Scorsese’s Brilliant Hugo: Cinema’s earliest origins through the lens of its latest advancement

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Easily one of 2011′s best films, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a lyrical dream, a film that pays homage to what is so transformative about cinema — its possibilities, its power, and its magic. You’d probably think, then, that Hugo would be full of rapid-fire cuts and scenes that move so fast you can’t keep up with them. That would be true, probably, of the movie you’d imagine Scorsese would make when dabbling in 3-D for the first time. That is what I expected. The last thing I expected was this slow dance, this melancholy masterpiece that takes its time telling its story, and fills itself not only with dazzling visuals but moments of genuine sentiment.

Scorsese is not known for creating stories with such an emotional pull. Hugo was born out of his love for cinema and his day-to-day relationship with his almost 12 year-old daughter. Hanging around a child can do that to you – a world that seems bland and predictable can, through their eyes, seem vibrant. Scorsese is seeing the world through different eyes here. When he isn’t having what appears to be a lot of fun with 3-D, he’s finding what makes the best stories about children good: you have to be hard on them, not easy.

Back in the 1980s there was a book released, Masquerade, that had a treasure hunt slowly revealed inside. If you could solve the puzzle you could win a bejeweled rabbit. Does anyone remember that? The book and its prize were so captivating, yet the challenge seemed insurmountable. Hugo evokes a similar kind of insurmountable magic – how did he, how could he? Yet somehow he could and he did. From the first frame to the last Hugo is a marvel.

Much of what makes the film really work is the lead performance, Asa Butterfield as Hugo, an orphaned homeless kid who lives in the train station. He is stalked by a typical storybook villain played by a scene-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen, and then befriended by a curious girl named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). As the mystery of an automaton in Hugo’s possession comes to life, a world is uncovered — and it’s the world of long forgotten films.

You fall into Hugo with your beliefs hopefully suspended, your imagination recalling a the array of illustrations and illusions your mind effortlessly presented you with and you stare, breathlessly, as what this director with this technology can do. You won’t see anything like Hugo this year, maybe never.

Jim Cameron has said he likes 3-D because, when done right, it becomes an Event to bring audiences back into theaters again to experience a sensation they can’t get anywhere else. Hugo doesn’t need the 3-D to be a good film. It succeeds on story alone. But oh, what 3-D can achieve in Scorsese’s capable hands. It’s spectacular spectacular. A kaleidoscope dream, a clockwork marvel.

We’re not really supposed to be writing actual reviews, just extended comments. From a below-the-line standpoint, Hugo has it all — art direction, score, cinematography, costume design, sound — and of course, editing by the great Thelma Schoonmaker. This film should lead in all those categories. If it were only impeccable technical flourish,, that would be one thing. But it is so much more than that.

In a perfect world, Hugo would be nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor. But the Academy has a blind-spot for movies involving children, just as it has a blind-spot for “genre movies.” So I won’t get my hopes up that Hugo will be nominated in the major categories. All I can do is talk about what a great movie it is, how talented Scorsese still is. Hugo may be his most personal film because it shows the purity of his love for film-making and films themselves, his respect for the history of cinema and the promise of its future.

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39 Comments

  1. November 5, 2011

    so, I understand SBC is Oscar-worthy again?

    I got mixed feelings from the trailer, feels like Polar Express meets Amelie with a touch of Harry Potter… that’s the vibe I feel. But it’s Scorsese. And with Kingsley and Cohen.

    And about children films & Oscar: Babe did earn 7 noms… but of course, that was a children movie only in the surface.

  2. Beth Stevens
    November 6, 2011

    I’m beginning to anticipate Hugo more and more. Thanks for the beautiful writeup, Sasha.

  3. November 6, 2011

    Your review’s just upped my already high expectations! Not to mention Scorsese’s direction I’m personally looking forward to the art direction and Shore’s score

  4. Tye-Grr
    November 6, 2011

    Which supporting actor is Oscar worthy in your opinion? I’ve heard great things about Kingsley.

  5. Mattoc
    November 6, 2011

    Sasha, can you compare it to anything else form Scorsese’s repertoire or any other film? I’m just curious. The trailer doesn’t give away too much.

    Also, I am hearing no love for Breaking Dawn. This is the third of the series after all. Edward and Co. must be rewarded for their contribution t the medium don’t you think? ( other than vitamin D and a good laugh)

  6. Paddy M
    November 6, 2011

    Sooo freakin excited now. Thanks Sasha!

