Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Written at the time of the film's release.

"One for the Kid"
"The Secret in the Clockworks"

Okay, okay.  Let me get this straight...a Martin Scorsese "Kid's Picture?"  In 3-D?

Honestly, I laughed when I saw the preview.  What could be more incongruous than the director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas making a film for the kiddies.*  I mean, face it, if Scorsese made a baseball film half the players would be killed by line drives. What's next? Spielberg making a snuff film? Kevin Smith making a good one?

Well, will wonders never cease?
Hugo, the film that Scorsese made for the youngsters runs about 2 hours 8 minutes but feels longer, probably because it has so much on its plate.  A period piece—set post-WWI—about a young orphan, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfieldpossessing the most angelic urchin face since Elijah Wood) who caretakes the extended clockworks inside Paris' Montparnasse station, it also contains a brief history of the birth of the film era, an extended history of the career of French film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) as well as being a feature-length advocacy piece for one of Scorsese's pet projects, film restoration.  But, lest one imagine a long lecture on the subject, it is so embedded in the film's story as to seem nearly invisible—a message hidden in a film of glass-sugar, so as to make the medicine go down.
Hugo ekes out a mouse-like existence, away from the orphanages, maintaining, unseen, the intricate, but elaborate clockworks that the trains run and the people depend onFrom the crystal clock-faces he can see life passing by and through, the scraps of left-over food that can provide a meal, and across the way the toy-maker's shop (with the very cranky proprietor) from whom he steals the tools and odd-parts to try and repair the last link to his late father (Jude Law, briefly), an amateur watch-maker, who took it upon himself to repair a mechanical automaton, discovered at the museum where he worked—the mechanical man's purpose no one knows

From his vantage-point, Hugo is at the hub of the station's bustling activity and many side-stories, but when the need or the hunger arises, he'll make time to enter that world through any number of vents, passageways and access-doors, usually one step ahead of the persistent Station Inspector, who is trying to maintain his own kind of order in the depot.
It may be a PG rated kids movie, but it is still Scorsese, so there are dark elements running all the way through, like Dickens. And Scorsese is never one for a light touch, no matter what the rating is or to whom the demographic is targeted. Still, it is Scorsese's breeziest project in years, recalling the set-bound, intricate work he did on New York, New York all those years ago. But, with the tools of CGI, the scope is huge and the director swoops and swings through corridors and tunnels and crawlspaces with a verve he's never displayed before. It's Scorsese unleashed, not unlike the doberman pinscher partner of the station garde (Sacha Baron Cohen, who displays a fine depth for physical comedy, as well as a Sellers-like ability to plumb perverseness from the lightest subjects), who scampers like a hell-hound through the station's ornately vast spaces (the most elaborate set-piece is a nearly wordless pre-title sequence that is its own CGI 3-D hurdle-fest, that is also a tribute to the silent film era.** 
Yeah, it's a kid movie, but it's also a relentless love letter to cinema, with craning shots the old masters would have busted Union rules for, emulations of the arty interpretive shots from the silent era—things the neo-realist Scorsese has never attempted before—while at the same time taking a toymaker/magician/film-makers' fascination with capturing what James Stewart (in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich) called "little pieces of time."  It is all a bit of magic, a bit of technology, a bit of art, presented with a stylists' eye for the dramatic.  
And Scorsese, with an army of the best at their cinematic craft—Robert Richardson, Thelma Schoonmaker, Dante Ferretti, Sandy Powell and Howard Shore (Shore's score is wonderfully soaring and French-laced)—including such fine actors as Kingsley, Law, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Kick-Ass' "Hit-Girl" Chloë Grace Moretz and A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg, have taken John Logan's intricately geared script-work and constructed a well-oiled entertainment machine taking today's technology to recreate an ephemeral past.

Wonders will never cease. Not with directors like Scorsese. Thank God!
Méliès accompanying himself on banjo in one of his films.

* This brings up one of those stories—the ones you repeat over and over again at Family Gatherings—of my Mother's side of the family, when she and her fellow Bannick sisters went to see Scorsese's Casino...because they thought it might be a musical? (!!!!) Casino. The one that begins with De Niro being blown up in a car, and later, a man's head in put in a vise until his eyes pop out, and Joe Pesci is bludgeoned to a pulpy death with a baseball bat—this, after an even more grisly scene where he has sex with Sharon Stone?

I've often wondered at what point in the film did they figure out there wouldn't be any dancing?

** It reminded me of the kids toy-box of Paris opening of Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann's zest-fest mash-up of period piece and slash and dash modern culture.

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