Sunday, December 15, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.25: Martin Scorsese's Hugo

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 69/B

No director has done more for film preservation than Martin Scorsese.  The acclaimed director started the Film Foundation in 1990, and the organization has since preserved over 500 movies. What’s more, Scorsese’s lengthy film documentaries A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy emphasize the importance of film history and visual literacy (the ability to “read” movies and see what certain techniques say about the story). 2011’s Hugo seemed like a bit of a departure for the director – it’s a children’s story from someone who’s upcoming film just squeaked by without getting an NC-17 rating. It even threw me a bit at the time, even as I appreciated the film preservation material at the heart of it. But Hugo isn’t just a film history lesson sandwiched in the middle of a kid’s movie. It’s about what the movies mean to us.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old boy living in the walls of Gare Montparnasse in 1931 Paris. His father (Jude Law) died in a fire, and his uncle (Ray Winstone) brought him to mend the station’s clocks before leaving him. Hugo now avoids the of Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen) in order to stay out of the orphanage. Before he died, his father found an automaton that the two planned to fix.

Hugo now goes around the station stealing parts, but he’s caught by toymaker Georges (Ben Kingsley), he has to start working for him in order to get back his father’s notebook, which Georges confiscated. Hugo befriends Georges’s granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a bookworm who is forbidden by Georges to go to the movies. Hugo bonds with her, and they soon find out something about Georges: he is the forgotten silent film master Georges Méliès.

Hugo was noted for being Scorsese’s first film in 3D, but I’m one who believes that the film greatly benefits from being in 2D. 3D has an immersive hyperrealism effect, and for all of Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s considerable effort, the effect works against the gorgeous picture book quality the images have.  It’s less in the style of the period dramas Scorsese made in the past, more in the style of the dreamy melodramas of Powell and Pressburger, updated for a modern audience. That effect carries over to the canny use of POV, as Hugo watches from afar the charming vignettes within the station: a salesman (Richard Griffiths) tries to romance a woman (Frances da la Tour) but has trouble with her unfriendly dachshund; Gustave tries to romance a florist (Emily Mortimer), but the squeaking in his leg-brace undermines his confidence.

More to the point, Hugo falls under what Powell would have described as a “composed film”, one where the music dictates the composition, montage, and performances so that it all moves beautifully together. Many were wowed by the CGI camera swooping and tracking shots, but I’m most charmed by the deliberate compositions and edits in a scene where Hugo fixes a wind-up toy (done in an amazing stop-motion effect) to Howard Shore’s lovely score, with us seeing all of the work that goes into a beautiful little machine. That effect carries over to Hugo’s fixing of the clocks, and it makes a thematic tie to the work and magic that goes into film. There’s something enchanting in the wonder Scorsese and his characters regard it with.

But then, it’s the film that most communicates Scorsese’s love for the movies, and not just in the Méliès storyline. The whole film is packed with references to early cinema, whether it’s a splice of bodies in motion over a trampled Moretz (in a bit that references both Keaton’s The Cameraman and the early Busby Berkeley musicals at once) to a handful of scenes that both show the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival at a Train Station in its original footage and in Scorsese’s 3D reimagining. And then there’s a scene at the Film Academy Library, in which Hugo and Isabelle look through a picture-book of movie history, just as a young Scorsese did with the book A Pictorial History of the Movies (referenced in A Personal Journey), and we get to see the images of The Kiss, The General, Intolerance, The Great Train Robbery, and other early silent classics.

I’m still not as effusive about Hugo as some: John Logan’s script has some real clunkers (“Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad…”, “I am your only friend!”). And while Scorsese weaves the stories of Hugo and Méliès together better than I remembered, the film is still a bit meandering and overextended, particularly in a final chase between Hugo and Gustave that would have benefited from simplification and trimming.

I’m also still iffy on those two performances: Butterfield is fine in the quieter moments, but he’s less convincing in any moment where Hugo has to express outsized emotion (particularly whenever Hugo cries). Cohen, meanwhile, gets a bit too caught up in the mannerisms of Gustave for him to really work as a character (though he’s not helped by an ill-considered bit of slapstick early on, complete with a dreaded dog reaction). My colleague Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas wrote, “He’s supposed to be off, but his off-ness is off.” It seems a bit too considered and too stylized  to really connect, and it makes his late-film reversal unconvincing.

