DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese
STARRING: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
I HAVE a friend who is a talented American independent film director. In the course of some correspondence one day, I mentioned Scorsese’s name. There are not many things in the world that surprise me anymore, but I was shocked by his response: “Who is this Martin Scorsese?”
I wish I could say he was being sarcastic, or that I’m making this up. But he wasn’t, and I’m not.
I thought about this while watching Hugo, when a question arose in my mind that was almost as troubling: “What’s the last truly great film Scorsese made?”
To answer, you’d have to leave out the recent George Harrison and Bob Dylan documentaries, excellent as they were. Which would leave you with The Departed, Gangs Of New York, and Casino among the top contenders from his relatively recent output. And while each of these had more than a few touches of greatness about them, overall they fell short of the man’s high standard.
So do we have to go all the way back to Goodfellas in 1990, a whole generation ago? That’s a long stretch, only slightly longer than the terrible league title famine we Liverpool supporters continue to suffer. Though it’s good to know that Marty The Great is in good company.
There is a lot to admire in Hugo, a visually brilliant affair with flashes of genius and moments of pure old fashioned movie magic. And yet, as a whole, it is not one of Scorsese’s great films.
Hugo (Butterfield) is an orphan who lives secretly in the rafters of a railway station in 1930s Paris , where he takes it upon himself to keep the clocks running on time. He’s also kept busy running rings around the Station Inspector (Cohen), and finding just the right parts to complete a partly-built clockwork automaton that his father (Jude Law) found in a museum but didn’t manage to finish before he died.
He steals these little wheels and cogs from a toy stall run by the very grumpy Georges Melies (Kingsley). This is the Mr Georges Melies, magician, inventor, and cinema pioneer, the man who built the world’s first film studio, and released the short sci-fi motion picture ‘A Trip To The Moon’ in 1902. You know, the one where the man in the moon gets a rocket in the eye. It is to this man’s work and legacy that Scorsese’s story ultimately leads.
In the meantime, Hugo meets a young girl named Isabelle (Moretz) who’s been raised in the station by Georges and his wife. She introduces Hugo to the world of books and he takes her to meet his friend, the automaton. Turns out she may, quite literally, hold the key to the little steel man’s heart.
Lovers of cinema and its history will find much to enjoy here, and it may well be that many kids will be thoroughly entertained and enchanted. I hope so. There are not many films where the audience will be treated to this kind of masterful visual work – a live action feature enhanced by CGI and filmed by a man who knows exactly what 3D was made for. It’s a fine and very personal tribute to the man who pretty much invented special effects.
But despite all the magic, Hugo is hobbled by bland writing, pointless plot strands, unnecessary characters, and some bad acting by the central duo. As Hugo, Asa Butterfield is just a tad wooden to carry a film, and though Chloe Moretz has previously proven she has talent (Badass, Let The Right One In), her performance here seems to come straight from the Famous Five handbook. For those unfamiliar with the Famous Five, the method could be described as irritatingly eager.
Sacha Baron Cohen is always eager, usually for a laugh. But as the Station Inspector, he isn’t given much to work with. His characters should be the classic children’s villain, but nobody seems to have told Scorsese and his writer John Logan that this kind of role should either be very scary or very funny. The poor Inspector is neither, but he does get to run around a lot.
Which is more than Christopher Lee gets to do, but at his age that’s probably a good thing. Then again, the great man should not be underestimated. My son recently showed me a music video featuring Lee on guest vocals with an Italian band called Rhapsody Of Fire, whose style is described as symphonic power metal.
Like many of Lee’s old horror films, it was a little bit scary, a little bit hammy, and more than a little bit cool. What more could you want?
Well, besides another classic from Scorsese. Next up is Silence, with Daniel Day Lewis and Benicio Del Toro. Maybe that will be the one. If not, then Sinatra will surely do the trick. Surely.