Tuesday, December 13, 2011

“Hugo” in 3-D: Too Much Movie Magic for Me

Maybe it was the long day—up at 4 am, work in the morning, meetings in the afternoon… By the time I donned my 3-D glasses at the 20-plex to watch the early-evening screening of Martin Scorsese’s new film, I was dog-tired. Was that the only reason I felt empty after watching “Hugo,” a piece of advanced movie artistry certain to please film buffs and children? Unfortunately, I am neither.

From the endless opening tracking shot, everything about “Hugo” says, You are in the presence of a Master Movie Maker. It is a technically brilliant film about the early history of cinema.

We see Paris in the 1920s at night, from the air; the Place de l’Etoile transforms into a giant neon clockwork; the camera zooms in over the Gare St. Lazare, then follows an inbound chuffing train and races up the platform alongside it, virtually knocking passengers aside; then we are swept into the waiting area, where we zoom to the eyes of a solitary lad (Asa Butterfield) watching it all through a clock face on the station wall. Five minutes of sweeping, zigging, zagging shots rush by before we are granted a breath and a simple, stationary title, the name of the movie, the name of the lad.

My problem with “Hugo” is that its story never measures up to its extraordinary technique. Scorsese’s film begins with the Lumière Brothers and focuses on George Meliès (Ben Kingsley), a pioneer of cinema all but forgotten by the 1920s. To tell us this rich history, Brian Selznick (book) and John Logan (screenplay) cook up a story about a boy, a girl, and an automaton. All three are orphans after a fashion. This should tug on our heart-strings, but mine scarcely vibrated.

My awareness was so mesmerized by the visual rushes, hyperdriven by 3-D “experience,” that I felt swallowed whole, lost in a trip that was not so much bad as drowning. I never felt my self, my judgment withdrawing from the racing imagery and lush soundtrack long enough to notice what I was feeling. In retrospect, I felt surprisingly little.

Butterfield’s saucer eyes should have moved me, ditto his hand-holding with Chloë Grace Moretz as the orphan girl. Instead, they seemed like also-rans in a Harry Potter audition—clipped Brit accents with no feeling inside them. I should have been more bedazzled by the turn of Kingsley, whom I have admired since “Gandhi,” but his performance came off as slow-motion scene-chewing.  I admit that the comic moments, especially by Sacha Baron Cohen as a sadistic, romantically challenged inspector, brushed my funny bone a few times. But “Hugo” uses comedy as a calculated change of pace. Scorsese clearly wants us to feel unadulterated MOVIE MAGIC, and all I felt, at the end, was numb.

“Hugo” made me long for a silent film like Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last!” with its hanging-from-a-clock bit that Scorsese parodies during the final inevitable chase scene. In fact, “Hugo” most made me want something even silenter: a book, an experience that I could savor and ponder at my own pace.

Sometimes I feel like a 19th-century guy lost in a 21st-century nightmare.

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