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A Magical Creation

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Starring Asa Butterfield, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Moretz

A KID’S DREAM: Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in ‘Hugo,’ scouring the makings of toys galore. Courtesy photo.

I often rant about the suffocating nature of nostalgia. Filmmakers, artists and writers seem more focused on riffing on the past than they do creating their own unique works. “Hugo,” the latest film from the legendary Martin Scorsese, is a movie drowning in homage. It’s not so much a film, as it is a love letter to an age of cinema long since passed. And folks’ level of enjoyment is based solely on how willing they are to revisit a time when movies were more earnest affairs.

Before I get into the actual review, I have to get something off my chest: Martin Scorsese is a great director, and cinema is far better off because of his work. With that said, I have to ask how on earth he can make a movie set in Paris, France, and have every character talking in a British accent. It’s no wonder Europeans hate Americans so much; every time an American movie studio makes a movie set abroad the actors are told to do their most convincing take on the queen’s English.

At some point in our cinematic history, it was decided that anyone from Europe could sound English, and everyone would just go along with it. British accents are the standard for Europe on film, whether the movie is set in 18th century France, Nazi-occupied Germany or Slovenia. I somewhat understand and expect this of lesser films from lesser filmmakers—but from Martin Scorsese? Surely, he could have cast actors with French accents or even set the movie in London instead of Paris. It’s kind of hard to take anything seriously amongst beautiful, sprawling shots of the City of Light, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and then hear the characters speak in a Dickensian-era English, as if in a community theater version of “Oliver Twist.”

“Pardon me, guv’nah, could I get a shilling to catch a double decker bus to the Louvre?”

It makes me want to go shoot a movie about the Civil War and have all the actors use an Australian accent.

Still, “Hugo” is an interesting and, at times, inventive piece of filmmaking. There are few directors who seem as capable of using every inch of screen to maximum effect. We’re given a chance to see more classically trained directors like Scorsese and Spielberg working with 3D. It’s impressive how comfortable Scorsese is with the new technology. Hugo’s world is a beautifully rendered merging of traditional cinematography with special effects, which help compose impossible shots. The movie is worth seeing just for the visuals, music and production design. I haven’t seen a film that looks this good in ages.

The story follows a young boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the rafters and back rooms of a Paris train station circa 1931. His father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker and a fan of early-era cinema. After a tragedy leaves Hugo orphaned, he turns his attention to his father’s unfinished project: an automated clockwork robot. Hugo survives by scavenging for food from the vendors who occupy his home. There he meets a young girl, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), and her godfather (Ben Kingsley), a toymaker shrouded in mystery who has some connection to the automation that Hugo’s late father had been working on.

There’s a lot of love in “Hugo.” What works about “Hugo” is this kind of irony-free, storybook movie that exists in a beautifully created world. There is a quality to “Hugo” which seems missing from so many modern movies. A sense of wonder and passion emanates from every frame; it’s almost symphonic. Scorsese doesn’t just direct the movie, he conducts it in unison with the actors, artists, musicians and craftsman to make something technically perfect.

Some people might get a little bored with “Hugo.” It’s a movie rooted in Scorcese’s love for the first true visionary filmmaker, George Méliès, and the central theme of the importance of inspiration and preservation speaks to cinema buffs (though, it might not register with everyone). It’s also cornier than Iowa in the summer. The ensemble cast does an excellent job of grounding this flamboyant world. The kids manage to be energetic but not annoying. Fine character actors like Christopher Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen are allowed to indulge their more grandiose impulses to create some unique personalities. Ben Kingsley turns in his best performance in ages, playing a man desperate to find inspiration in a world that seems to have forgotten his brilliance.

“Hugo” is the kind of movie that seems rare these days. It tells a classic story, merging old techniques with new technology, all to create something magical.

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  1. Jennifer C.

    January 2, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I totally agree with you about the accents. I really wish filmmakers would stop using British accents as the default for all European films. It lowers the quality of the film and insults my intelligence. They really think we don’t notice?

  2. Jennifer C.

    January 2, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I totally agree with you about the accents. I really wish filmmakers would stop using British accents as the default for all European films. It lowers the quality of the film and insults my intelligence. They really think we don’t notice?

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