I've been going to the movies since I was 3 years old. When I was a kid, and for as long as my parents and relatives would tolerate it, I saw a lot of movies. The rule was simple: if it wasn't rated PG-13 or R, I could most likely see a movie. How often would a PG-rated movie have content that was unsuitable for children? Of course, this meant that some movies I saw went over my head, not because they were too adult, but because not every PG-rated movie is intended for children first.
But I saw a lot of movies. And if I liked a movie, I'd see it twice, or I'd try to see it twice. My parents--usually my dad, who was more patient--would see the movie with me the first time, and if I walked out saying "That was the BEST movie," I would likely be able to see it again, as long as my aunt Mary was willing to see it with me. She lived about 20 minutes away and rare was the time when she didn't see a movie with me, just to spend time with me. Now, I was a kid and a lot of movies for kids aren't really that good. I didn't know any better--and growing up during the Disney Renaissance made it so me wanting to see Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King multiple times didn't and still doesn't seem crazy. As I grew up, I didn't see a lot of movies twice in theaters, simply because I didn't have the disposable income to do so. (My parents and aunt didn't have disposable incomes, either, but a) movies were cheaper back in the 1990s and b) I wasn't a very pampered kid with tons of toys and gizmos at home.) In the grand scheme of things, seeing a movie twice isn't the biggest luxury, but time and money are frequently more important than seeing a fictional story twice, especially when it'll be available to own in a few months.
I bring all of this up because now, if I see a movie twice, it's because that movie is going to hold a special place in my heart, and I want to give it all the space it needs. Every once in a while, I do see a movie multiple times, from Toy Story 3 to The Dark Knight to There Will Be Blood. For various reasons, those movies mean something to me, and weren't movies I wanted to see on the big screen just once. This weekend has brought two new movies, The Muppets and Hugo, that will likely hold similarly vaunted places for me in years to come. I don't know if I'm likely to see either of them in theaters again, but I'd like to. I've already written about (and recorded a podcast, too) The Muppets over at Mousterpiece Cinema, so I want to talk about Hugo right now. I don't know that children will like Hugo or dislike it, but guess what? I don't have kids, so who am I to say what child will or won't like it? I saw Martin Scorsese's latest in a 3D theater yesterday; while it was probably not as packed as a theater for The Muppets was, there were a lot of families and children in the audience. They didn't seem restless, but frankly, I don't care if kids like this movie or not. Martin Scorsese didn't make this movie for children. He made it for people.
There's been plenty written about the irony of making a movie that argues strenuously and passionately for film preservation in digital 3D, not 35MM film, which is in its dying days. But it's important for us to remember that film preservation can take many forms. Yes, we can argue strictly to preserve the very concept of physical film, but it's just as important--if not moreso--to preserve the movies that men and women have created either on film or digitally. As I watched Hugo, Scorsese's 22nd film (have there been only 22 over the past 45 years?), I was constantly thinking of the visionary British filmmaker Michael Powell. After the film, I was nudged to consider Powell's personal relationship to Scorsese as a mentor in a different way, thanks to an e-mail exchange with fellow film aficionado Gabe Bucsko, but in the moment, I was reminded of Powell's versatility as a filmmaker. In a seven-year stretch during the 1940s, he and writer Emeric Pressburger collaborated to make a whimsical romantic comedy, an epic war biography, a melodrama about repressed nuns, an ode to ballet as the center of creativity, a rustic screwball romance, a jittery and tragic character study, and a mercurial and moving love letter to the beauty of living the slow life.
Everything about those woefully brief synposes (see the movies of the Archers, by the way; it'll change your life) shouts versatility. Michael Powell didn't just make romantic movies, he didn't just make dramas, he didn't just make comedies; he made movies. He made great movies, but he couldn't be typecast as a writer and director. Martin Scorsese has been proving lately that he shouldn't be typecast either, even if most people assume Scorsese is a mobster-movie director. Think of the films he's made over his career, from the splashy and entertaining biography of Howard Hughes to the dark and introspective look at the last days of Jesus Christ to the crowd-pleasing drama about a pool hustler and the kid he's mentoring to the post-WWII musical. Yes, Scorsese made Goodfellas and Casino. Yes, he won the Oscar for The Departed, another mobster movie. But typecast Scorsese at your discretion. Still, that's what people are doing. They read the logline for Hugo, about an orphaned boy who lives in a Parisian train station, fixing its clocks after his father passes away and uncle leaves him to his own devices, and they scratch their heads. People so often forget that Martin Scorsese is and has always been making movies he'd want to see, movies he would've loved when he was a boy, unable to go out due to his asthma.
