Like clockwork, like magic

HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.

It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.

Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.

Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.

Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what  amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.

She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…

But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.

As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.

I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”

29 Responses to “Like clockwork, like magic”

  1. I still haven’t managed to see this … roll on the school holidays whereon I shall be taking 2 boys with ADHD symptoms and hoping for the miraculous effect you describe! No chipmunks for us: I’ve done them twice now and emerged from the cinema with a migraine on each occasion. If Mr Scorsese has killed the chipmunks, I will build him a shrine.
    Lumiere’s train is also referenced in 1951’s The Magic Box, starring my man, Robert Donat. Scorsese has been telling everyone who will listen that The Magic Box was an early inspiration for him. See interview with Marty (not mine, sadly) at my blog:

  2. I wonder if Frances de la Tour’s change of fortune comes from Harry Potter. She made a great turn as a giantess in that and seems to have been rediscovered by Hollywood ever since.

  3. Ah, that makes sense. Haven’t seen much Potter post-Cuaron. i love Frances.

    Been meaning to watch The Magic Box for an absolute age — I think Barry Norman did a Donat show in the 70s and I saw a clip from it then.

  4. I saw THE MAGIC BOX last year and although I am yet to see HUGO(will release here on Dec. 23) I have no doubt that its as important to it as SHOCK CORRIDOR was to SHUTTER ISLAND. That’s about William Friese-Greene, one of the many motion picture pioneers and how he invented a celluloid based moving image recording and projecting process. The scene he shows his discovery to the first man he meets(a bobby played by Olivier in a cameo) is indelible. It’s a beautiful film with some of Jack Cardiff’s best work.

  5. Arthur, I’d be very interested in hearing your views on the 3D! Didn’t you see your first 3D film recently?

    My Mum’s never seen one, so I’m going to see Hugo again with her on Wednesday.

  6. There’s 3 rather nice MAGIC BOX clips at the TCM site, though sadly not Lumiere’s train or Olivier’s bobby. Clips here: Scorsese has been talking about the flick book clip ref. Hugo: it’s the one entitled ‘Persistence of vision’. (Barry Norman, btw, did a bit of a hatchet job on RD and apologised to RD’s family afterwards, realising he’d done so. It was part of his ‘Greats’ series, I think, with book tie-ins).

  7. Frances de la Tour’s change of fortune came from The History Boys. Marty obviously saw her in it as he reunites her with her co-star Ricjard Griffiths.

    Your quite right about children’s responses to a film like this. They don’t need to have everythign explained to them in excruciating detail in order to be diverted. Glad you saw its relation to The Aviator (aka. The History of Color Cinematography) thiugh Iliked that one more than you do. It’s his best leo movie and its best sequence — the plane crash in Beverly Hills — is truly astonishing because Marty HATES to fly. I asked him about Christopher Lee and he was so excited because he simply HAD to have Chritopher Lee in one of his movies somehow — and this was the perfect role for him.

    Everybody thinks of Marty in terms of the gangster films. That’s the world he saw from his window. But Marty himself was quite like Hugo. Because of asthma he couldn’t go out much — except when his parents took him to the movies.

    This sifar and away the most personal film he has ever made.

  8. Although I don’t want to be start a war of words… Frances and Richard were both in the Harry Potter film a year before they were both in History Boys.

  9. Although, of course the play was first.

  10. I’ve only ever seen AVATAR on 3D. I must say its been downhill ever since. The Cameron movie as a 3D experience is excellent, as a movie its pretty lame. The whole theme park aspect of it seems separate from the actual process which I am guessing Scorsese has side-stepped. After that I saw the Green Lantern movie, it was terrible, gave me a seizure. Then KUNG FU PANDA I saw in 3D and the colours was so dark, that I saw the pixellated thing without glasses. A significant improvement.

    I gotta say, I’m vary with so many name directors like Scorsese, Bertolucci, Wenders getting on the 3D bandwagon. The reason is that for me, 2D is already the definitive form. Its like fire or the umbrella, once invented it cannot be perfected. Its complete in itself. IMAX for instance is a way better large movie experience than 3D but since it needs a particular kind of theatre, its far less likely to become a movement.

  11. She has my favorite speech in The History Boys: “History is not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be? They never get round the conference table. In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers and then gradually retired. History is acommentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind WITH THE BUCKET!”

  12. I agree with David E. When the list of expected projects coming up, I was completely unenthused with Sinatra or some new gangster film and thrilled that he gets to do an Archers-style pageant. Even in KUNDUN, lot of the best scenes focused on the Dalai Lama’s childhood(including a scene where he watches Melies-shorts) and how that shaped his world.

