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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Hugo

Hugo (Four Stars)

U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 2011 

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo — a movie masterpiece if there ever was one — is a film for film lovers to dream on. 
It’s an incredibility entertaining show. But how could it not be? Scorsese has made it at the peak of his craft and art, and so have his collaborators. Besides appealing to children, the movie should — a cliché I know but it applies here — appeal to the child in most of us too. 
In telling his fabulous story of a little boy named Hugo Cabret, who secretly runs the clocks in a huge early ‘30s Parisian train station (the Gare Montparnasse) and his initial nemesis but eventual friend, filmmaker Georges Melies (the pioneering film genius who invented fantasy movies and narrative movies, now fallen on harder times), Scorsese takes much of the fantastic apparatus and the magical tools and tricks of cinema — touching on everything from the hand-tinted black and white silent movies of the turn of the century (Melies’ métier) to the spectacular 3D wide screen color and CGI effects of today — and uses it all to lavish breathtaking skill and a prodigal affection on each scene. 
The maker of Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed, showing his gentler side, turns Hugo into a feast of delights. 
Hugo is a tribute to the silent era and above all to Melies, a cinematic genius and a man of marvels who made over 500 films, lost them all when he burned them in despair after his career collapsed, and then saw other copies of those films unearthed, rediscovered and re-celebrated. But it‘s also a tribute to the movies of today in the age of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the cinema of extreme technical virtuosity and computer trickery and even 3D (used wonderfully well, for once), packed with CGI wonders that come up at the push of a button. Scorsese’s collaborators here are all among the best in the business, some among the best that ever were. Cinematographer Robert Richardson lit the glowing images, Dante Ferretti designed the brilliantly complex sets, Howard Shore wrote the lyrical music and Thelma Schoonmaker, once again, cut it all together, beautifully. 
In the movie, the heroes, 12-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and 70-year-old Melies (Ben Kingsley), are a couple of glorious gadgeteers, inventors and artists who’ve both lost their worlds and have to reclaim them together. Even though we hardly ever leave the station, except briefly when, in one of Hugo‘s dreams, one of the trains crashes through an outside wall, Hugo becomes a kind of quest film, a journey film. Scorsese’s movie keeps whisking us from wonder to wonder, from the giant clock looking out at the Eiffel Tower (the perspective near the clock, especially when Hugo dangles off of it, suggests a mix of Quasimodo’s and Harold Lloyd’s views in  and  Safety Last, a movie that Scorsese shows us) to the grand flamboyance of the station interior, to Melies’ (Ben Kingsley) toy shop with its skittering little play-creatures and shelf-rows of mechanical dolls, through the vast clockwork gears and wheels and winding stairs and pullies behind the walls where the Gare Montparnasse time machinery is controlled. 


All of this is seen, with Citizen Kane clarity and depth, through the eyes of 12-year-old Hugo, a Dickensian orphan leading a hard knocks life in the station. while secretly running the works in the walls — the boy who finds Melies, among his toys. (The real-life Melies, of course, after he lost his movie studio, really did have a toyshop in the train station.) 

The union of the two is inevitable. Hugo was robbed of his childhood when his horologist father (Jude Law) died, leaving him the weird but bewitching legacy of an automaton that writes. Hugo’s drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), then the station’s timekeeper, took him into Montparnasse, and taught him all about time. Then he died too, leaving Hugo, all alone, to run the clocks (unbeknownst, it seems to the stationmasters). And Melies, an extraordinarily gifted man, who was writer, designer, director and even star actor in most of those 500 films, was robbed of his artistic career, and even forced, to dismantle his movie studio (the world‘s first), and destroy his own films because of changing public tastes and the machinations of the clever businessmen who robbed him and others blind. 

It was one of the early tragedies of world cinema. Given the early piratical and later tyrannical practices of the business types who took over the movies, and who made obsessive artists like Melies subordinate to their main goals (money and more money), how could it not be? 

Scorsese’s movie, the purest expression ever of the director’s passionate love of the cinema, shows us — SPOILER ALERT be damned — how both the fleet urchin inventor Hugo and the bearded, bespectacled magician/movie-man Melies regain what they lost. 


There are others in the story of course, other denizens and habitués of the Gare. There is Melies’ plucky god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who becomes Hugo’s station angel and movie going buddy, and Melies’ wife, beaming Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), the studious looking Lisette (film noir lover/actress Emily Mortimer), a fictional Emily (Frances de la Tour), who has a little dachshund, and Emily‘s rotund boyfriend M. Frick (Richard Griffiths, who looks like he was born for a silent movie, and a pie in his face) and, most dangerously the tyrannical station inspector (played with an edge by Sacha Baron Cohen), a WWI veteran with a prosthetic leg, a stickler who chases Hugo and other orphans all around the station. 

And there’s another character from outside the station group: the film lover, academic and Melies admirer Rene Tabard, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who played the Job figure in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man

Scorsese is a master director of actors, but usually in rougher, tougher, fouler-talking urban milieus. Here he and his actors go for the larger-than-life fairytale quality that Spielberg or Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Robert Zemeckis have mastered — and in fact, Hugo often suggests what Jeunet’s Amelie may have been like, if Spielberg had directed it, and if Amelie had been played not by Audrey Tautou, but by Zazie dans le Metro (the little gamin who, come to think of it, sounded and swore something like a Scorsese mean streets character). 

It’s not Scorsese’s milieu, and in a way, not even his style, but you can tell how much the material means to him, how much the cinema means to him. Because of all that, Hugo is easily one of the most personal movies he’s ever made. Mean Streets and Goodfellas show us his real world, and the world around that world. Hugo shows us the world of his dreams, the world of the movies. 

Hugo was based on the children’s book by Brian Selznick (yes, it’s that Selznick family)  “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” (a better film title, by the way, than Hugo) and the screenwriter was John Logan, of The Aviator, Gladiator and Rango. With its child’s perspective on a child’s fantasy world, it’s the first movie of its kind that Scorsese has ever done — unless you want to count the boy’s-eye view he used in his classic mother-son road movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But Alice was , at bottom, a realistic movie, while Hugo is a great rich fever dream a movie that suggests the kind of wild spree Spielberg would have made out of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s lush French farce Amelie, if the screen character Amelie were 12 years old, and more like Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Metro than Audrey Tautou

Yet its also pure Scorsese, and quite clearly one of the most personal movies he‘s ever made. 

Movie-loving, it seems to me, especially the intense kind that Scorsese demonstrates in this film and in his many film preservation ventures, is one of the most prodigal and rich of all artistic obsessions — since the movies are the art that can embrace not only all the world, but all the arts and entertainments and people in the world. To make a movie like Hugo, to pay such extravagant, but well-deserved, tribute to the great Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley lets the character swallow him up) is to show, in many ways, a universal artistic love for that world and all its (best) works. 

Melies, who began his show business career as one of Paris’ best stage magicians, was a man who made both magic and the movies, triumphed in both, lost both, and regained both. He would have probably been touched that today you can buy a set with over 170 of his films (from Criterion) and play it in your homes on anoher magical invention. He would have been touched too by Hugo, I‘m sure, as I was. It’s my favorite film this year. How could it not be?

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Hugo”

  1. FNB says:

    I didn’t like this as much as you did, but visually it is amazing.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon