Hugo is Not Quite Magical: a Recommendation from Steve

Hugo, the new movie from Martin Scorsese, is a strange concoction. It is an homage to movie-making that will turn off many movie-goers. It is a family film that will bore many kids. Yet, in many ways it is quite enjoyable. Hugo, a young orphan who lives in the clockworks of a train station in Paris, is played by Asa Butterfield. His performance is solid, but not spectacular. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a young girl who befriends Hugo. She has great screen presence and is an actress to keep an eye on. The main adult actors have an intensity about them that at times seems overdone. Even so, Ben Kingsley is fairly effective as Papa Georges. I’m not a big Sacha Baron Cohen fan and his portrayal of the station investigator irritated me at first, too slapstick, but he did grow on me. Christopher Lee as the book seller was a bit of a head scratcher. When he first encounters Hugo in the movie he seems to recognize Hugo’s name, which makes him disturbed or angry. Later, he is quite kind to Hugo with no explanation for the change. There were a number of such instances in the movie. Since the main plot is a mystery, these could have been red herrings, but I don’t think so. They seemed to be examples of sloppy writing.

The mystery that forms the framework of the film involves an automaton that Hugo’s father was trying to repair before he died. Now Hugo is trying to complete the job while he and Isabelle seek to discover the origin of the automaton. While the mystery is the framework, it seems that Scorsese’s purpose in making Hugo was to celebrate the early days of film-making and to promote the preservation of those early films, a cause that he is actively involved in. A good portion of the second half of the movie works as a documentary on movie-making. I found these sequences t0 be delightful, but I can imagine many people finding them less than exhilarating. Indeed, it is ironic that a movie that seeks to celebrate the magic of movies lacks a feeling of magic itself. A line from Hugo himself illustrates the problem. When asked about repairing the automaton, he says that he likes machines because every piece has its function. There are no extra pieces. He says he likes to think of the world as a machine because then he knows that he has a function, a reason for being there. It is nice to think about everyone having a purpose, but the problem with machines is that they are impersonal. In Hugo, Scorsese has arranged all the pieces and it works (although it wasn’t clear what the function of all the pieces were), but it never really drew me in. Again though, enough of it worked for it to land fairly high in my rankings. It may have been even higher if it hadn’t been filmed in 3D. I still hate 3D! Many reviews say that Scorsese got the 3D right. I’m not sure that is humanly possible. 3D looks artificial, which may be another reason the movie didn’t draw me in. Sure, there were a few shots that looked great in 3D. There were other scenes that were enhanced by the format. That still leaves you with 80% of the movie where the 3D is simply irritating. Please, please, please, stop with the 3D already!

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