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Hugo
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan (based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick)
Stars: Ben Kingsley (Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station Inspector), Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ray Winstone (Uncle Claude), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (Rene Tabard), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick), Jude Law (Hugo’s Father), Kevin Eldon (Policeman), Gulliver McGrath (Young Tabard), Shaun Aylward (Street Kid), Emil Lager (Django Reinhardt)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
Hugo Blu-Ray
Hugo Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a paean to the birth and continual rebirth of movie magic, takes place in and around the fantastically exaggerated confines of a Parisian railway station in 1931. The protagonist is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young boy whose life is turned upside down when his beloved father (Jude Law), a museum curator and clockmaker, dies, leaving him in the care of his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a boorish inebriate responsible for keeping the station’s numerous clocks working. At some point Uncle Claude disappears, leaving Hugo to live on his own in the bowels of the railway station, secretly winding and repairing the clocks and hoping that he doesn’t draw the attention of the dreaded Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who takes special delight in rounding up parentless children and sending them off to the orphanage.

Hugo has also been hard at work trying to repair a unique automaton, a mechanical man that his father found in the museum attic and they had been working on when he died. The automaton is Hugo’s passion, and he feels that if he can make it work again, he can somehow reconnect with his lost dad. This leads him to steal various clockwork parts from a toy stand run by a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) who one day catches him and confiscates his notebook, which contains his father’s plans for fixing the automaton. Hugo follows the man home and meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), his adopted goddaughter, who determines to help Hugo get his notebook back. They eventually discover that the old man is none other than Georges Méliès, who at the turn of the century was almost single-handedly responsible for introducing fantasy and science fiction to the nascent cinema, which at the time many people dismissed as a passing fad. A stage magician and illusionist by trade, Méliès recognized the power of the motion picture camera to not just record reality (as Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers did), but to manipulate and transform it. For Méliès, the movies were the greatest magic trick of all time, and he made more than 500 of them between 1896 and 1913, winning widespread popularity throughout Europe and the United States. However, Méliès’s overtly theatrical style did not advance as the years went on, and he later fell into bankruptcy and obscurity.

His discovery by Hugo and Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), a fictional film scholar who catalogued Méliès’s achievements but mistakenly thought he had died in World War I, is the film’s emotional core (the myth of the forgotten old man reignited by a child who still believes in him). Scorsese’s love of film history and passion for film preservation coils throughout the film, and it is never more alive than when he flashes back to the turn of the century and recreates the behind-the-scenes work on several of Méliès’s films, including Fairyland: Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) and Palace of the Arabian Nights (1905), which were shot in a specially designed glass studio behind his house. When Méliès, as a vibrant filmmaker at the height of his artistic prowess, leans down to Tabard as a child and tells him that “this is where dreams are made,” you can almost hear Scorsese’s voice. At one point, the film comes to a narrative halt so that Scorsese can give us a brief, dazzling history of the movies’ first three decades, which include flashes of everything from the Edison Company’s 1894 experimental sound film to Louise Brooks vamping it up in Pandora’s Box (1929). He also infuses numerous scenes with echoes of famous silent films: Harold Lloyd dangling precariously from a clockface in Safety Last! (1923) is recreated when Hugo must climb onto the giant clock outside the station to avoid being discovered by the Station Inspector, and while a dream sequence in which Hugo sees a spectacular train crash is based on the famous 1895 derailment of the Granville–Paris Express, it also echoes the early cinema’s obsession with trains, whether they be arriving in stations, purposefully colliding, or functioning as vehicles for the camera to capture a direct view of the onrushing scenery.

On the surface it might seem ironic that Scorsese is using digital technology for a film about the birth of cinema—when celluloid was hand-cranked through wooden cameras and everything had to be shot in broad daylight because artificial lighting was not yet powerful enough to get a decent exposure—but it makes perfect sense from a thematic perspective. For Scorsese, digital cameras, CGI, and advancements in 3D are the new iterations of what Méliès was using 110 years ago. They are, in the end, tools for creating illusions and building dreamworlds, and if Hugo is about anything, it is about the wonders of the technologies that make the movies possible. This theme is most clear in the film’s relentless imagery of clockwork mechanics, around which Scorsese’s invisible camera moves with loving dexterity, although it is first announced in the film’s opening shot, which presents us with a God’s eye view of a digitally recreated Paris before swooping down on and then into the railway station, speeding weightlessly between trains and past passengers into the main concourse, bright and alive with an unfettered ease of movement. At every turn Scorsese pulls off “impossible” shots, stitching together the various visual possibilities that the digital medium allows; he is, in a sense, playing the role of Méliès in the 21st century, pushing the technology to match his imagination. At times this makes the film feel like more of a showpiece than a fluid narrative, but it’s a small complaint and one that Méliès would dismiss outright (although Méliès was one of the first true narrative filmmakers, his stories always came a distant second to spectacle).

