Hugo: the Movie
Hugo: The Movie
Hugo is a spectacular film that represents the crowning achievement in the career of Martin Scorsese. The movie was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and took home five Oscars. Hugo received universal acclaim but disappointed at the box office, falling short of breaking even on the $150 million investment. Hugo is the first picture I have seen since the 1990s that I consider one of the best ever produced.
My top-ten favorite films include Forrest Gump; Braveheart; Gone With the Wind; Saving Private Ryan; The Wizard of Oz; Ben Hur; The Godfather; The Ten Commandments; Titanic; and The Jerk. I give honorable mention to Lord of the Rings; Singing in the Rain; Patton; Gladiator; and Alien.
Hugo the movie is based on a picture book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I have not read the book, but it features 284 pictures among its 533 pages. Hugo is a beautiful blend of fact and fiction.
Martin Scorsese was born in New York City in 1942. His Sicilian parents were devout Catholics. They were also both actors, though Mr. Scorsese made his living pressing clothes, and Mrs. Scorsese worked as a seamstress. Young Martin wanted to become a priest, but his love of movies proved a more powerful calling.
Scorsese completed his education with a Master of Fine Arts degree. He became famous for his 1976 film Taxi Driver, nominated for four Academy Awards and currently ranked the 52nd greatest American picture by the American Film Institute (AFI).
In 1978, Scorsese released The Last Waltz, one of the best concert movies ever produced. It is about the last performance by The Band, and features guest artists Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Diamond.
Scorsese's black and white picture Raging Bull (1980), which was nominated for eight Oscars and won two, is rated by AFI as the 4th best film of all time. Goodfellas (1990) is 92nd on that same list, and was nominated for six Oscars, winning one. Cape Fear (1991) was the great filmmaker's most successful picture at the box office until 2004, when it was topped by The Aviator.
Gangs of New York (2002) was nominated for ten Academy Awards. The Aviator (2004), a film about Howard Hughes, was up for eleven and won five Oscars. The Departed (2006) won four of the coveted awards. Shutter Island (2010) is Scorsese's highest grossing picture to date. Gangs of New York and The Departed were my favorite Martin Scorsese movies before I saw Hugo.
Martin Scorsese has been married five times (including to Isabella Rossellini) and has three children. I love his art in spite of his blasphemous 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ.
Hugo is as close to a perfect movie as I have ever seen. It is visually breathtaking. Every scene is created with such loving care it is staggering to the imagination. And imagination is part of what it is about. As Hugo's Father says, "Films have the power to capture dreams."
You know how some pictures seem slapped together? Think the complete opposite of that and you get my impression of Hugo. The casting, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, the art design, the visual effects, the music, and the dialogue are stupendous. Hugo is film art at its apex. It is the first movie I have ever watched twice, back to back.
Hugo Cabret is a twelve-year-old orphan who secretly lives behind the walls of busy train station in 1920s Paris. His father, a master clockmaker who also works for a museum, dies in a fire early in the film. The two of them had been working to restore an automaton found in storage at the museum. It had never been displayed because it remained a mystery how to make it work.
All Hugo has left of his father is the automaton and a book of sketches his father made showing all the missing parts. Hugo is on a mission to find the missing parts and make the automaton whole again.
Hugo Cabret: "Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do. Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it's like you're broken."
"Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too." ~ Hugo Cabret
The word "Automaton" means "acting of one's own will." It refers to non-electric moving machines that mimic human or animal actions. Automatons have a history dating back at least to Ancient Greece. It is said that even earlier, King Solomon might have had animal automatons built to surround his throne in Ancient Israel.
Automatons captured the imagination of men during the Renaissance, who revived the art of creating them. They are frequently found in Europe thereafter, mostly in clocks. Thenceforth they were generally made by clockmakers.
Frederick the Great was obsessed with Automatons. 1860-1910 is called the "Golden Age of Automatons."
Cast of Hugo
Hugo Cabret is played by Asa Butterfield, born in London in 1997. Asa Butterfield, with his brilliant blue eyes, is beyond photogenic and one of the best child actors in the world today. In his first picture, made in 2008, he starred as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Hugo meets a fellow orphan named Isabelle, whose parents have been killed in a car crash. Isabelle lives with her Godfather and his wife. What I find remarkable about her character is her profound vocabulary, developed because she is a voracious reader of books.
Isabelle is played by Chloe Grace Moretz, born in Atlanta in 1997. Her mother was a nurse and her father a plastic surgeon. The family, which she describes as "Very Christian," moved to Los Angeles in 2003 and within two years, Chloe landed her first movie role.
Hugo Cabret is hounded by Inspector Gustave, who specializes in capturing street urchins and sending them to an orphanage. The Inspector is played remarkably well by Sasha Baron Cohen, hitherto known for his characters Ali G, Borat, and Bruno. As Inspector Gustave's magnificent Doberman snarls at Hugo Cabret he says, "Maximilian doesn't like the cut of your jib!"
Sasha Baron Cohen was born in London in 1971, the Jewish grandson of a Holocaust survivor. He spent a year in Israel living in a kibbutz and only eats kosher food. Cohen graduated from Cambridge, became a fashion model, and trained to become a clown. He will soon star in a picture about the life story of Freddie Mercury.
