On the surface Hugo looks like your run-of-the-mill Harry Potter knock-off full of whimsy spectacle life lessons and faux-imagination. But the young adult fiction adaptation is anything but factory-processed. Filled with more passion emotion and drama than most "Oscar contenders" of 2011 Hugo transcends its fantastical predecessors. Some call Hugo director Martin Scorsese's foray into kids movies but the film speaks to "kids" young and old. Every scene every moment every frame gushes with creativity and artistry and it's one of the best movies of the year.
Hugo doesn't sugarcoat the plights faced by the film's titular hero. When we pick up with Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) the savvy lad is living in the walls of a 1930's Parisian train station taking over the clock winding duties of his missing uncle (a drunk who took him in after his clockmaker father's unfortunate demise). Aside from his day to day duties Hugo faces greater challenges: evading capture from the station's resident orphan wrangler (Sacha Baron Cohen) and swiping parts from a toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) to rebuild his father's automaton a early 20th century robot designed for entertainment. Hugo's thievery is eventually discovered by the weary toyman who takes the child under his wing to make use of his tinkering skills. The professional relationship introduces Hugo to the toyman's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) who helps Hugo unravel the greater mystery behind his father's robot and "Papa Georges " as well as better understand himself.
As Hugo and Isabelle dig deeper into Papa Georges' history they unearth a history that's simultaneously magical and true—they aren't going to a far away land through an otherworldly portal but instead examining an aspect of history cinematic history in fact that feels foreign to them (and the audience). With a their innocent perspective the young duo marvel at stories of the early days of film and glimpses of long lost silents. This is Scorsese's playground. His love for the early days of film is infused into the design and story of Hugo giving the movie a timeless feel that sweeps the viewer up.
But Hugo isn't just a souped-up Film 101 course. The historical revelations are only part of Hugo's emotional journey which is equally enhanced by stunning 3D detailed production design and a supporting cast woven into the film's fabric to further expand the world. Cohen's Station Inspector is like a Buster Keaton character complete with pratfalls and heart. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man Boardwalk Empire appears as Scorsese's proxy relishing the world of film while caring for Hugo and Isabelle. Even Christopher Lee's (Lord of the Rings) brief turn as a book store owner succeeds in evoking a smile. All the parts come together under the intricate train station set a beautifully realized period piece brought to life by Scorsese's dimensional 3D. Never before has a stereoscopic film worked so hard to bring you into the picture or enhance the storytelling (on sequence shows a cowering crowd experiencing film for the first time a train hurtling towards camera—an effect paralleled in today's 3D effects!). If the story doesn't suck you in the artistry on display in Hugo surely will.
We praised the film in an unfinished form when we caught it at New York Film Festival and the finalized version packs an even greater punch. Hugo is the perfect film to hypnotize young people with the magic of film or to revisit the heart-pounding experience of a person's first time at a movie theater. This isn't nostalgic baiting but rather expert filmmaking.
It's the near future and after a bunch of terrorist bombings and a few bad plagues the populace is hanging on as best they can. A big conglomerate is about to buy up a bunch of property in Manhattan and a group of stragglers are left in a dilapidated apartment building on Mulberry Street. The apartment dwellers include: Clutch (Nick Damici) who has some history with a gay guy named Coco (Ron Brice). Together they've raised a young girl soldier Casey (Kim Blair) who has just returned fighting some war. Also living in the building are Frank (Larry Medich) who is connected to an oxygen tank and his roommate Charlie (Larry Fleischman) who can't remember if they’ve lived there 52 or 53 years. Finally there’s Kay (Bo Corre) and her young son Ross (Tim House) a family Clutch would like to be a part of but remains distant. It doesn’t matter. Soon they are all fighting for survival when people are quite literally turning into life-sized rats biting and scratching as they go. The alternative family dynamics are refreshingly out of the ordinary in this near-future world. Even though Clutch character is definitely heterosexual there's some hesitation he has about his attraction toward Kay and he's intensely connected to the flamboyant Coco. Damici who also wrote the film obviously wanted to show off his range as a rugged former boxer who also has a tender side. Old-timers Medich and Fleischman in their supporting roles are good comic relief in an otherwise bleak tale. Director Jim Mickle hands us a very dark and unforgiving future drumming up the same kind of paranoia and fear which occurred after 9/11. Mulberry Street is shot in claustrophobic surroundings as our intrepid group runs to hide in meat lockers closets and cars to escape the rat zombies. And their appearance is not as laughable as they may sound.
Maid in Manhattan is yet another take on the Cinderella story. There are very few surprises but the film is still somewhat enjoyable despite its predictable setup. Cinderella aka Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) is a hardworking no-nonsense single mom who loves her son Ty (Tyler Posey) and dreams of breaking out of her job as a maid at a five-star hotel in Manhattan. Her Fairy Godmother aka co-worker Stephanie (Marissa Matrone) unwittingly gives her that chance when she convinces Marisa to try on some expensive clothes left in a suite by the Evil Stepsister aka spoiled socialite Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson) while they're cleaning. In walks Prince Charming aka Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes) an incredibly handsome U.S. senator candidate and the city's most eligible bachelor and Boom! sparks fly. Chris thinks Marisa is the expensive suite's occupant--and she's too overwhelmed by the domino effect that happens to tell him different. Ah what a tangled web love at first sight can weave. Marisa spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up her error in judgment while also becoming increasingly drawn to her prince. Will he find out who she really is? Of course. Will it matter in the end? Of course not.
This may have been created as another vehicle to help further propel the career of actress/singer/designer/fiancee to Ben Affleck J. Lo but unexpectedly someone else comes out of the film looking better--Fiennes. It's little hard even for Jenny on the Block to outshine an Oscar-nominated actor. He elevates the formulaic subject matter and portrays a pretty down-to-earth Prince Charming without us ever seeing a forced move. I'm curious as to why such a high-caliber actor would choose such a run-of-the-mill project like this but whatever the reason he makes it work--at least for his part. Lopez doesn't do anything out of the ordinary. In fact it looks like she may have simply cloned the same expressions she put on in her other successful romantic comedy The Wedding Planner. And unfortunately Lopez and Fiennes don't share the same kind of heat she shared in that film with Matthew McConaughey or even George Clooney in Out of Sight (still her best performance to date). Yet they manage to convey a fair amount of good feelings to make the movie palatable. Richardson has a blast playing the rich bitch Caroline while Matrone making her film debut just comes off as annoying and pushy even if she thinks she's doing the right thing. Thank goodness she is because if things had turned out badly it would be in Marisa's best interest to go out and shoot her. Stanley Tucci as Christopher's watchdog campaign manager and Bob Hoskins as a senior-level butler at the hotel both do the best they can with silly parts.
Maid in Manhattan relies so heavily on the been-there-done-that Cinderella formula it becomes one of those romantic comedies you'll end up waiting to watch on cable one Saturday night rather than paying to see in a movie theater. It's really a shame because director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) had some interesting elements to play with and lots of acting talent to back it up. Perhaps Lopez could have played Marisa more wacky than so serious maybe try to show some comic ability. It would be a nice change of pace to think out of the box for once--what if the lovestruck pair didn't get together in the end? (I know the film would have fallen flat on its face.) But instead Maid wallows in predictability and implausibility. Christopher falls a little too hard and a little too fast for reality. Also it's hard to believe a maid would have access to all the hotel's amenities as Marisa does--borrowing a Harry Winston diamond necklace from the hotel jewelry store for the gala event? Unlikely to say the least. The only aspect of the film that stands out is the sneak peek you get into the inner workings of a top-notch hotel. It's definitely a world you don't get to see very often.