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Hugo | Review

‘Taxi Driver’ for kids: Scorsese returns to form with a stirring 3D delight

A return to form after the leaden Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s entrancing, lovely Hugo is one of his most personal and moving films. Expertly commanding 3D technology to create a uniquely immersive, painterly depth to the cinema image, Scorsese uses the story (based on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick, cousin of David O.) of a young orphan living secretly inside the walls of a Paris train station to explore not only the fascinating history of early cinema pioneers, but to poignantly celebrate the creative human spirit.

Defying the lowest common denominator strategies of today’s popular kids’ movies, Scorsese’s latest masterpiece will almost certainly be the favorite childhood movie of the next generation of great filmmakers. There are no evil supernatural monsters to battle; Hugo has an antagonist, but not really an enemy in a station patrolman; the real enemy in Hugo is that faced by many people: loneliness, stifled hopes, forgotten dreams. There’s a mystery to be solved, but the plot isn’t designed for addled video-game brains. Instead, the movie’s bountiful scope enlarges in its subtle, patient way until there isn’t anything at all that it isn’t about.

An anti-social “reprobate” with no family moves unnoticed through the world like a ghost, keeping to a rigid work schedule, watching with fear, bewilderment, and desire the human parade pass by. He’s wary of authority, but impulsively disobeys it; he feels an unlikely connection to a strange 13-year-old blonde girl; he’s plagued by nightmare visions; he attempts a final defiant act to liberate someone he loves, which might make him a hero, or might get him locked away forever. In other words: Hugo is Taxi Driver for kids.

But no, not really. As opposed to Taxi Driver, and really all of his previous work, Scorsese shows in Hugo an unprecedented openness to the possible value of community. When the bitter, insecure station cop declares, in unconvincing self-justification, “You don’t need a family!”, it’s easy to recall that for Scorsese, family was once the Last Temptation, the devil’s work. Family allegiance, whether bonded by blood or other obligations, is inevitably torn asunder by mistrust and self-preservation in Goodfellas and Casino. It’s not just gangster-film ethos, either: Cape Fear shatters the complacent balance of the nuclear family (“Nothing,” whispers Juliette Lewis in havoc’s aftermath, “would ever be the same.”). The loner protagonists in Taxi Driver and its under-appreciated twin The King of Comedy finally achieve the acceptance of their peers, but only, bizarrely, after enacting totally psychotic episodes.

Hugo starts where Scorsese has always left off, but ultimately finds a new avenue for redemption. Abandoned to his own devices by a drunken uncle (an underused Ray Winstone), the unwashed, emotionally damaged Hugo walks the line, anonymously keeping all of the train station’s public clocks on time. His home is a multi-storied metal labyrinth of grinding gears and whirling wheels (recalling Chaplin’s Modern Times); it might as well be the internal clockworks of Creation itself, the machine of God. Fitting, then, that Hugo’s lone inheritance from his dead father is an “automaton,” a mechanical man with pen in hand, perpetually poised to scratch out some prose. But despite all of Hugo’s ingenious fiddling, the automaton remains dormant. Until one day, when it whirs to life and delivers a message that is the key to Hugo’s past, and more importantly, his future …

A young asthmatic Scorsese observed the street life of Little Italy from his tenement window; so Hugo detachedly observes the endless human flux in the train station from his secluded perch behind the ancient station clock. Even more powerfully, Scorsese directly addresses, through Hugo’s interaction with Ben Kingsley’s faded toymaker, his own personal relationship with his cinematic idol, and personal mentor and friend, Michael Powell.

Rare is the movie where all the creative departments — DP Robert Richardson, Dante Ferretti in production design, Sandy Powell doing costumes — work together so seamlessly … like clockwork. Every shot is its own little masterwork. Richardson does a particularly admirable job in re-creating the distinctive, deep “Ballhaus blue” hue that so memorably marked Gangs of New York. Howard Shore’s French folk music-inspired score, most tenderly expressed in a melancholy waltz, adorns the movie’s emotional center without being overly demonstrative.

The movie isn’t perfect: As the station patrolman, Sacha Baron Cohen is glaringly out of place, tone deaf and seemingly unrehearsed (Brit actor Burn Gorman in the role might have been the final perfect cog in Scorsese’s ingenious mechanism). Baron Cohen’s the only conspicuous flaw, though Winstone and Emily Mortimer as a station flower girl seem to have had some scenes left on editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s floor. Also, the sub-plot involving the romantic advances of a beret-topped Richard Griffiths could use more nuance.

Scorsese and long-time collaborator Schoonmaker come up with several sequences sporting a propulsive kineticism worthy of Powell, who is the movie’s undeniable patron saint. One exhilarating set piece involving a train crash serves as a visceral example of how cinema, even in its most nascent form (the Lumiere Bros. famous train coming at the camera), invades and transforms the psyche to become the very language of a person’s inner life. After the transporting, truly magical third act of Hugo, a stirring and sad and hopeful celebration of the imagination — and cinema, its greatest vessel — it is hard to imagine any viewer who will not echo the sentiments of one character who says, “Thank you for the movie. It was a gift.”

Rating 4.5 stars

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Ryan Brown is a filmmaker and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He has an MFA in Media Arts from City College, CUNY. His short films GATE OF HEAVEN and DAUGHTER OF HOPE can be viewed here: With Antonio Tibaldi, he co-wrote the screenplay 'The Oldest Man Alive,' which was selected for the "Emerging Narrative" section of IFP's 2012 Independent Film Week. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Live Flesh), Assayas (Cold Water), Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket), Breillat (Fat Girl), Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), Demme (Something Wild), Denis (Friday Night), Herzog (The Wild Blue Yonder), Leigh (Another Year), Skolimowski (Four Nights with Anna), Zulawski (She-Shaman)

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