Here's something else: people fall over themselves to praise Clint Eastwood for his work ethic. And, hey, why not? An 81-year old man directing one movie a year? Good on you, sir. Even more credit is given him because he's clearly very versatile, jumping from genre to genre with ease. Let's be clear: I don't really share that opinion. Yes, I appreciate that Clint Eastwood is very old and still making movies that have unique scopes and motives. I also don't think a lot of those movies are very good. The last film of his I legitimately enjoyed was Million Dollar Baby; just last week, I saw and was underwhelmed by J. Edgar, and I've put myself through the tortures known as Hereafter and Gran Torino, so I'm not coming at this without any prior knowledge. And sure, Martin Scorsese turns 70 next year, so he may not be as sprightly and energetic in a decade. I sure hope he is, though, because look at the output of work he's done in the last decade. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. Shutter Island. Hugo. And I haven't forgotten his work on the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, or the six documentaries he's made since 2003, including three in the past 18 months. Martin Scorsese could've chosen to relax after finally winning the Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Instead, he's challenging himself with an ostensible kids' movie.
What a movie it is, by the way. I've spent so much time talking about pitting elder-statesman directors against each other that I almost forgot that Hugo is an incredible achievement. First, it proves once more that 3D is not a completely useless format. There are a lot of things to champion about Hugo, a myriad of elements to praise, but let's start with the 3D. Yes, friends, this is a movie you need to see, and you need to see it in 3D. I wish I could remember who said it on Twitter this week, but someone (not me, I promise) said that watching Hugo in 2D is like watching Modern Times without the sound on. You get the same story, but the experience is so much different. That person was dead right, too. From the very first shot, a swooping, zooming tracking shot that introduces us to the set where the majority of the film will take place, that train station, Scorsese is inviting and instructing us to strap in, because he's not just going to utilize the 3D format to thrust sharp objects at the audience. This is 3D at its most immersive. We may not be entering the world of Pandora, but the world of Hugo, as designed by Dante Ferretti and shot by Robert Richardson, is just as welcoming and exciting to watch.
The story of Hugo, written by John Logan and based on a book by Brian Selznick, is a tricky one, because it changes gears halfway through, unexpectedly zigging instead of zagging. Hugo is a 12-year old orphan whose father died mysteriously. He lives in the walls of a Parisian train station circa 1932, fixing its many clocks because his ne'er-do-well uncle left him to go drinking. All that really keeps Hugo going is the thought of fixing the one thing his father left him: an automaton that is meant to write out...something. Hugo hopes it's a message from his dead father, but even with all of the parts he's pilfered from the train station, mostly from a toy store run by a grouchy old man, there's one part of the machine he can't find: a heart-shaped key that seems to power the automaton. Even the notebook with detailed instructions that his father left behind hasn't helped Hugo, but one day, the grouchy old man sees that notebook and takes it away from the boy, for no discernible reason. Hugo meets Isabelle, the goddaughter of the grouchy old man, known as Papa Georges, soon after and they become fast friends. The mystery deepens when Hugo realizes that Isabelle is wearing the very key he needs to turn on the automaton. Once the automaton is turned on...well, things take a turn.
The less said, the better, frankly. Some film buffs will know, or have some inkling, of where Hugo is going, but most people won't. Certainly, almost every child watching this movie won't know the wonders and surprises of the second half of the film. But let's make something perfectly clear: Hugo doesn't become a great movie in its second half. It's a great movie from the beginning, only getting better. Even once the movie leaves the train station, the visuals are sumptuous and dazzling. The music, from Howard Shore, is playful and romantic, hearkening to a forgotten time, a time that might have only truly existed in people's minds, their imaginations. As it goes with pretty much every Scorsese film, the cast is excellent, from Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz as Hugo and Isabelle, to Ben Kingsley as Papa Georges, Sacha Baron Cohen as the antagonistic train inspector, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a man with surprising knowledge up his sleeve. Kingsley, in particular, is incredible. He's proven here and in other recent roles that he's one of the finest older actors working in Hollywood; now, he just needs to stop appearing in Uwe Boll movies.
Though it would be wrong of me to reveal the secrets of the final hour of Hugo, let it be said that this movie should be necessary viewing for kids. Kids should have an appreciation of film, good and bad, simply so they can see what wonders can be achieved, and what wonders have been achieved, through the medium of cinema. There may not be crass or gross-out humor in this movie, and sure, it's a period piece. But an entertaining, edifying movie is what it is. Children can embrace this as well as adults can, because in Hugo, Martin Scorsese taps into a primal instinct we all have when we watch certain movies: the silver screen can make us all children again, can tap into our inner child easily. Hugo is a movie for the film lover in each of us, and it's one of the best films of the year.