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 * * * *

‘Alien: Covenant’ Mixes the Old and the New for a Pulse-Pounding Ride

Alien Covenant poster

With the “Alien” franchise, it always helps to keep your expectations in check. The first one, released back in 1979 was one of the scariest science-fiction movies ever made, “Aliens” was one of the most intense, “Alien 3” was one of the most infinitely depressing, and “Alien Resurrection” was the slimiest by far. When Ridley Scott, who directed “Alien,” returned to the franchise with “Prometheus,” he presented us with a film containing, as he said, “strands of ‘Alien’ DNA in it,” but it was also designed to have its own mythology and ideas while existing in the same cinematic universe. Each time, the filmmakers brought their own unique vision to this franchise and succeeded in creating something daring, and at times maddening, which no other franchise would have dared pulled off. As for the “Alien vs Predator” movies, the less said, the better.

Now Scott returns again to the franchise with another prequel, “Alien: Covenant,” which looks to be a return to basics after the mixed reaction “Prometheus” received. Sure enough, composer Jed Kurzel’s score starts off with a taste of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from “Alien” which has the audience feeling like they are entering familiar territory. But Kurzel’s music also has the music Marc Streitenfeld created for “Prometheus,” and it made me realize Scott was not about to leave the themes he explored previously in the dust.

“Alien: Covenant” picks up ten years after “Prometheus” as we come across the spaceship Covenant making its way to a remote planet where colonists intend to start a new life. These plans go awry when a neutrino blast hits the ship, killing some of the passengers and leaving the survivors in a state of devastation they cannot be expected to quickly recover from. Suddenly they intercept a human radio transmission from a nearby planet not on their charts and despite some objections, which of course are ignored, they change course to investigate. From there, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen.

Scott, as usual, works visual wonders along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski which put us right into the action instead of just viewing it from a distance. Seeing these humans arrive on a planet we know many of them will not leave, not in one piece anyway, jacks up the tension in no time at all, and he still knows how to make those xenomorphs look more vicious than the average sci-fi creatures.

At the same time, he continues the themes of “Prometheus” with the assistance of one of its best actors, Michael Fassbender (god he has an awesome last name!). Fassbender returns as David, the synthetic android who is revealed to be alive and in one piece on this new planet, and he also plays Walter, another synthetic android assigned to look after the crew of the Covenant. Seeing David and Walter share scenes with one another prove to be some of this movie’s most fascinating for me as Fassbender makes you forget special effects were involved in him having a conversation with himself.

The balance between the themes of “Prometheus” and the typically visceral action of the average “Alien” movie is a tricky one, and Scott manages to pull it off for the most part. Still, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to this one as they may like certain parts of “Alien: Covenant” more than others.

I do wish Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper had given more attention to the characters here as many of them appear to be too one-dimensional for this movie’s own good. This franchise thrives on our getting to know these characters as individuals we can relate to, but many of them appear to exist solely for the xenomorphs to rip apart limb from limb. Some characters fare better than others, but the rest of the pack deserved more attention than they got.

Katherine Waterston, unforgettable in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” has a big challenge here as she is essentially playing the Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley role as terraforming expert Daniels Branson. What I really admired about Waterston’s work here is how she never invites easy comparison to Weaver, and I never bothered spending time comparing the two actresses as the movie unfolded before me. Waterston fully embraces her character’s complex emotions as she is forced to deal with an unexpected tragedy which would easily wreck another, and she turns Daniels into formidable warrior long before the movie’s furious climax.

Another actor I got a kick out of seeing here was Danny McBride who plays the chief pilot of the Covenant, Tennessee. McBride is best known for his no-holds-barred comedic performances in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “The Foot Fist Way,” and the HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” and several critics have said they felt he was miscast here. I completely disagree as he brings the kind of the down-to-earth character the “Alien” movies can’t exist without as well as a subtlety which makes his emotions feel genuine and never faked. Once again, I truly believe that if you can do comedy, you can do drama.

I also have to give Billy Crudup a lot of credit for taking a character like the self-serious man of faith, Christopher Oram, who lacks the confidence a leader should have and making him into someone more human than any other actor could have. I say this because this kind of character usually comes across as totally annoying and infinitely idiotic, but Crudup succeeds in making Christopher down to earth and more empathetic than you might expect. And those scenes he has with Fassbender in the latter half? Priceless.

Does “Alien: Covenant” reach the exhilarating heights of the first two “Alien” movies? No, but I wasn’t surprised it didn’t. We have long since gotten used to these vicious creatures to where they aren’t as terrifying as when we first met them. Still, I found “Alien: Covenant” to be a pulse-pounding ride with strong performances, a sleek design and the kind of stunning look you can always expect from the average Ridley Scott film. It pays homage not just to its predecessors, but also to “Blade Runner” as well, and it has an infinitely unnerving conclusion which reminds us all that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Just try to go into it with an open mind. There is a bit of the old here which I know fans will enjoy, but there is also a lot of thought put into the story which you don’t often get with the usual summer blockbuster.

* * * ½ out of * * * *