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.

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Black Sea

black-sea-poster

When it comes to submarine movies, I feel the genre peaked early on with Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot” which proved to be as claustrophobic as movies get. Others have come close to equaling its visceral power, but there’s no topping it. I went into “Black Sea” knowing this would be the case, and that helped a lot because this movie proved to be a lot more intense and nail-biting than I expected it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is a gritty thriller which doesn’t let up.

Jude Law stars as submarine Captain Robinson who, as the movie starts, has been laid off from his salvage job which leaves him with few prospects for future employment. It turns out he’s not the only one as his friends and colleagues have been kicked out of their jobs as well, and it serves as an annoying reminder of how companies spend more time firing employees than they do hiring them.

But Robinson soon gets offered a job by a shadowy backer who tells him about a World War II submarine that has sunk to the bottom of the sea and which contains an enormous wealth of gold. Seeing how it offers him and his colleagues more than enough to quit any day job they can hope to get, he commandeers an old and fairly decrepit submarine from the Cold War days to get at the gold hidden miles below the surface. But in addition to avoiding detection from the Soviets as he travels below their radar, he has to contend with the fragile relations between the crew members as they come from different places and don’t have enough trust in each other to make this mission run smoothly.

What makes “Black Sea” an especially effective thriller is that the depths of the ocean prove to be every bit as threatening as the twisted psychology of the submarine’s passengers. Everyone on board has their own selfish motives, and those motives have to contend with the dangers they have to endure on a ship way past its prime. It doesn’t take long before you start to wonder what’s going to kill these men first; the crushing depths or their own paranoia.

“Black Sea” was directed by Kevin Macdonald, a filmmaker who has gone from making documentaries like “Touching the Void” and “Marley” to unforgettable dramas like “The Last King of Scotland” and 2013’s underrated “How I Live Now.” He doesn’t have much to work with in terms of originality, but he makes effective use of the claustrophobic setting to where our nerves are effectively fried throughout. Macdonald also gives equal attention to the human element as the characters drive the action more than you might think. Even though some of the characters’ decisions become rather silly towards the end, he makes you empathize with them to a certain extent. These days, who can’t relate to being laid off or jumping at the opportunity to make a fortune? People will do anything to survive these days.

It’s interesting to see Jude Law in a role like this where he portrays a hard scrabble worker who looks like he needs a good long shower on a regular basis. I’ve gotten so used to seeing him as this handsome man onscreen to where it threatened to make me forget what a great actor he is. While his Scottish brogue gets a little too thick at times, he fully inhabits his role of a man who is more in love with the sea than he is with his own family. Law is also surrounded by a terrific cast which includes Ben Mendelsohn (terrific in the criminally overlooked “Starred Up”), Scoot McNairy, David Threlfall and Konstantin Khabensky who each imbue their roles with a lot of grit and desperation. It helps to have actors this good in a movie which on the surface might seem run of the mill.

At this point, I don’t think it’s even possible to reinvent the submarine movie genre. Where else can you go with it after movies like “Das Boot,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Beneath” to name a few? All you can hope for is that it can be done well and keep you on the edge of your seat, and “Black Sea” manages to do that more than you might expect. Sometimes that’s all you need a movie to do.

* * * out of * * * *