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Hugo (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?

Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.

While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.

Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.

Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.

Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.

Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.

Grade: A

Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…

Our Idiot Brother

Hey readers,

This week, Anti-Film School encourages all of our readers to check out Our Idiot Brother, which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. This heartfelt comedy about a big hearted stoner down on his luck is filled with nonstop laughs, wit, and a left of center performance from Paul Rudd. In my eyes, it ranked as one of the best comedies of the summer, a film that was somewhat overlooked by audiences. I was pleasantly surprised with this film and I think many of you will enjoy it. If you want to check out my review of Our Idiot Brother, click here to see my letter grade and analysis. I guarantee that you will just dig this movie, man!

-Steve

Our Idiot Brother (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I wish every film could have characters that are as entrancing and three dimensional as Our Idiot Brother, a late summer comedy that has been met with a relatively mixed reception from critics and audiences. But I found Our Idiot Brother to be charismatic, consistent, and a total delight to watch. Its dry, knee-slapping humor is fast and demanding of our undivided attention. The film is kept afloat by its buoyant adult tone that never slips into fantastical slapstick pratfalls or senseless gross out humor. It feels unfeigned and it leaves the viewer feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. The film is a game changer for Paul Rudd, who is usually cast as the prim and proper smart-aleck everyman. Here he channels Jeff Bridges’ The Dude (even down to the tribal print pants), with such likable results, you almost want to leap into the screen and give him a hug.

The film follows organic farmer Ned (Rudd), a gullible, peace-loving stoner who has never really grown up. He sells vegetables at a farmers market along with his dog Willie Nelson. One day, the altruistic Ned is suckered into selling a bag of pot to a uniformed policeman. He gets sent to jail for a couple of months and is let out early for good behavior. He returns to his farm to find that is dreadlocked girlfriend Janet (Played by Kathryn Hahn) has replaced him with another man, Billy (Played by comedian T.J. Miller), another stoner who avoids altercation. Ned moves on to restart his life and shacks up with his three sisters, happily married Liz (Played by Emily Mortimer), lesbian Natalie (Played by Zooey Deschanel), and career driven Miranda (Played by Elizabeth Banks). Ned soon finds himself caught in the middle of an affair, an unplanned pregnancy, and a life-changing job opportunity. He means well, but his sisters deem him the root of their problems and slowly begin to turn on him.

Our Idiot Brother is artfully composed and seems a step above the slew of sweet natured gross out comedies that have been all the rage. It’s Ned’s down-to-earth interaction and nonjudgmental character that makes him such a charmer. He wears his heart on his sleeve. You will smile at his one-on-ones with Natalie’s partner Cindy (Played by Rashida Jones), who agrees to help him get his dog back from Janet. The dog is Ned’s world, and while it seems at first like a flimsy side-story, it warmed my heart that Ned’s world revolved around his four-legged companion. You will also cherish a budding friendship with the aspiring sci-fi writer Jeremy (Played by Adam Scott), who seems to understand Ned’s frequency.

I loved this film’s solemn moments, the one’s with raw family interaction. One scene near the end reveals Ned as a wounded individual who just wants his family to get along. He simply wants to find the joys in life and avoid negativity, which he ironically brings with him everywhere he goes. He has the best intentions in mind. Ned’s sisters are also a pleasure to spend time with. I found Natalie’s aspiring stand-up comic flirt to be dreamy and supportive. She lacks a filter and can be a bit vulgar at times, but she’s just as down to earth as Ned. She does, however, keep her composure elegantly in tact. Miranda, who is tough to love, is a domineering control freak that has a soft spot underneath her concrete shell. She is surprisingly vulnerable. Liz has hippie undertones and is at times a bit jaded, but is also manages to be kind and placid.

Our Idiot Brother is touching and we root for Ned to get his life on track. This man is shit on by life every step of the way and we can’t help but admire his sunny disposition. No matter how bad, or weird for that matter, things get, he still has a smile for everyone. His sudden meltdown is a bit alarming, but we can see where he’s coming from in the wake of all that happens to him of the course of the flick. The film thankfully never falls victim to stoner comedy clichés and instead hurdles over them nicely. The comedy here is restrained and if you blink, you may miss some classic one liners. But the film grounds itself nicely and becomes a pleasant little surprise. If you go into this film expecting something along the lines of Role Models or I Love You, Man, you will be severely disappointed. Ned turns out to be a character that, when the going gets tough, we should aspire to be like. He acts as a lesson to us all if you’re willing to look close enough. If a simple story about a guy and his dog is you’re thing, look no further than the cheery Our Idiot Brother. Grade: A-