Scorsese's 'Hugo' is a flawed but passionate ode to romance and the cinema

Posted by · 5:58 pm · November 5th, 2011

Paramount finally brought Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” before a lot of press (and a lot of guild members) in Los Angeles this afternoon. This after the film showed “unfinished” as a secret screening at the New York Film Festival last month.

Well, this print was “unfinished,” too, actually. One effects shot was still left to be rendered, and closing credits were not yet complete, but by and large, it was finished. And though it’s a flawed piece of work (stemming from a sluggish screenplay and a largely underwhelming lead performance from Asa Butterfield), I found it to be fiercely romantic and inspiringly passionate. I’ll sign off on that most days of the week.

It’s also immaculately crafted, from Dante Ferretti’s jaw-dropping production design (hello, Oscar) to Robert Richardson’s dazzling fluid master shots and foray into 3D to Sandy Powell’s precise-as-always costume design to the complex visual effects work on the piece. The film creates a world and transports you there effortlessly.

It takes a while to build steam. The screenplay isn’t all that organic and seemed to be at odds with itself, desperate to hold its final (moving) act as far away as possible for as long as possible. And Butterfield doesn’t quite settle into the character, though he certainly has moments.

But I didn’t care. I really didn’t. I so enjoyed Scorsese’s mingling of character with his own passion for filmmaking that I couldn’t be bothered with the film’s drawbacks. I was touched by the romance of the piece (expanding on some of the side characters from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel), the love of 1930s Paris and the excitement of that time and place and the reverence for a form that has come to define the man. It’s a movie about the joy of making movies, and I think anyone who’s ever tried their hand at actually doing that will react positively in some way.

Scorsese mentioned in the post-screening Q&A (moderated by Paul Thomas Anderson) that it was kind of back to square one, though, as the 3D stuff really put a wrench in his normal, refined flow. “But that was what made it fun,” he said. And truly, I think that joy shows up on the screen.

Ben Kingsley is particularly noteworthy for his performance as filmmaker Georges Méliès. The film becomes part-biopic of the man, who is a trailblazer of the cinema and whose creations expanded the limitations of what imagination could bring to the form. And Kingsley is quite moving in how he handles a man who wants to bury his glorious past as the world and tastes have moved on. Therein lies the film’s theme of film preservation, near and dear, of course, to Scorsese’s heart.

Ultimately it’s a movie about the hunger for adventure, how the movies satisfy that hunger and how rewarding sharing that gift truly is. It won’t be an Oscar powerhouse (since I know you’ve already got those questions ready). No Best Picture or Best Screenplay or anything like that (though I think Kingsley does deserve some consideration). It’ll all be relegated to the below-the-line work, I think, but I’m not really thinking about awards as I write this. I’m thinking about how happy I am that Scorsese was able to make a film like this, for himself. Warts and all, it’s of a piece with that which drives him.

One last note on the 3D. It’s used quite well. I don’t think it was really necessary for the film but at least in the hands of Scorsese it is cinematic and captivating, providing a real sense of space, clock pendulums swinging ominously into the foreground, wisps of steam floating into frame. And it really soars in a few of the longer swift exciting tracking shots.

The Q&A was largely focused on the crafts of the film, featuring Scorsese, Richardson, Ferretti, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, composer Howard Shore (there is more original music in the film than any Scorsese movie in recent memory) and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato. It was a good perspective to have, given how considerable the below-the-line effort is on the production. I was going to write something up based on their answers, but it seemed to make more sense to offer it up for you here. There aren’t any spoilers, though it’s not really a movie you can spoil, I don’t think.

Have a listen below. You can’t really hear the audience questions toward the end, though. But the answers are all clear enough. I personally liked Scorsese’s closing thoughts on the limits of the form and how we should never be confined by them. How very Méliès.

More on “Hugo” and its particulars in due time.

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