Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hugo (2011)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chole Grace Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Jude Law.

If you have never heard of George Melies, allow me to enlighten you. He was a French illusionist and pioneer filmmaker at the turn of the 20th century. He was an innovator of special effects, accidentally discovering the special effect, "stop trick" (filming something, turning the camera off, removing the object being filmed, then turning the camera back on, giving the viewer the illusion that the object disappeared.) By 1896, he was one of the very first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painting the color into his films. Melies directed, starred in and produced over 500 films, ranging from one to forty minutes from 1896 to 1913.  In 1908, Thomas Edison created the Motion Picture Patents Company, which put a monopoly on the film industry in Europe and America. Melies joined the new conglomerate of film makers that Edison had created, but was unhappy with being part of a corporation. He set out as independent, but was broke and out of the business by 1913.  Méliès personally burned all of the negatives of his films that he had stored at his studio, as well as most of the sets and costumes. As a result many of his films do not exist today.  After being driven out of business, Méliès disappeared from public life. By the mid-1920s he was making a meager living as a candy and toy salesman at the Montparnasse Train Station in Paris....which brings us to Martin Scorsese's film, Hugo.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a 1930s Paris Train Station. Hugo was taken in by his uncle after his father (Jude Law) dies, and is taught how to operate all the mechanical clocks in the train station. Hugo's uncle is a drunkard, and soon passes away himself, leaving Hugo to survive by blending in with the crowd of the train station, and stealing a croissant here and there as his only means of food. Hugo continues to operate and maintain all the clocks in the station, without anyone knowing that his uncle is gone.   Before Hugo's father had passed, he had been restoring an automaton (antique robot in layman's terms) but dies before it can be finished. The main thing that is missing is the key to wind the automaton up.

Hugo then crosses paths with a toy shop owner in the train station named George Melies (Ben Kingsley.) Unbeknownst to Hugo, this grumpy old man is the original owner of his automaton, and also an early French film pioneer. The first two thirds of the film is dedicated to the relationship between Hugo and Meiles god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz.) Isabelle helps to coax Hugo out of his shell and into a world that he has only viewed as an outsider. Isabelle also holds the main ingredient to the automaton-the key.  Hugo in turn introduces Isabelle to his world (or underworld) of the innards of the train station's clock system. Hugo also introduces Isabelle to his only means of escape from his world, which is going to the cinema. Together the two children get the automaton to work again, all the while they are pursued by the mean spirited (but fun-loving) Train Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen.) The narrative of the film switches in the third act of the film to the life and works of George Melies. The automaton is used as a means of bringing Hugo and Melies together, but moreover it is used as a means to help Melies to come to grips with his past as a brilliant filmmaker, breaking him away from years of sadness after being washed out of the business. The real George Melies died in 1938, sort of ironic that this film takes place in what would be towards the end of his life.

 It is no surprise to me now as to the reason why this film killed the competition at the Oscar awards for cinematography, sound editing, visual effects and art direction. This film is the first film that I have seen in a very long time where CGI and 3D actually worked to make the film what it was. The use of Melies actual film  A Trip to the Moon (1902) in this film really showcases how the real George Melies was way ahead of his time in the world of film making.  This film is in part a tribute to Scorsese himself as a child. Hugo was lost and forgotten about in the train station, and watching the world from inside his lonely world "behind the clocks."  His only means of joy was going to the movie theater, I am sure that this is most likely a reference to Scorsese growing up as a child in Queens, New York and watching the world go by from an apartment window. Scorsese has admitted in several interviews that going to the movies was a way of "escaping" a lonely childhood. I would also say that this film is a tribute to not just George Melies, but to the creation of film making itself. I believe that this is Martin Scorsese's way to say "Thank You" to something that he has lived and loved for a greater portion of his life. On the contrary I would say Thank you to you, Marty...truly one of the greatest film makers of my generation.

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