  7. Sato
    November 6, 2011

    Mattoc

    Isn’t Razzie enough? I’m really sorry but I can’t see any contribution in the world of cinema… I hope you understand where I’m coming from…

    By the way with regards to the topic, Sasha only one could wish for the Academy to be fair with “genre movies”… But hey, this is Scorsese that we’re talking about… If it’s really good, then why not?

  8. Edward Douglas
    November 6, 2011

    Glad you liked it… don’t think it will connect with Oscar voters in a similar way as TIm Burton’s Sweeney Todd didn’t connect with them. I can see it getting a Production Design nomination, and possibly Supporting Actor since it’s an open field but probably not.

  9. Rufussondheim
    November 6, 2011

    I am really glad that everything I’m hearing about this film is praise.

    It kind of reminds me of the year The Departed won. Midway through that year, it was on no one’s radar, barely mentioned even as a possibility. But having seen the movie it was based on, Infernal Affairs, and knowing that Scorcese is a master, I had it at the top of my list all year. People thought I was crazy.

    This year is no different, the book this movie is based on is phenomenal, even if it’s “children’s lit.” I figured Scorcese saw something in this book he could bring to life, and the knowledge that he wanted to do it in 3D also made me believe he had something special in store.

    This is coming from someone who is not a Scorcese fan.

    Avatar cleaned up at the Oscars for such a crappy movie. All it had was good 3D.

    Look for Hugo to be a major contender.

  10. Pierre de Plume
    November 6, 2011

    As the mystery of an automaton in Hugo’s possession comes to life, a world is uncovered — and it’s the world of long forgotten films.

    Oscar voters seem to appreciate — and acknowledge — homages to film. Just consider Cinema Paradiso and the Toto character. Might not Hugo fill the bill Oscarwise?

  11. Edward Douglas
    November 6, 2011

    Pierre, there’s already The Artist, a much better movie, and even My Week with Marilyn. Really only the last half hour of the movie or less is an homage to the silent movies of Georges Melies

  12. dfa
    November 6, 2011

    I notice how Sasha and the NYTimes (in an actor’s profile) sing the praises of Asa Butterfield, while others have been mixed or highly critical, even saying he sinks the movie. Usually child actor performances don’t elicit such widely diverging views, whatever the verdict. I’m very curious to see it for myself, and hope the movie (and the performance) work for me like it did for Sasha, because I really enjoyed the book (and Selznick’s follow-up Wonderstruck) and the idea of Scorcese adapting it has filled me with very happy anticipation.

  13. Sasha Stone
    November 6, 2011

    I notice how Sasha and the NYTimes (in an actor’s profile) sing the praises of Asa Butterfield, while others have been mixed or highly critical, even saying he sinks the movie. Usually child actor performances don’t elicit such widely diverging views, whatever the verdict. I’m very curious to see it for myself, and hope the movie (and the performance) work for me like it did for Sasha, because I really enjoyed the book (and Selznick’s follow-up Wonderstruck) and the idea of Scorcese adapting it has filled me with very happy anticipation.

    Folks are just plain too whiny. The kid nails it. Was with him the whole time and he made me cry at the end, his acting did. I’m not going to start killing the messenger but I will say that in this day and age, with so many people writing about movies, you have to trust yourself.

  14. Sasha Stone
    November 6, 2011

    Pierre, there’s already The Artist, a much better movie, and even My Week with Marilyn. Really only the last half hour of the movie or less is an homage to the silent movies of Georges Melies

    Hugo is a better film than The Artist. The Artist is a small part of what Hugo does. Both are very very good but with Hugo Scorsese has made a film totally different from any of his other films and one that you just don’t expect in this day and age. The Artist is simpler, easier to follow, which I’m sure helps people like Ed get a better grasp on it. Just kidding Ed!! :-D

  15. Sasha Stone
    November 6, 2011

    Glad you liked it… don’t think it will connect with Oscar voters in a similar way as TIm Burton’s Sweeney Todd didn’t connect with them. I can see it getting a Production Design nomination, and possibly Supporting Actor since it’s an open field but probably not.

    Think bigger, Ed. The only possible snag for Hugo is the number 1 votes thing. It would sail through BP nominations otherwise.

  16. Sasha Stone
    November 6, 2011

    @Beth, you will love this movie.

