Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ is a Splendid Love Letter to the Power of Movies

Hugo movie poster

Maybe it was Martin Scorsese’s desire to utilize the 3D format which kept me from seeing “Hugo” on the first day of its release. 2011 saw 3D movies get a serious public beating as audiences became convinced it existed solely for Hollywood studios to jack up ticket prices. But to watch “Hugo” is to be reminded of how amazing 3D can be when using the right tools and not just throwing cheap gimmicks at the audience. But moreover, it is backed up by a great story and remarkable performances as Scorsese shares with us his love of all things cinema.

Seriously, the first five minutes of “Hugo” will blow you away as you will feel like you are traveling over the Paris of the 1930’s. It truly looks as though the snow it is literally blowing in your eyes, and it reminded me of when kids were grasping at the snowflakes coming off of the silver screen during “The Polar Express.” Scorsese was lucky enough to use the same Fusion Camera System which James Cameron used to superb effect in “Avatar.” The images stretch out from the screen, and the extra dimension gives these visuals a depth which at times feels remarkably real.

Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy living alone in a Paris railway station while maintaining the clocks and stealing whatever supplies he needs in order to survive. One major obstacle he has to deal with is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station with his vicious looking dog. Gustav shows no hesitation in picking up orphans and sending them straight to the orphanage which, in the kids’ eyes, seems like an unforgiving house of horrors.

Two people come to play an important role in Hugo’s life: the toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his spirited goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). They enter Hugo’s life as he continues to work on fixing an automaton he and his father, Mr. Cabret (Jude Law), were putting it back together in working order when Mr. Cabret was tragically killed in a museum fire. It is this same automaton which will draw these three together in ways none of them could ever have imagined.

By taking us back to a time when motion pictures were in their infancy, effects we now see as cheesy and simple to create come to feel as magical as they once did. Scorsese is brilliant in putting us into these characters’ shoes as we watch audiences react strongly to a film with a train which looks like it is coming straight at them, or at Buster Keaton hanging on for dear life from a clock outside a tall building. Looking at the awe which is so vivid in the faces of these children reminds us of how movies can magically draw us into another world, and this is a feeling many movies do not give us these days. In this day and age, we take the power of motion pictures for granted.

Butterfield’s performance is remarkable. Showing the pain and resourcefulness of a young boy who has lost his parents and is forced to fend for himself is no easy task, and he ended up giving one of 2011’s most underrated performances. Butterfield inhabits the character of Hugo so deeply to where, after a while, it does not feel like we are watching a performance at all.

Kudos also goes to Moretz, the star of “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” for adding yet another superb role to her already splendid resume. As the adventurous Isabelle, she pulls off a flawless English accent which is worth noting as we have gotten so used to actors screwing them up. The warmth of her smile onscreen is utterly genuine, and she lights up “Hugo” whenever it feels like it is getting a bit too dark.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hugo” as well. Ben Kingsley is fantastic as usual as Georges Méliès, and the late Christopher Lee has some wonderful moments as bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse. One of the big standouts in the supporting cast though is Sacha Baron Cohen who takes a break here from his “Borat” and “Bruno” mockumentaries as Inspector Gustav. He’s a hoot throughout, and his interactions with the infinitely lovely Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) who plays Lisette are hilariously sweet.

Scorsese has put together a truly beautiful motion picture which deserves a bigger audience than it received while it was in theaters. The fact that more people went to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” than this is deeply depressing. A lot of moviegoers really hated 3D movies back in 2011, so this did not do “Hugo” any favors. But after watching it, you will find yourself believing this extra dimension is worth your money when it is put together by the best masters of filmmaking.

