealing from him. He demands that the boy empty his pockets and Hugo complies on the right side containing all the pilfered pieces, but avoids his left pocket until the toy shop owner insists. Hugo reluctantly removes his father's notebook, which elicits a strange reaction from the man, who demands to know if Hugo made the drawings in it. A desperate Hugo begs the man to let him have the notebook back since he didn't steal it, but the toy shop's owner refuses, forcing Hugo to run along before he calls the Station Inspector. Later in the day, Hugo makes a new acquaintance — Isabelle (the ever-versatile Chloë Grace Moretz), who turns out to live with the toy shop owner, whom she calls Papa Georges, and his wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory). Hugo tells her about his notebook and how important it is to him, but refuses to say why. He waits for Isabelle's Papa Georges to close for the day and then starts to follow him, again pleading for the return of the notebook. The bitter man tells Hugo he plans to go home and burn it. Isabelle, who is listening nearby, promises Hugo that she'll keep watch over it so nothing happens. The next day, he returns to the toy shop. Georges says he expected to see Hugo again and hands him a cloth full of ashes, sending the boy fleeing in tears. Isabelle overhears the exchange and tells Hugo not to cry, but she again wants to know what's in the notebook because Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne talked and argued about it all night and Papa Georges cried as well, but he didn't burn it. He just did that to try to get Hugo to stop bothering him.

Since Hugo opened prior to Thanksgiving and was being discussed in detail long before that, it's doubtful that many readers interested in the film don't already know the basics of the story and this isn't the type of movie where one needs to worry about spoilers. (If there exists in the world a person outraged that a Hugo review ruins the movie's revelation that Papa Georges is actually filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès, I want to meet that person to find out how they knew who Méliès is but hadn't heard or read about Hugo's plot yet.) Martin Scorsese does have an unfortunate tendency to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker, when he may be the most eclectic great director we have working today — and he's been that way for a long time. In a way, you could say he resembles the Howard Hawks of his generation, working in practically every genre yet leaving his distinctive stamp on all his works. Granted, Scorsese possesses more sophistication than Hawks — in terms of both visual style and subject matter. Hawks also didn't run back and forth between fiction and documentaries the way Scorsese does. Hugo, while it's perfectly suitable for kids to see, really works best for a special kind of kid — the type of kid Scorsese was or that I was or many of my friends were — budding film buffs. Hugo, at its core, isn't really the story of two kids trying to solve a mystery as they do in many tales that enchant young people, though that's there. It's not merely the story of an orphaned boy living alone inside a place that seems magical to him but who's pursued by a pseudo-villain, though that element exists in Hugo as well, primarily in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen's Station Inspector stalking the corridors with his Doberman. It isn't even the story of how a boy teaches a bitter old man to love life again, but that common children's story not only exists in Hugo, the main strand builds from it to accomplish what Scorsese really aims to do: pen a cinematic love letter to movies. Because of all the great directors working today, it's doubtful that any filmmaker loves movies more than Scorsese does — and it isn't just making movies that he loves. He loves watching them, helping to preserve them and just sitting around enthusiastically talking about them. Hugo, in its own way, allows him to accomplish all those film-related gerunds at once and address them to a new audience. I bet in the back of his mind somewhere, he hopes that someone born in 1999 or so sees Hugo and the experience births a new serious film fan, one who goes home and asks his or her parents about seeing a silent movie, wanting to start at the beginning of film history. If we had a title of filmmaking laureate as we do poet laureate, would there be any other American worth nominating? He's our country's film professor. They often pose the question to people about any career they might have, "Would you still do this if you didn't get paid?" I think we know what Marty's answer would be, but how would someone like a Michael Bay answer?

With Hugo, Scorsese begins the film moving at a pace equal to the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. Hugo starts leisurely with that overhead shot of Paris, but it picks up speed as it enters the train station and takes off like the famous Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas on crystal meth, zooming through those wide corridors packed with people, following Hugo through the innards of the station, sending him up and down ladders and traversing halls lined with pipes exhaling steam. Much of Hugo zips along at this pace when in the station, but Scorsese knows when to slow things down as well. In the production design, I'm sure they purposely built the set's features to evoke silent films such as the many large mechanisms that run the station's clocks that look straight out of Chaplin's Modern Times and the clocks that reminded me of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last from the beginning, long before Hugo takes Isabelle to see Lloyd's movie and Hugo ends up hanging from a minute hand for real when fleeing the Station Inspector. By this time in his directing career (21 feature films since 1967, not counting his short films, documentaries, music videos, commercials and TV work), Scorsese has employed every filmmaking technique there is except for the 3D he's using for the first time here. It also seems to me that he utilizes more shots from high and low angles in Hugo than he usually does for a single movie. The big question comes down to how he handles the 3D, which puts me in an awkward position since I have nothing to compare it against except those coming attraction trailers. For me at least, I thought it was used very well for the first half-hour or so and isolated moments after that. After about 30 minutes though, I found the 3D to be somewhat exhausting and it wore out its novelty with me. When Hugo reaches its emotional climax, with Méliès embracing his legacy and parts of his films and A Trip to the Moon restored in its entirety, I found the 3D to be a distraction. Having seen that Georges Méliès film, I know it wasn't in 3D, so why was the moon coming toward me? I imagine that entire sequence affects the viewer more emotionally in the 2D prints.

