Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Anyone looking up the title Hugo on IMDB is going to discover that, since 1990 alone, there have been two TV series, a made-for-video movie, and seven (7) feature films by that name. Perhaps that reveals director Martin Scorsese's lack of insight into the art of giving a film a unique and memorable title, especially given that his latest movie is based on a book with the rather more distinctive title The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Now, a word about the book. I haven't read it yet. I've been keeping my eye on it at bookstores, though. And it seems to be one of those eternal hardcovers that persistently deny gratification to cheapskate bibliophiles, like me, who prefer to wait for the paperback. Brian Selznick's impressive-looking tome-for-tots has been on sale since 2007 and, to date, shows no sign of being released in paperback. I haven't felt so thwarted since A Series of Unfortunate Events (which didn't start appearing in paperback until all thirteen installments had been published in hardcover). Or maybe it's the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo. You see how my mental association runs. One can only hold out for the paperback for so long before one runs out of patience. But in the case of Hugo Cabret, I have managed to stare down the hardcover for nearly five years and, though I would still like to read it, I mean to outstare it.

So, obviously, I had to bend my general rule about reading the book before I see the movie. But then again, I've also started to learn that such a rule may not be all it's cooked up to be. Sometimes it seems that first falling in love with the book merely guarantees that you will hate the movie, even if (in strictly movie terms) it's an excellent film. So my conscience isn't much bothered by the sequence "see the movie, read the book" these days.

I shall spare you a synopsis of the movie because, eventually, I am going to review the book. (Maybe, at that time, I will skip summarizing the story on the rationale that I had already reviewed the movie. Stay tuned!) Let's just say that it's a surprising movie in a lot of ways. For one thing, it's family-friendly. There are no cuss words in it. No heads being blown off. No wise guys getting coked up, laid, or whacked. Both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are conspicuously absent, to name only a small portion of a top-dollar cast that does not appear in this movie. In fact, the headliner turns out to be Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar for Gandhi almost 30 years ago and, since then, has been steadily working out the Career Damnation which customarily befalls those who peak too early. At least he's been steadily working, though I don't think I've seen any of his work since he played Fagin in 2005's Oliver Twist. Honestly, I kind-of thought he was dead. Rumors of his demise, etc.

Next below Kingsley in the billing is Sacha Baron Cohen, the genius mimic-cum-artfully offensive comedian best known for playing Brüno, Borat, and the Italian barber in Sweeney Todd. Here he plays the police inspector at the Paris train station where most of the film takes place, a performance that was intended to walk a tight-rope between humorous villainy and romantic pathos but which, in the event, comes across simply as strained and obnoxious. Fans of fantasy films will enjoy the rest of the cast, however. Jude Law (A Series of Unfortunate Events) plays Hugo's ill-fated father, and Ray Winstone (Beowulf) his inebriated uncle, who gives the boy a home within the walls of the train station and a purpose in keeping the clocks in order. Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gives the boy a book; Emily Mortimer (who lent her voice talents to the English version of Howl's Moving Castle) distracts the policeman with her flower-girl charms; Frances de la Tour (lately Madame Maxime in the Harry Potter films) unwittingly supplies him with warm croissants. Other Harry Potter alums present include Helen McCrory (a.k.a. Mama Malfoy) as Kingsley's wife, and Richard Griffiths (a.k.a. Uncle Vernon) as a newspaper vendor who distracts the croissant lady with his shy courtship, daily frustrated by a vicious wiener-dog. Playing the title role is young Asa Butterfield, a British youngster who starred in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and who is slated to play Ender Wiggin in an upcoming film on Ender's Game.

Having not read this book, I went to this movie and was surprised to find out exactly why Mr. Scorsese made it, even though it doesn't have any wise guys in it. It's a movie about the movies, looking back fondly (and mysteriously, and movingly) upon the era of the very earliest, silent films, and upon a magician-turned-filmmaker who "made dreams" on the big screen. How an orphaned urchin living inside the walls of a train station, eating stolen croissants, winding huge clocks, and borrowing wind-up-toy components to repair a spooky automaton, brings this long-lost film genius to light is what this movie is about. And while Hugo moves around inside the gears of clocks, you get to move around inside the making of the movies that changed movies from mere sideshow novelties into an art form, and a way of telling stories, without which the present world could hardly be imagined.

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