Hugo (In Progress)

Last night, the NYFF had a surprise screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which was billed as a work-in-progress.  Mr. Scorsese himself introduced the film and listed all of the elements which were still unfinished, mostly visual effects.  While we were asked not to officially review the film, here are a few of my impressions:

– The pacing is extremely slow, so much so that I thought the movie was an hour longer than it actually is.  It sounds like the editing process is complete, but it definitely needs to be trimmed down some more.

– For the first hour of the film, it’s very unclear what the actual conflict is.  When it finally becomes clear that the film is a tribute to early cinema, the story begins to flow more quickly, but it feels overloaded with exposition.  None of the film history was addressed early in the film, so there is suddenly a lot to cover through flashbacks and voiceover, making the film feel almost like a documentary on early cinema.

– The 3D is generally unnecessary, but Scorsese uses it beautifully in the early sequences.  Hugo works maintaining the clocks in the Paris train station, and there are some gorgeous images of him climbing through the turning gears and sliding down chutes that made me actually appreciate the technology for once.  Again, it’s not necessary at all, but Hugo contains the best use of 3D I’ve seen (yes, including Avatar).

– The young actors are excellent, particularly Asa Butterfield as Hugo.  Sacha Baron Cohen is good but overused – there are a few too many chase scenes through the station, and there are only so many times we can laugh at his strange voice and mechanical leg.  Ben Kingsley’s performance is a little on the scenery-chewing side, especially in the beginning, but he calms down as the film progresses.

– The use of 3D brings up interesting ideas of film technology and how to present early cinema.  Would the early filmmakers have supported showing their films in 3D?  My main problem with the technology is that it disturbs the dynamics of the medium, making for a more distracting composition and different viewer relationship.  I’m sure, however, that George Melies and the Lumiere brothers would have jumped at the chance to use such effects; it was the “cinema of attractions,” after all.

Hugo is, at this point, a very slow film that is rather confused in its storytelling.  It is, however, a lovely piece of visual filmmaking from one of the true master directors, and Scorsese is never more endearing than when he is writing love letters to cinema.

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