Méliès is not the only cinematic luminary whose presence we feel throughout Hugo. Ever the connoisseur of world cinema, Scorsese is clearly channeling other filmmakers as well, particularly in his portrait of life in the railway station, which he treats like the courtyard in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Although only tangentially related to the main plot, a number of recurring characters who work in the station form subplots that help weave together a bustling sense of daily life and the constant presence of amour. Chief among these are Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths), the portly owner of a newsstand who is enamored with Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), a café proprietress, but is constantly nipped at by her dog. Next to the café is a flower stand run by Lisette (Emily Mortimer), for whom the Station Inspector longs. When he finally gets up the courage to approach her, Scorsese treats the scene with a delicate human comedy, which allows Sacha Baron Cohen to bring a surprisingly touching sense of humanity to a character who had, until then, been treated as a cartoonish villain. Scorsese’s orchestration of the massive space inside the train station and its numerous inhabitants will likely call to mind Spielberg’s similar use of an airport in The Terminal (2004), although both harken back to the great Jacque Tati’s masterful modern comedy Playtime (1967).

Of course, from a marketing perspective, Hugo was bound to be a hard sell, mainly because so many people were predisposed to wonder what a director best known for films like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990), and The Departed (2006) was doing at the reigns of a heavily CGI’ed, 3D family-friendly adventure film. Of course, pigeon-holing Scorsese is an exercise in futility; despite his pop-culture persona as a maestro of ultraviolence and gangsters, he is first and foremost a cinephile whose passion for the movies has led him in about as many directions as a filmmaker can go: melodrama (1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), comedy (1985’s After Hours), religious epics (1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ), biopics (2004’s The Aviator), as well as music videos (most famously Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) and numerous documentaries. In some sense, it was almost inevitable that he would tackle a family-friendly adventure, so it is really unsurprising that he snapped up the rights to Brian Selznick’s 2007 heavily illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which offered him the chance to flex a new cinematic muscle while also submerging himself in the cinematic history that has fueled his imagination since he was a child.

Hugo Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese
    Supplements
  • “Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo” featurette
  • “The Cinemagician, Georges Méliès” featurette
  • “The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo” featurette
  • “Big Effects, Small Scale” featurette
  • “Sacha Baron Cohen: The Role of a Lifetime” featurette
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    SRP$39.99
    Release DateFebruary 28, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Paramount’s 1080p high-definition presentation of Hugo on Blu-Ray befits its impressive visuals. As the film was produced in an entirely digital workflow, this image and sound are both direct digital ports and bear no noticeable imperfections. The image is bright, crisp, and incredible well detailed; on even a moderately sized screen it will be hard not to pick out the tiny bits of digital dust floating in the air around the backlit characters. The film has a purposefully “digital” look, that is, it is almost impossible sharp and hard-edged like a finely detailed painting, but that is the intent. Colors are particularly dazzling, with bright, deeply saturated hues—dominated by contrasting icy blues and warm autumnal colors—that make the film feel that much more fantastical. (It is also available in Blu-Ray 3D, but I did not have the opportunity to review a 3D disc, so I cannot comment on how well the multi-dimensional presentation works on home video.) The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is equally impressive, fully bringing us in the world of the train station. The soundtrack is most notable for the layers of depth, which match the immersive nature of the visuals. The surround channels are constantly in use, even for subtle ambient noises, and it carries a great deal of bombast during the action sequences, especially Hugo’s nightmare of the crashing train, which puts all the channels—especially the low end—through the paces.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements consist entirely of five featurettes, beginning with the 20-minute “Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo.” Featuring interviews with director Martin Scorese, screenwriter John Logan, actors Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, and Chloë Grace Moretz, as well as other production personnel, it offers a fascinating peak behind the scenes of the mammoth production. “The Cinemagician, Georges Méliès” is a 15-minute featurette about the pioneering filmmaker. Those familiar with his work won’t learn anything new, but it is a good introduction that features interviews with several scholars and Méliès’s great-great granddaughter, as well as brief snippets from dozens of his films. I found the “The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo” to be the most fascinating of the featurettes because I knew very little about automata before viewing it. Although only 13 minutes in length, it provides an absorbing history of automata via interviews with several automaton designers, as well as information about the creation of the automaton in the film. “Big Effects, Small Scale” is a 5-minute look at the quarter-scale miniatures used to create the railroad crash sequence, and “Sacha Baron Cohen: The Role of a Lifetime” is a jokey 3-minute featurette about Cohen’s obtuse behavior on the set.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment


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