* * * * out of * * * *

The 5th Wave

the-5th-wave-poster

The 5th Wave” comes to us not long after the conclusion of “The Hungers Games,” and it is the latest in a seemingly endless line of young adult book to film adaptations. As a result, I came into this movie feeling worn out even before it started. While the novel it is based on, written by Rick Yancey, might be an interesting read, what unfolds onscreen feels like the same old thing. Only the names and places have been changed to protect the filmmakers from potential lawsuits.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie Sullivan, a young teenager (is there any other kind?) who lives a normal life with her family, attends high school where she’s a cheerleader and constantly deals with unrequited love like any other child held prisoner by adolescence. But suddenly an alien ship, which looks like something out of “District 9,” appears in the sky, and the Earth goes through four waves which leave it decimated and on the verge of extinction. All Cassie has left is her brother whom she ends up getting separated from, and from there she is determined to save him from a fate many others have suffered.

This movie does not get off to a good start as the visual effects used to convey the various waves are shoddy CGI, and some scenes end up looking like outtakes from “Independence Day” or any other Roland Emmerich production. When the plot finally gains momentum, Cassie finds herself on the run and forced to defend herself in ways she never planned. She’s also looking for her brother whom she is very close to. Doesn’t this sound like something we just saw?

It’s a shame because the movie does have Moretz who makes this mess more bearable than it should be. Her breakthrough performance in “Kick-Ass” was no fluke and she continues to do strong work in each film she appears in, regardless of whether they are good or bad. She makes Cassie a strong heroine and one whom kids around the same age will easily relate to as she fends for herself in the dangerous world everyone has been thrust into, and Moretz makes you root for her throughout. But even she can’t save this routine young adult movie which has come out way too late.

Actually, what’s especially interesting about “The 5th Wave” is how the female characters are far more interesting than the male ones. It also helps they have such terrific actresses inhabiting those characters, and each of them clearly relishes the opportunity to bring them to life. Maria Bello, sporting a very funky hairdo, makes Sergeant Reznik a slyly manipulative soldier as she forces the children to see the alien threat her way to where getting them to fight for the human race is easy as cake. Maika Monroe, so good in “The Guest” and “It Follows,” makes her character of Ringer a wonderfully tough warrior, and she also skillfully unveils the other layers of Ringer to show us a person who is deeply broken. Along with Moretz, they keep “The 5th Wave” from becoming a complete bore.

The male actors, however, don’t have much to work with and their performances suffer as a result. Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, the high school football hero who, when he is forced to enlist in the military, is nicknamed Zombie. Zombie proves to be an appropriate name as Robinson has little choice but to give a one-note performance as much of the emotion Ben has experienced in life has long since been drained from his psyche. Then there’s Alex Roe who plays Evan Walker, a man who may not be all that he appears to be. It seems like the screenwriters had some trouble in trying to figure out what to do with this character, and that leaves Roe with little choice but to make Evan far more enigmatic than the character has any right to be.

And let’s not leave out the great Liev Schreiber, wonderfully understated in “Spotlight,” as the movie’s main antagonist Colonel Vosch. It’s no surprise Schreiber can give us such a menacing villain, but there really isn’t much of a character for him to play here. Vosch is merely here as an obstacle for Cassie to overcome, and as a result the actor is wasted in a role which is too unworthy of his talents.

Then there is the love triangle between Moretz, Robinson, and Roe, and after having been subjected to a very similar one between Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in “The Hunger Games,” I could have cared less about it. I imagine it will give audiences much to swoon over, but it’s a romance that is bland as the male characters in this movie.

“The 5th Wave” was directed by J Blakeson who previously gave us “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” a neo-noir thriller about the kidnapping of a woman by two ex-convicts. His direction on that film was much lauded by the press, and it makes me wonder just how much control he had over this project. Clearly, the studio is setting this up to be another franchise of movies for young adults to become obsessed over as a sequel to “The 5th Wave” has already been published and a third book is on the way. But it all depends of course on how this one does at the box office and considering how we are all still getting over the end of “The Hunger Games” movies, I’m not sure everybody is in a rush for yet another franchise like it.

Perhaps the target audience for “The 5th Wave” will enjoy it the most, but even they have to be outgrowing these kinds of movies at this point. Sooner or later we have to realize kids grow up and become adults, and even adults can save the world and their little brothers too.

* ½ out of * * * *