Some early thoughts on Scorsese's Hugo from last night's secret NYFF screening
Last night the New York Film Festival held what was supposed to be a "Secret Screening" of a "work-in-progress" by a master filmmaker. Was it J. EDGAR? GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO? ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED? As it turns out, the so-called "secret" screening wasn't very secret with word leaking early yesterday that it would, in fact, be Martin Scorsese's HUGO.
Scorsese was in town (it's New York, of course he's in town) and took to the stage before the screening for a quick announcement. "So this is a work-in-progress...", he started, reading from a note card. I was hoping for some personal statement from the director on the film, why he chose to make it, what it meant to him, etc. but instead we just got a list of what wasn't yet finished with HUGO (it wasn't yet color-corrected, there was a temp score, the FX weren't 100% complete and so on and so forth). But OK, Scorsese, even at this point in his career, still gets nervous as a premiere. Fair enough. (And besides, it's preferable to what happened after the screening when they brought out stars Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz to wave for 10 seconds and then shuttled them off the stage.)
Because Scorsese was still working on the film, I won't get into a formal review - I'll leave that for Chris Bumbray on the week of release - but I am allowed to share some thoughts on HUGO. And?...
If you hadn't heard, the film is an adaptation of the Caldecott Award-winning children's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." It follows 12-year-old Hugo, the now-orphaned son of a late clockmaker in Paris. His father left behind a strange artifact - a wind-up automoton that Hugo is determined to bring to life, with the help of a cute girl he meets at the train station where he lives.
And while that sounds very much like the trailer you've seen for the film, it's not very indicative of the film itself. The automoton mystery is actually solved fairly early on and we're off an entirely new, and far more interesting, adventure that I don't want to spoil here.
I really quite liked parts of HUGO. Even loved parts of it. There's a quasi-brilliant tracking shot in the opening sequence that follows Hugo through the many clocks he works on in the train station. And once the film settles down and focuses on the characters, there's some definite wonder to be had. But while there's much to love in HUGO, the film never comes together in a cohesive or satisfying way.
Despite that tracking shot, the opening sequence goes on far too long - the title card comes on screen what seems like 15 minutes into the movie - and sets up a comic chase sequence between Hugo and the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). That would be all well and good if that were the tone of the movie, but we never really return to that. It mostly exists to introduce us to the interior architecture of the train station where the majority of the film takes place but there surely are quicker and more effective ways to accomplish that.
(Also, I know this shouldn't bother me as much as it does but the film is set in 1930s Paris and everyone speaks with a British accent...)
If the film is two hours (by my rudimentary timekeeping), it felt at least a half-hour longer than that. And if it felt that long to an adult, it's going to feel like five hours to a kid. Which brings up my next point: this is a kids movie? I'd imagine most kids being bored senseless but what's really here is a movie for adults, specifically, a movie for adult cinephiles. It just so happens to be taking place in the universe of a kids movie. Scorsese seems to want the best of both worlds when that winds up making the film feel disjointed.
All these complaints aside, when Scorsese finally gets to the meat of the film, and clearly the portion that means the most to him, HUGO takes off. It's frustrating because during these scenes, you really want to like this movie. There's so much of Scorsese up on the screen and as a fellow lover of movies, it's hard not to be enchanted by what can only be described as his most personal movie since WHO'S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR.
The film includes some fantastic performances from Sir Ben Kingsley, Michael Stuhlbarg and Helen McCrory and you can see a little bit of Scorsese in many of the characters in the film (especially his brief cameo as a photographer).
I'm sure you're also curious as to whether the 3D works and while I hate to get into this too much, as we were told the 3D wasn't yet finished, it's not going to single-handedly reinvent the format, but it works and Scorsese actually makes use of it. It's visually a remarkable film and given certain aspects of the plot, the visuals are actually in service of something and not just eye candy. Can I use the word sumptuous to describe how it looks? I don't care if I can Grammar Nazis, I'm using it anyway! To use a Parisian dessert metaphor, HUGO looks like how a Baba au Rhum tastes. C'est magnifique! (Ugh, did I actually just say that?)
HUGO is Spielberg by way of Scorsese, a tantalizing offer and I only wish the film lived up to its potential. At its best, it's charming, whimsical, inspiring and fascinating but could use a tightening before I'd call it a true winner.