  13. I found the 3-D to be terribly distracting, although kids I was with sat through it though without any complaint (5 and 8 year old). I wonder if the olds just find it harder to adjust to than the youngs? When you spend your whole life watching movies in 2D it’s just something that is totally unnatural and distractiong. The 3D effects just kicked me out of that suspended disbelief constantly. I would want to see it again in 2D though, just for comparisons sake.

  14. Oh, I meant to mention the Melies segment in Kundun because it’s a lovely connection. The Dalai Lama really did see the film as a kid, and Scorsese went out and tracked down which film it was.

    Maybe 3D’s a bigger jump for adults who have set viewing expectations. Everything’s new when you’re a kid, so it’s hard to see why 3D in a movie would be more problematic that 3D in life (unless it was done badly). There have been enough films recently in the process that I’m kind of used to it — in UP I was barely aware of it at all (which does beg the question Why Do We Need It?) For me, Hugo was perfect because I was consciously enjoying it the way I was conscious of Richardson’s lighting and Schoonmaker’s editing. As she says, sometimes we WANT the audience to notice the technique.

  15. Watched this last night in 3D. I know the shot you mean, that close-up of Sacha Baron Cohen that made us gasp, seeing his face in a terrifying new way. Some of my favorite 3D moments were the numerous close-ups of dogs looking directly at the camera – usually Cohen’s doberman, but the dogs from Richard Griffiths’ bit got their moment as well. Scorsese noticed that dogs’ faces are wonderfully shaped for 3D.

    Scorsese’s welcome return to the long-take might have been forced by the technology. I’ve heard that since it takes your eyes a fraction of a second to adjust to the new 3D depth(s) of field after an edit, fast-cut action movies are useless in 3D, so longer shots pay off.

    Before the film, trailers for the 3D-retrofitted reissues of TITANIC and PHANTOM MENACE looked lousy, but the new Aardman pirate movie is gorgeous, though peppered with dumb jokes.

    Second movie I’ve watched this year (after Ruiz’s KLIMT) to feature Melies as a character…

  16. Like Hitchcock, Scorsese is such a master technician of the art of film that I will see anything he does.

  17. There’s some fast cutting in the library montage of silent movies, isn’t there? I believe there’s a new job title in Hollywood, the “stereographer” who advises on how not to tear the viewer’s eyes apart… Hugo was no strain at all. And if the 3D encouraged longer takes, I see that as a good thing — it also forced Michael Bay to stabilize his shots. It could redeem action cinema!

  18. George K I’m amazed that your children could sit though it. I was so appauled by the script which makes no sense has no proper narrative drive at all that I kept on TAKING OFF MY 3D GLASSES hoping it would improve the film. I’d look at allthe fuzzyness for a bit put them back on and again marvel that it does not matter how much money you throw at something, how fantastic the actors, how wonderful the cinematography, direction and costumes are if the script SUCKS BIG TIME. There are about 5 mins of joy when it goes to Melies’s studio and that is it – an interlude… If only he’d just made a biopic about Melies and left this crappy childrens film unmade… OH AND IT COST ELEVEN POUNDS ELEVEN POUNDS IN EDINBURGH

  19. oh and if I had a disability I would have a lot to say about the Sasha Baron-Cohen character as well…

  20. Clearly Mary, you were deeply moved by the film and are having trouble coming to terms with your response :)

    Studying the reactions of the kids around me, I was struck by how the film lulled them into concentrating on very slight plot moments. Ultimately, the narrative pay-off is not so strong, but the adults who protest that the film is too slow for kids have it completely backwards: it may be too slow for some adults…

  21. I don’t mind slow I mean I’ve enjoyed The Colour of Pomeganates which is like sitting infront of an icon but I really object to a story which moves forward illogically. Ie there was no reason for Hugo NOT to explain why he needed the notebook back but he didn’t just to keep the narrative creeking forward. He just seemed stupid and petulent. And as Ali pointed out at the end when the sausage dogs give away Hugo’s hiding place WHY? I mean he wasn’t holding a cat or a large meat pie which would interest cainines? its the supension of internal logic which is most irritating about the film’s script. If I was going to weap it would be about the waste of money. The only thing I can hope is that marty has some kind of deal whereby making this dogs breakfast he is allowed to make something more interesting.

  22. Yipes. So far I find the colourful publicity shots for Hugo much more appealing than the actual stills. I mean, I’m intrigued, why is faking two-strip technicolour a good thing? It struck me as a distracting, pretentious non-idea in The Aviator and my heart sank when I saw the Hugo trailer drained of everything apart from silver and gold.
    And do you really think *kid’s* films these days are hyperkinetic? Pixar’s output, Rango, Polar Express and on and on, these are all far better paced than most popular adult fare, no? Tintin’s an exception; atrociously paced nonsense, but not because there’s too much action: it opens with a protracted haggling scene (hardly Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the most exciting thing in the following half hour is 3-D dust a torch’s beam. If children were bored by it, it probably had more to do with the uncharismatic man whose face looked weird continually finding his house burgled, than any glut of whizzbang. I’ll go and see “Hugo” but if it’s main draw is the old-timers, there were loads of those in the terrible Harry Potter films too and they had THREE colours.
    And do you actually think Scorsese could do anything like Fellini? Marty’s an artist it seems to me who desperately needs a story, otherwise he has nothing to say.

