March 10, 2012
Okay. It’s about time to get back on the horse and start reviewing some movies again.
I have to admit that as we limped to the conclusion of our six hundred and forty six day movie marathon I was fairly burnt out on the whole project. As evidenced by the mass of placeholder reviews that still populate the last three moths of our blog as I’m writing this. (I promise – someday I’ll get those placeholders filled with complete reviews – there are a lot of movies in those last three months I’m looking forward to watching again without the rigorous constraints of daily movie viewing.)
I haven’t stopped buying new movies for my collection though. I’ve slowed down an awful lot, but I’m still picking up movies I want to see as they come out, and Amanda and I have a big list of movies we want to buy and watch (and review) as we move forward. We just haven’t watched any movies in the past couple months that we hadn’t seen already. (Mostly re-watching the Lord of the Rings movies lately really.) I had promised myself though that if I watched any new movies I’d throw a review up for those movies when I did. This week I got several films to add to the collection – and today I had some spare time and figured it would be a nice time to see something new. What a perfect choice this movie was, too, as a way to ease myself back into the project.
Oh, movies, I could never stay mad at you.
I had carefully avoided spoilers for this movie until I watched it tonight. I knew from the buzz around Oscar time this year that this was a film that paid homage to the cinema, but I wasn’t really sure how. From the previews I knew this was a movie about an urchin living in a train station who had some kind of magical adventure involving a clockwork automaton. I knew there was some big twist in the film. I knew it was based on a childrens’ book that I haven’t read. I wasn’t really sure what genre the film fell into though. Due to the clockwork man angle I somewhat thought it was a kind of steampunk fantasy film. Maybe, I speculated, the big twist was that young Hugo – our rapscallion orphan protagonist – was a robot himself. I kind of figured there were hidden worlds in the walls of the train station. Maybe time travel. Who knows?
Well on most counts my predictions were way off base, but it IS a movie about fantasy and dreams. In a way. It’s also a big warm loving piece of cinematic wish fulfilment. The more I think about it the more amusing I find it how subversive this movie is. Especially with its deliberately unrevealing marketing campaign. It is only masquerading as a childrens’ adventure film when in point of fact it is a love note to early silent cinema and the magic of the movies. What must those families who went in to see it all unsuspecting on opening night have thought? It makes me grin to think on it.
The nominal plot of the movie involves the young waif Hugo who lives alone in a train station in Paris sometime after the end of the great war and before the second world war. His great passion is finding cogs and gears to repair a mechanical man that is all he has to remember his father by. Of course he has no money so he has to steal these mechanics and his victim is a crotchety old man who runs a toy store in the station. When the old man (played marvelously by the ever wonderful Ben Kingsley) catches Hugo in his thefts and takes from him a notebook containing details of the automaton. Hugo then enlists the help of the old man’s god-daughter Isabelle to attempt to save the notebook. There’s some kind of mystery regarding this mechanical man that is ties in some way to the old man in the toy shop.
That’s just the hook of the movie though. The mystery and adventure is mostly resolved by the end of the second act of the movie and then it morphs into something between a love letter and a history lesson. I don’t know that it’s a particularly smooth transition. I find it hard to review the movie for itself as a whole because I am so squarely the target audience. There’s a strangely disjointed feel to the film with its first act fantasy and second act history lesson, but I was so enraptured by the message of the movie that I was easily able to gloss over that as I watched it.
The movie also has a tendency in the third act to resort to flat out info-dumping. There’s a scene of Action Research (assisted by a kindly old book seller played by Christopher Lee) where the two children read aloud from a book on cinema history while we are treated to a montage of iconic moments from classic silent films. I loved it as a fan of such films, recognizing some that I wish were in our collection (like Buster Keaton’s “The General”) and movies we actually already own and have reviewed for the project (like the silent “Thief of Bagdad.”) It’s preachy and somewhat blunt, but as I said I don’t mind so much because I so enjoyed the subject matter.
I remember being puzzled when I first saw the previews for this movie that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. Why was this iconic cinematic heavy-weight making a childrens’ adventure film. Clearly it is because the movie he actually wanted to make is the bit in the latter half, and he poured his heart and soul into that reverential effort. The whole movie is steeped in filmic lore and for a fan of the cinema such as myself it’s a special kind of treat. It’s not just all the archival footage of classic films either. The movie is peppered with side characters that feel like references themselves. Hugo’s primary antagonist, the bumbling train station security officer has a distinctly keystone kops feel to him. There’s a side romance involving Harry Potter’s evil uncle as a mostly mute patron of a cafe in the station that reminded me of nothing so much as the films of Jaques Tati’s Monsieur Hulo. The entire introduction of Hugo and his world is an extended exploration of the station and its occupants with no dialog whatsoever for about five minutes. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that all the actors were immersed in reference material by Scorsese as preparation.
It must have been a treat for Scorsese to work on this. He got to re-create a lot of fantastic silent movie moments near the conclusion. He also got to play with a lot of the fanciest and highest tech effects available in modern movies. I bought this in 3-D Blu-Ray and watched it in stereoscopic 3-D on my computer and it’s great to see how a true virtuoso of the medium handles the new tools available in 3-D. He seems to enjoy using a kind of 3-D push in for emotional impact – it’s like a zoom in but it pops a character out of the screen during dramatic moments to add emphasis. I’ve talked before about the new toolkit that directors are exploring today as they work with 3-D film making. It’s like using different camera lenses for deep focus or the advent of the steady-cam. There are all these new tricks to be discovered to help drive the story and we’re getting to see these first steps now.
Watching this movie this afternoon rekindled my love of film and made me want to get back to watching more movies. For that alone I love it. Uneven pacing, info-dumping, awkward storytelling and all.