The other two major roles, however, are quite strong. Moretz’s accent feels a bit overdone, but she’s perfectly charming and bright as the precocious Isabelle. And Kingsley nails the bitterness that defines Méliès, a man whose zeal for magic and escape from reality is ground down by the uncaring world, by the people who view old films as worthless. It’s hard not to end up broken when the work you’ve made for the whole world isn’t just rejected, but flat-out destroyed, and it’s easy to see Scorsese’s worst fears in Kingsley’s character.

And yet, Méliès’s work lives on. Much of the world might have moved on from it, but the enthusiasm of critics, of fimmakers, of historians, and of anyone to whom they matter keep them alive. Scorsese’s film wanders a bit, but the wonders of recreating Méliès’s work in flashback (complete with a lovely soft focus and a look at what the filmmaker did for early special effects) and showing the glorious A Trip to the Moon to a moved Méliès more than makes up for it. Like Hugo, Scorsese was a lonely child, and the movies gave him something to connect to. Hugo is part history lesson, part film preservation plea, but above all else it’s a film about how the movies are a shared dream world, a shared memory, for cinemagoers young and old.

Some superlatives at the end of this edition of Director Spotlight:

1.     Raging Bull (100/A)
2.     Taxi Driver (99/A)
3.     Goodfellas (99/A)
4.     Mean Streets (97/A)
5.     The Age of Innocence (96/A)
6.     The King of Comedy (96/A)
7.     The Departed (94/A)
8.     The Aviator (93/A)
9.     A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (91/A)
10. The Last Temptation of Christ (90/A-)
11. After Hours (89/A-)
12. Shutter Island (86/A-)
13. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (84/A-)
14. The Last Waltz (83/A-)
15. Casino (82/A-)
16. American Boy (78/B+)
17. No Direction Home (77/B+)
18. The Color of Money (76/B+)
19. Public Speaking (76/B+)
20. A Letter to Elia (76/B+)
21. Gangs of New York (75/B+)
22. Shine a Light (74/B+)
23. New York, New York (71/B)
24. Italianamerican (70/B)
25. Living in the Material World (70/B)
26. Hugo (69/B)
27. Bringing Out the Dead (69/B)
28. My Voyage to Italy (66/B)
29. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (63/B-)
30. Kundun (60/B-)
31. Cape Fear (57/B-)
32. Boxcar Bertha (56/B-)
33. Feel Like Going Home (46/C+)

Shorts: The Big Shave (92/A), Life Lessons (91/A), Boardwalk Empire pilot (A-), It’s Not Just You, Murray! (82/A-), The Key to Reserva (81/B+), What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing at a Place Like This (77/B+), Street of Dreams (76/B+), Bad (75/B+), Made in Milan (65/B)

Still unseen: Street Scenes

Best Actor: Robert De Niro (Raging Bull)
Runner-up: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver)

Best Actor (not De Niro): Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed)
Runner-up: Ray Liotta (Goodfellas)

Best Actress: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore)
Runner-up: Michelle Pfeiffer (The Age of Innocence)

Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci (Goodfellas)
Runner-up: Robert De Niro (Mean Streets)

Best Supporting Actress: Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver)
Runner-up: Cate Blanchett (The Aviator)

Best Screenplay: Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)
Runner-up: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas)

Best Directing: Raging Bull
Runner-up: Taxi Driver

Best Scene: The Cell (Raging Bull)
Runner-up: Last Day as a Wiseguy (Goodfellas)

As always, I’d like to thank anyone who keeps reading these. Few have been as rewarding as the Scorsese edition, as few directors have been so consistently terrific and willing to push themselves late in their careers. Next edition might take some time to get going, as I’m trying to catch up with the last of the 2013 releases over the holidays, but I think Akira Kurosawa is worth waiting for.

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