Jude Law stars as Hugo Cabret's father. Law, born in London in 1972, is one of the top ten bankable actors in Hollywood. Both of his parents were schoolteachers, but today they operate a drama school and theatre in France. Jude Law became a noteworthy stage performer by age 15. He has four children.
Ray Winstone delivers a brief performance as Hugo Cabret's uncle who takes the boy in after his father dies. Uncle Claude soon meets his Maker as well, leaving Hugo to fend for himself.
Ray Winstone was born in London in 1957 to parents in produce. He was a bad boy in school but became a boxer who won 80 out of 88 bouts before turning his energies to acting. Twice declared bankrupt, Ray Winstone has been married since 1979 and has three daughters. He is usually cast as tough, violent men.
The character who ties everybody together by the end of the story is Rene Tabard, a film historian and author of a book about Georges Melies, Inventor of Dreams. Tabard is expertly portrayed by Michael Stuhlberg (b. 1968), a Jewish actor and graduate of Juilliard from California.
Also notable is Richard Griffiths as Monsieur Frick, a rotund man who figures out that the way to his beloved's heart is to overcome her fiercely protective long-haired dachshund by providing with it a mate.
Richard Griffiths was born in 1947 to Catholic parents, both of whom were deaf. His father was a steelworker and his mother a grocery bagger. Griffiths achieved fame on stage and as a radio voice before becoming a renowned character actor in comedies.
Another excellent role in the picture is played by the 6'5", deep-voiced Christopher Lee as the book store owner, Monsieur Labisse. Christopher Lee was born in England in 1922. His father was a soldier, and his mother a famed beauty in England. Lee is a descendent of an official of the Holy Roman Empire and a medieval Vatican Cardinal. He worked as an intelligence officer in World War Two.
Christopher Lee became famous in horror movies, playing Dracula several times, and he starred as the Frankenstein Monster. He has also done a ton of voiceover work.
Lee might be best known to postmodern audiences as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy—the only participant in those films to have actually met J.R.R. Tolkien. He has been married to the same woman, Danish Model Birgit, since 1961, perhaps not surprisingly since he is the rare politically conservative actor.
Christopher Lee is in the Guinness Book of Records as the performer who has appeared in the most movies: 275.
A fabulous performance is turned in by Helen McCrory as wife of Georges Melies. Helen McCrory was born in London in 1968 to a father who was a Scottish diplomat and his Welsh wife. She is an actor of renown on the London stage and married since 2007 to actor Damian Lewis. They have two children and live in Los Angeles and London.
The veteran star of Hugo is Ben Kingsley. He was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in London in 1943 to a British actress and model whose husband was of Indian descent. Ben Kingsley has been married four times and has four children. He will be forever known as Ghandi, from the film of that name. In Hugo, he plays a real person from history—Georges Melies.
SPOILER ALERT! I would stop here if you do not want to know the crux of the story.
Georges Melies (1861-1938) was a pioneer French filmmaker, known especially as a special effects innovator. He was first famous as a magician who owned his own theatre in Paris. Melies saw the first moving picture produced in history and proclaimed that "film is a new kind of magic!" He sold everything he had in 1896 to build a studio to make motion pictures, what he called "Dreams on Film."
Melies produced an astounding 531 pictures by 1913. His early movies were acclaimed around the world, but his later films were flops. The trouble was that he made more and more ambitious and expensive films as he went on; and tastes changed while he did not. Melies became an artist left behind.
Georges Melies suffered a string of film failures in the early 1910s. That coupled with his brother making bad investments managing his money—and using his money to travel around the world to make terribly expensive but poorly produced documentaries about foreign lands—drove Georges Melies into bankruptcy. Melies lost both his movie studio and his home.
Enraged by the loss of his studio, Melies burned his films, sets, props and costumes in a bonfire. Thus by the time of the film Hugo, it was presumed all his pictures were lost. His story shows us how one can go from a hero to zero in nothing flat. By the 1920s, he was already all but forgotten.
With the earnings he received for melting down the last of his film copies to be made into shoe heels, Georges purchased a small toy and candy store in the train station where he met Hugo Cabret. He was thought to be dead by the public at large.
The Movie Hugo
Hugo is an adventure film of the imagination with stories within stories and a great mystery at its heart. Only gradually do we discover the connections between the characters, as they do. Meanwhile, the movie is saturated with fascinating machine imagery.
Isabelle is not allowed by her Godfather to see any movies, but why? We do not know early in the picture. It ends up that her father was a camera man for Georges Melies, and that the heart shaped key she wears around her neck is the secret to bringing the automaton to life.
We also learn that Rene Tabard had met Georges Melies once at his studio where Tabard's brother built sets for the great filmmaker.
We find out near the end of the picture that the heart-shaped key Isabelle wears as a necklace was made by Cabret and Sons—by Hugo's grandfather and his father. Hugo has also long been regaled by his father about the first movie he ever saw, only related as a movie in which a rocket goes to the moon and pierces the man in the moon in his eye—the most famous masterpiece by Georges Melies.