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.
As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.