  23. Well, look at Gangs of New York — everything to do with the love story and revenge plot is cliched and boring — but the portrait of a wild, irredeemable violent city in an alien time is potentially riveting. But of the lead character, only Bill the Butcher belongs in it.

    But I don’t know if Scorsese could do a Fellini — nobody can, it seems.

    I think the kids are great in Hugo — the old-timers are a side-show to the main attraction. Whereas in Potter, I just want those little people to get out the way so I can look at Oldman, Thewlis, Fiennes, Smith etc.

    I’m surprised anybody could be distracted by the colour in The Aviator for more than five minutes. Don’t your eyes just get used to things like that?

  24. Okay, you’re asking me to look at Gangs of New York without listening to to it. Three hours of an escaped elephant would probably have made a better film but crikey, both love stories and revenge plots are exciting and pretty easy things to get right. There’s just no excuse for how badly those elements were handled, especially given how much they were lingered over.
    And okay there wasn’t a lot in The Aviator to hold the attention (a frowning kitten repeatedly asks for smaller rivets) so it may just have been the *fact* of the two colour process, rather than the experience of it that I found so off-putting. But this is probably my problem with a lot of what Scorsese now does. He’s too in love with the idea of – as he puts it – the smuggler. What he should possibly be doing is working much less “ambitiously”, and allowing himself to make mistakes. What he shouldn’t be doing is making a kid’s film that’s also a film about Melies, since I love both kid’s films and Melies, and don’t want to see someone get that wrong. All he’s done in taking on “Hugo” is set the stakes incredibly high. What he hasn’t done is produce something *intrinsically* great.
    Still, I haven’t sen it yet. And I do like good kids.

  25. The revenge plot actually gets in the way in Gangs — what they actually want to happen is for Leo to spend a lot of time hanging around in D-Day Lewis’s company, being seduced by his charm. And yet he’s bent on revenge. And unlike in Hamlet, there’s no intriguing psychological reason he doesn’t act. So simply making him an ambitious gang member who gets alienated from DDL halfway through would have worked much better.

    Scorsese, with his position in the industry, shouldn’t have to smuggle, unless what he’s hiding is truly inflammatory. Hugo, fortunately, is all right out there, unashamedly a movie about film preservation and art and the work ethic.

  26. Further to my previous aesthetic whinge, a friend last night drew my attention to this: “Teal and Orange – Hollywood please stop the madness!”… giving a name to my pain.

  27. Yes, it’s a very good piece. I do think it can be an attractive look — Anonymous is a very handsome thing — but it’s become something of a mannerism.

  28. In the tradition of seeing films months after you have and then returning to your review …..

    I finally managed to persuade my 7 year old to see Hugo after a summer holiday of Muppets, Pusses in Boots (Mmm, cartoon Salma) and the horror that is Chipwrecked (my wife drew the short straw; “let’s never speak of it again” she replied to my query afterwards). “Dad I wish we could see the Pirate Movie cause it’s from the makers of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit” he’s just told me, remembering the trailer.

    He was reluctant to see it initially saying that it was “too human-ish” but afterwards pronounced it “great”. He was a bit scared by Hugo’s dream transformation to automaton but happily sat threw the long scenes without action. A child near us loudly told his mother that he wanted to go home then later announced that he wanted to go to McDonalds but I think there was a special needs issue going on. You’re observation of children’s capability to deal with films without constant kinetic action is acute.

    I had tears in my eyes by the Safety First Harold Lloyd scene and was gulping air to avoid an embarrassing scene during the history of cinema montage in the library (there’s something about seeing Chaplin on the big screen that activates my awe emotions). For me the film was pure magic and I adored almost every minute of it. And, like many here, I was mesmerised by Sacha Baron Cohen’s face stretching out of the screen. Loved the little cameo of James Joyce too.

    Later that evening we watched Adele Blanc Sec which I unexpectedly enjoyed (more than Tintin anyway), half expecting Hugo or Ben Kingsley from the Clown Union to appear. Your review is very fair to it.

  29. I don’t know how fair I was… my Luc Besson Problem is likely to interfere with any pleasure there. Fiona made noises about seeing his new one on the basis that “it looks interesting.” I’m afraid I snapped back, “It won’t be!”

    Glad you enjoyed Hugo. Kids can get ENTRANCED, and movies seem to have neglected this.

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