    @Mattoc – honestly, you all know how much I love Scorsese’s work. His films are so unique onto themselves that even when they fail they are glorious failures. Hard to find a bad one in the bunch. This is unlike any of his other movies, though, because he doesn’t rely only on camera tricks and he tells his story very very slowly. It’s kind of the polar opposite of, say, The Departed. The one thing they have in common, though, is a scrappy, sympathetic protagonist. Hugo is both the most visually amazing film I’ve seen this year, and one of the most touching stories. The day I am above the kind of magic only the movies can bring is the day that I die inside. It also goes nicely with Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Fantasy stories set in Paris by two brilliant veteran New York directors. I know Oscar voters need more meat on their bones and I know they would never choose a movie like this to win. I can only hope that they come to their senses and name Hugo what is so obviously is: one of the year’s best films. There is no question in my mind about it. Does it win? Not a chance. A movie with a kid in the lead won’t win. But none of that keeps me from praising the movie. The films I love this year the most are the ones that take chances with the audience’s intelligence. Moneyball, The Artist, Hugo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block, The Descendants – these movies are made for people who both love movies but also love original stories with well drawn characters. You know?

  17. Sasha Stone
    November 6, 2011

    Polar Express meets Amelie with a touch of Harry Potter

    Way better than all three of those.

  18. steve50
    November 6, 2011

    Looks like a couple of vet directors who were written-off as washed-up have actually raised the bar this year. This really makes things exciting (and many were bemoaning the fact that it looked like a weak year?!)

  19. November 6, 2011

    Avatar cleaned up at the Oscars for such a crappy movie. All it had was good 3D.
    Look for Hugo to be a major contender.

    Good logic. Wise words.

  20. Jack
    November 6, 2011

    “Looks like a couple of vet directors who were written-off as washed-up..”

    It’d be impossible to make the argument that Scorsese has ever been “washed-up.”

  21. November 6, 2011

    Scorsese is pretty much the only one who could make me see a film in 3D.

  22. Vickie Williams
    November 6, 2011

    “The films I love this year the most are the ones that take chances with the audience’s intelligence. Moneyball, The Artist, Hugo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block, The Descendants – these movies are made for people who both love movies but also love original stories with well drawn characters”

    Thank you for this Sasha. It’s gratifying to see Attack The Block mentioned with these other films. We seem to have almost exactly the same taste. I’m still hoping against hope that ATB will get an Original Screenplay nomination.

    Regarding Hugo, I loved it as much as you, and agree about the 3D (which I normally hate). My husband can’t see 3D so I’ll be seeing it again in 2D when it opens, but I’m glad I saw it in 3D first. It really is stunning.

    If I were to put Hugo on a shelf with similar “children’s” movies I love, I’d probably sit it next to the unfairly maligned Return To Oz and Babe: Pig In The City, though Hugo isn’t quite as dark as either of those. The Iron Giant and maybe Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess would be there too.

  23. joeyhegele
    November 6, 2011

    Two great reviews in a row for two movies I am looking forward to (the other one being J. Edgar).

    I had Hugo on my Best Picture prediction list since the beginning of the year, but particularly since I saw the trailer. While everyone else was certain the latest Harry Potter was going to be in the top ten, I was certain if any children’s flick was going to be nominated for BP it was going to be Hugo.

    I agree that Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound, Costume, and Set nominations are pretty likely. Costume and Set could also be winners for Hugo, while War Horse takes Cinematography, Editing, Score, and Sound.

    The Oscar race is really getting going now. This should be an exciting year.

  24. drake
    November 6, 2011

    i agree with Jack… no way scorsese or eastwood (or allen actually) could be considered washed-up… maybe their best work is behind them, but especially scorsese and eastwood are all over the lists of the best directors of the 21st century

  25. Bob Burns
    November 6, 2011

    I’m a longtime fan of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and was joyous to learn Scorsese had actually started making the film. This write-up is a delight to see.

    Thanks, Sasha.

  26. g
    November 6, 2011

    I am so excited! Scorsese is such a genius, cannot wait for this movie!

  27. CarsonT
    November 6, 2011

    Scorsese is back! When the guy is on, it makes the Oscar season so much more exciting… How cool is it that this year we could get a Best Director category with Scorsese, Eastwood, and Woody Allen? Not saying it’s for-sure-going-to-happen, but just the possibility makes this a year to remember!

    I hope Hugo becomes a contender!

  28. Bennett
    November 6, 2011

    Jean DUjardin used to be listed as Best Actor contender, didn’t he? Why was he cut off? Any particular reason I’m not aware of?

  29. Edward Douglas
    November 7, 2011

    As I mentioned in my latest blog post, the #1 votes things (or what I’m dubbing the 5% Rule) is going to kill a lot of good movies and guarantee that this year’s an Oscar race is a popularity contest more than ever before. and yet, I still think that Drive’s gonna get in based on originality and innovation alone.

  30. Nic V
    November 7, 2011

    I was trying to grasp the three washed up directors myself and just shook my head if anyone thought that Scorcese was washed up.