Fortunately, the eventual 3D fatigue didn't sour me on the film itself which I enjoyed overall, thanks not only to Scorsese's still-visible mastery and his right-hand woman, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and all the other behind-the-scenes talent. Most importantly, Hugo succeeds on the strength of its cast (though why everyone in Paris has a British accent I have no idea). Since the movie rests primarily on the shoulders of young Asa Butterfield, if his casting had been off, they'd been sunk, but he does quite well, holding his own with performers of all different levels of experience. His Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz's Isabelle make a good team of young amateur detectives and friends who each compensate for something the other lacks. Isabelle's book smarts help their research (and con their way out of a run-in with the Station Inspector) while Hugo introduces Isabelle to the wonders of the movies, which Papa Georges refuses to let her see. Until that point, Isabelle has been the adventurer, but Hugo sneaks her into the theater to see the movie free. "We could get in trouble," she warns Hugo. "That's how you know it's an adventure," Hugo tells her. Moretz truly has proved herself an amazing young actress, putting on a British accent here, playing the young vampire last year in Let Me In and as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's wise-beyond-her-years younger sister in (500) Days of Summer.

Also turning in fine, brief appearances are the previously mentioned Jude Law, Ray Winstone and Helen McCrory as well as Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee playing various inhabitants of the train station. Sacha Baron Cohen provides ample comic relief as the Station Inspector who suffered a wound in World War I that requires a mechanical hinge on one of his legs so that it comes off as sort of an homage to Kenneth Mars' Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein. One of Cohen's funniest scenes involves Madame Emilie (De la Tour) trying to get him to show her his best smile so he can talk to Lisette (Mortimer), the girl who sells flowers that he's developed a crush on but is too shy to approach. One other performance worth noting is Michael Stuhlbarg as Rene Tabard, the film professor who wrote a book about Méliès and restores his legacy. I don't know if Scorsese met Stuhlbarg on the set of Boardwalk Empire, which he executive produces and Stuhlbarg gives one of the series' best performances as Arnold Rothstein, or if he saw him first in a completely different role as Larry Gopnik in the Coens' A Serious Man, but Stuhlbarg's chameleon-like ability astonishes.

The credit for what ultimately makes Hugo work as well as it does belongs to Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès. Kingsley has been excellent for a long time in many roles since he first captured our attention in 1982's Gandhi, showing he's equally adept in all genres and time periods in the years since. His work in Hugo may be his best since his incomparable turn in Sexy Beast, though the two parts couldn't be more different. There is neither flash nor fire in his Méliès, but you see the loss lurking beneath the man's surface as well as the joy in flashbacks to his filmmaking days. Kingsley's acting stands out better in 3D than all the other effects in Hugo combined.

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If there exists in the world a person outraged that a Hugo review ruins the movie's revelation that Papa Georges is actually filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès, I want to meet that person to find out how they knew who Méliès is but hadn't heard or read about Hugo's plot yet.

Present! I'm well aware of the work of Méliès, and knew that work played some role in "Hugo," but beyond that I was in the dark. I'd avoided reading pretty much everything about this film, aside from a "thumbs up" here or there, so I could go in as fresh as possible. I was stunned to find out the he was actually a central character in the movie, and the whole thing played like an unexpected Christmas present for me.

Of course I'm not outraged by your review, and I do think anyone reading your site will probably already know what they're in for with an Ed Copeland review, but you asked, and I answered.
Glad you got to see this, Ed. Funny you mentioned the number of Scorsese films you've seen in theaters, because I was counting up the same thing. I've seen nine of his movies at the "cinema" to date. I'm pretty sure Spielberg is the highest for me, with 14.
Ed, that post was quite the emotional ride.

Regarding Michael Stuhlbarg, Scorsese cast him as the heavy in the short film "The Key to Reserva" two years before "A Serious Man."
I had never heard of Key to Reserva then looked into it. A Spanish wine company let him do a commercial that runs nine minutes and plays as a Hitchcock homage. I'll have to try to check it out.
It also ties nicely into Hugo because in the commercial, Scorsese pokes fun at himself as a film preservationist.
You've put together quite a review, Ed, especially given the effort and ordeal it must take. Kudos. I'm happy to hear you got to take in (at a movie theater) another film by this extraordinary director. Very well done, my friend.
I have yet to see this film in 3D, but it was pretty glorious in 2D. And all those connections you made with the sets and the silent films they borrowed from had me nodding my head in agreement, connections that--in retrospect--I could see.

I'm just glad that the ordeal you had to go through to see this wonderful film was worth it.
Mr. Copeland, I found you via a link on Roger Ebert's site. I'm crazy about French stuff -- obsessed. I buy, sell, collect and restore antique French postcards. When I heard of Hugo, I ordered a copy of the book and couldn't wait to see the movie. As a special treat, my hubby took me to the 'big city' of Portland, a 45 min. drive west, to a fancy theater with the extreme hi-definition, supersonic sound, 3-D, yada yada [$14.95 admission price!! -- the most expensive movie I've ever been to]. I agree with you that the 3-D is not necessary and the movie would be a delight to watch in total silence. I loved the re-creation of the train wreck. I knew it wasn't just a piece of movie fiction because I've seen antique postcards, photos of it. I was upset to learn that Thomas Edison "acquired" a copy of Melies' moon film, made a lot of money from showing it and never gave any financial recompense to Melies. As I wrote in my blog, I turned off a light switch -- the only way I could flip Edison off.... :)
Amazing review, Ed, and I am now guaranteed to see the movie in theatres, something even the guy who sent me here, Roger Ebert, couldn't accomplish. (Like you, I love Scorsese… I was just (inexplicably) skeptical of this movie. Maybe it was the preview--it just didn't do it for me. Clearly, I was wrong.)

So glad you got to see it in the theatres.
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