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.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
High-school misfit Will moves to New Jersey with his single mom and finds himself as socially anonymous at his new school as he was at the last. A music fanatic (he keeps a one-way letter-writing correspondence with David Bowie) Will finds his calling when much to his surprise the school’s hot blonde Charlotte Banks asks him to manage her fledgling garage band. Will accepts the offer taking a group that cranks out uninspired covers of "I Want You to Want Me" and molding it into a high-functioning jamband which he christens “I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On.” Thanks to his coaching they're soon skilled enough to take on the high school’s musical hotshots Glory Dogs at the city-wide battle of the bands Bandslam.
All the while Will is falling for the wry deadpan Sa5m (the 5 is silent I don’t know why) and dealing with the social and emotional damage wrought by his no-good absentee father.
WHO'S IN IT?
Gaelan Connell makes a compelling lead as the gangly and sweetly animated Will. Connell is smart funny and endearing like your awkward little brother. Lisa Kudrow fully engages her perfect comedic timing as Will’s kind smothering mother. Aly Michalka plays Charlotte Banks the blonde guitar-playing former cheerleader with heart and Vanessa Hudgens rounds out the crew as the introverted bookish nerd dream girl Sa5m. Rock legend David Bowie plays himself in a cameo.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny and trusts its young target audience to pick up on humor more subtle than what’s usually found in such teen fare. The dead/loser father subplots give the story a serious hook making it a little deeper and more authentically poignant than what’s expected. These twists also give Connell and Banks the opportunity to display their characters’ emotional range and they're up to the task. The way Will sways a surly audience of high school hecklers into a cheering crowd of fans might just bring happy proud mother-style tears to your eyes.
The flick boasts solid musicianship from its cast members and a deep cut-heavy soundtrack featuring artists including Nick Drake Wilco The Velvet Underground & Nico and Bowie himself.
The characters — sweet nerd alluring alterna-girl affected popular chick gaggle of musical dorks — are all cliches but the fine acting humanizes the crew in that relatable Breakfast Club kind of way.
Also at nearly two hours the film is longer than the subject matter requires.
Will and Sa5m’s trip across the bridge to Manhattan is a lovely grainy hand-held camera montage. This young love field trip/perfect first date reaches a high note when the duo breaks into shuttered punk mecca CBGB and Will finds it everything he's dreamed (a scuzzy shrine to his idols) and more (a fine place to romance his Sex Pistols-endeared love interest).
Lisa Kudrow also reminds us why she was our favorite Friend for so long in her neurotic mom role. The scene in which when she pretends to be a young babe on the prowl in order to help Will lure in a drummer to the band is pure comedic parental love.
It’s understandable that the public at large would perceive this flick to be a cheesy High School Musical-style hokefest for the Disney Channel set. Give Bandslam a chance though and it’ll prove itself to be a surprisingly smart little high school comedy that could simultaneously tide the Twilight legion over until New Moon comes out and endear itself to a broader audience wistful for a John Hughes-style junior year coming-of-age story.
When ordered to fire a long-time janitor named Stavi (Luis Avalos) Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) softens the blow by hiring him to mow the lawn at his apartment complex. Steve didn't provide him with health insurance so Stavi naturally loses a few fingers in a mowing accident and now it'll cost thousands to save the digits. What's a guy to do? Why of course fix the Special Olympics—a suggestion of Steve's degenerate uncle Gary (Brian Cox) who's also in the financial dumps. Former track star Steve reluctantly goes along with the scam and competes in the Special Olympics. His competitors are quick to pick up on his ruse but they decide to help him after Steve explains his motive. He must also try not to disappoint Lynn (Katherine Heigl) the beautiful volunteer who doesn't know of his real identity. What's a guy to do? Take the high road of course. Certainly Knoxville—of Jackass infamy and debauchery—would have no moral trepidation about headlining offensive exploitative crap like The Ringer but stardom beckons him if he only he stops aiming so damn low! His performance here was probably not as easy as it'd seem but it's reasonable to think that Jackass stunts involving a bottle of absinthe and some paper cuts to the cornea quickly eliminated any butterflies. What Knoxville has in spades is that rare charisma to prevent him from ever looking uncool. Then there's Cox the latest revered journeyman to sell his soul on the cheap for a role completely beneath him. Mostly disabled actors round out the cast uttering any and all funny lines but there's something fundamentally wrong when the audience erupts in laughter before the lines are even delivered. Though the Farrelly brothers—directors of There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber--only acted as executive producers of The Ringer their lowbrow stamp is smeared all over. Directing chores were handed over to Barry Blaustein prolific writer of comedies like Coming to America making his feature directorial debut. The Ringer delivers on its promise of frat-dude humor and Blaustein certainly knows how to make his leading man shine—but it does so in cheap sophomoric ways.
Set in 1984 Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her ice-cold hometown in Northern Minnesota after fleeing from an abusive husband. In order to care for her two young kids she needs a job--and for most of the townsfolk including her distant dad (Richard Jenkins) that means working in the local iron mines. Problem is not too many women work there and those who do are subjected to continual harassment by their male coworkers. Josey lands a job anyway and starts to get her fair share of sexual innuendos. One day her former high-school sweetheart also a mine employee takes it way too far with her. Although met with strong resistance of course a lawsuit ensues that results in a groundbreaking decision for women’s rights in the workplace. Ah what an Oscar can do for a career. It wasn't that long ago Theron wouldn’t even have been considered for such a dramatic role. But with deserved recognition she gets to strut her stuff in North Country. She's no Monster but she's no supermodel either--and while it's impossible to erase her beauty its glare has been reduced. A second-consecutive Oscar win? Maybe not but a nomination wouldn't be out of the place. Co-star Frances McDormand might also be in line for a nod of her own. She plays Glory a woman who gets Josey the job and encourages her to fight the good fight something that seems visceral for McDormand. Woody Harrelson is also solid as Josey's attorney though his Midwest-stoner drawl gets in the way of the northern accent he's supposed to be selling. New Zealand director Niki Caro mightily impressed us with Whale Rider a poignant mixture of grief and vigor and with North Country she continues to impress. As more an observer than anything else Caro lets the true story tell itself--of what happened in this small town with its frigid denizens and sexist behavior. And the film is definitely a period piece á la Norma Rae in that it's from a specific period albeit a recent one and pertains to a specific region. But it's kind of slow going. There’s a lot of weeping and dramatic speeches. Still Caro makes up for it by including several Bob Dylan songs who rarely grants the use of his songs in films. Perhaps he felt a certain a kinship to this film since it takes place in the desolate cold Northern Minnesota where he comes from--and so resents.