    Scorese is an interesting man who rarely seems to venture out into what we might call rough waters. I still remember The Temptation of Christ and how Scorcese managed to be irreverant and yet craft such a mystical and enthralling piece of work. Sounds like this jump into a completely different vein for him turned out to be a good thing. Can’t wait for this one either.

  31. julian the emperor
    November 7, 2011

    well, nic v, maybe some of those who find Scorsese “washed up” (a rough characterization, admittedly), miss exactly that bit of irreverence, you’re referring to. Scorsese still is a master when it comes to conjuring strong images and a sense of visual wonder (I bet Hugo embodies these qualities in great fashion), but he plays it very safe these days. He makes projects designed to be big, bold and brash rather than original, daring and yes, irreverent.
    A strong, talented filmmaker (even if he is “getting older”) should never stray too far off his original path of daring, confrontational film-making. But sadly, that is what Scorsese has resigned to do lately. Even making a supposedly non-ironic b-movie like Shutter Island, which to me was a definite fall from “grace”.
    If Hugo is a children’s movie in spirit as well as in execution, maybe he can conjure some kind of magic again? I don’t know. But it is obviously not daring in any thematic sense, but maybe daring as “straying outside of your comfort zone”? I’m skeptical, but Scorsese always deserves the benefit of the doubt.

  32. Sasha Stone
    November 7, 2011

    @Bob, you are so going to dig it.

  33. Joe W
    November 7, 2011

    A Spielberg/Scorcese duel at the Oscars would be pretty fun to watch (literally and figuratively)

  34. November 7, 2011

    Well, Hugo has moved and seems to convince, but I’m still waiting to see where WB is going to bet its money… IF they don’t have any other option than to push HP, that would probably hurt Hugo’s chances – even thought I think both are different kind of events… I see Hugo as a contender, maybe even for the win, if War Horse “faints”. But the field is clarifying to me… I see War Horse as the likely winner, followed in no special order by Moneyball, Hugo, The Help, The Ides of March, The Descendants and J Edgar… then a tier of “maybes” with Midnight in Paris, Harry Potter, Tintin (talk about a mutual cancellation between Hugo, Potter and Tintin, lol!), Tinker Taylor…, The Tree of Life, The Artist and then the longshots like Albert Nobbs, The Iron Lady, The Skin I Live In, Melancholia (despite all the buzz, I can see some people noting it down as a #1 pick, but 5%? Big question) and so on.

    If I have to say here and now, I’d bet on War Horse, Moneyball, J Edgar, The Ides of March, The Descendants, The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris. Hugo and/or Harry Potter, pending on what their studios make with both and how heavily they bet fro them.

    But Hugo is a bomb easy to disarm: Spielberg can always push Tintin to syphoon attention and WB can do same with Potter. War Horse is now the clear frontrunner for the win, in my opinion. If I have to look for an alternate, I would probably bet on J Edgar with a Lead Actor win for Leo.

  35. julian the emperor
    November 7, 2011

    J Edgar as a winner for bp, jesus? It has to improve on its 44% rotten tomatoes score, wouldn’t you agree!??
    Don’t be so starstruck or conformist in your thinking when it comes to the Oscars…Spielberg and Eastwood are still, by and large, sight unseen. A movie like The Descendants is still light years ahead if you ask me, but sure, everything can change a lot before february…

  36. Ryman
    November 8, 2011

    If you were right about Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and trust me, you were), then I sure as hell will believe you about Hugo. It makes me wonder if the people who make the trailers for these films even know what the film is actually about. I’ve seen so many great films this year that have had trailers which don’t match up with the plot or tone of the real movie at all. It all started with Bridesmaids, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Drive, 50/50, The Descendants, J Edgar, and now Hugo I’m assuming. Great movies with horrible misleading trailers. Anyways I’ll go see Hugo when it comes out in my part of town for sure.

  37. November 8, 2011

    haven’t checked out RT before writting that, but, are you seriously judging a movie chances by the opinion of only 14 reviews? When the reviews are over 50 – in such an event film (Leo/Clint) you can’t dismiss it that soon. On paper, this always looked as one of the frontrunners, ’cause of the cast, crew and subject matter… let’s not forget about it.

  38. Davey
    November 8, 2011

    @Vickie Williams

    Hugo has been one of my most anticipated movies all year (I love all Scorsese’s films, and agree that even his failures are interesting failures)–but mentioning Return to Oz, Babe: Pig in the City, The Iron Giant, and Cuaron’s Little Princess sealed the deal. Four of the greatest children’s films ever made. So excited for Hugo.

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