It was announced last week that, for the second time in the New York Film Festival's illustrious 49-year history, the folks over at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were going to be screening a secret work-in-progress from a "master filmmaker." The only clue the fest provided ticket-buyers was that the film is scheduled to be released later this year, but even so it was quickly decided that it could only be either War Horse, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Martin Scorsese's Hugo. War Horse rumors were quickly debunked, the famously high-brow festival wouldn't dare charge attendees and subscribers $25 to screen even David Fincher's translation of a bloated episode of CSI: Joyless Swedish Island, and Hugo is just... wait, nevermind, it was obviously gonna be Hugo. And any cynical ideas that NYFF was merely kowtowing to an enormously revered filmmaker (who already had something in this year's fest with his epic George Harrison doc) were dispelled at the end of Hugo's visually spellbinding but deceptively aimless first act, when the film reveals itself to be... well, that would be telling. But to be as coy as possible, let's just say that by the time everything shakes out it's clear that Scorsese's latest -- ultimately his most vital and impassioned film since The Departed, and perhaps long before that -- would indeed make for a hell of a triple-feature with other fest entrants like The Artist and Jafar Panahi's earth-shaking This is Not a Film.
All I knew about Hugo going in is that its original title was reduced from Hugo Cabret and that it was directed by one of the voice actors from Shark Tale, and now that I've seen the film I'd encourage you all to go in knowing as little as humanly possible. Well, at least about this movie. And of course what I mean by "I'd encourage you all to go in knowing as little as humanly possible" is "I'd encourage you to enjoy the rest of this article to the best of your ability before sharing it with everyone you know, and then do everything in your power to avoid any trailers / TV ads / tweets / dips in the Collective Unconscious between now and the film's release on November 23rd.
I mean, here's the thing... the festival folks encouraged us to keep mum about what we were seeing, as Hugo was indeed a work-in-progress, and Mr. Scorsese himself took to the stage before the screening to enumerate the various elements that had yet to be finalized. There were unfinished FX shots, temporary sound ran throughout, green screens were occasionally visible, rough animatics hijacked one pivotal scene, and certain moments still seemed in need of basic trims. And yet, I trust that the powers that be won't be too upset if I take but a moment to express the sheer joy of what I saw this evening, which despite its current state was the most rapturous mainstream movie I've seen all year (it was even more rapturous than a bunch of the year's hip indie movies that were literally about the rapture).
So even though the film is an adaptation of a reasonably popular piece of kids lit by Brian Selznick, it seemed through the film's first act as if most of the audience had little idea as to what the hell they were watching. I infer this of all the approximately 1,500 strangers with whom I watched the film because I had no idea what the hell I was watching. Hugo begins like a riff on Amelie jacked up on Scorsese, a restless camera swooping us inside an insular and super-stylized Parisian train station, where a little boy named Hugo (like the movie!) Cabret (like the book!) lives inside the clocks. And this train station has a lot of clocks. It's kinda like you might imagine a train station co-designed by Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet and the serial killer from the LL Cool J classic Mindhunters, if you're the type to sit around and imagine such things. It's sometime between the two World Wars, and spoken French has yet to be invented. Hugo watches the station's myriad comings and goings through the rivets in the clocks as if peering unto his own personal cinema, but whenever Hugo dares to scavenge around the world below for something to eat the characters he observes all day are loathe to see him, because apparently cute and pitiable small children are the ultimate blight against society. Whatever, it works, in the immortal words of Adam Sandler: "Just go with it."
So one of the angry adults who runs a sad little magic shop near the train tracks is a very bitter Ben Kingsley, and Ben Kingsley has a goddaughter played by Chloe Moretz and "Why is he so angry all the time?" becomes the film's central question and blah blah blah there's a robot and the guy playing Django Reinhardt looks suspiciously similar to Johnny Depp and then I spontaneously cried a lot? Hugo! But seriously, you look at this guy and tell me he's not Johnny Depp. That's not a request. I know that sentence might read as if it's imploring you to tell me that Emil Lager is not Johnny Depp, but it's not. I want you to be convinced he is Johnny Depp so that after you see the movie you can rant to all your friends about how Johnny Depp was in it and then I won't be the only person who was publicly very wrong about that.
But yes, at a certain juncture a little ways into the film there is a revelation that will only really register with the cinephiles in the crowd, but it's handled oh so well. Until that point Hugo is merely a sumptuous children's film that happens to enjoy a more fluidly kinetic understanding of how to use 3D than any other film made since the format's most recent explosion, but then the experience turns on a dime like no other film I can remember. And as the film reveals its true intentions and Scorsese's interest in the material becomes quite clear, Hugo kicks into gear for viewers of all stripes. Sure, tonight's was a film festival crowd of a particular persuasion, but you could feel the energy in the room buoy on all sides, as Hugo's energy and emotional force dovetails with the film's rich thematic undercurrents, blossoming into an enchanting story precisely as it becomes a different one altogether.
Hugo never loses the sweetly madcap feel of a lost Home Alone installment, but at some point it reveals itself as a love-letter to the early cinema as personal and impassioned for Scorsese as his My Voyage to Italy, an ode to the gauze of illusion that allows movies to be our most unifying form of mass-magic, and the medium that most palpably allows our best dreams to be shared. Hugo -- even with the mess of half-baked subplots that riddle its current incarnation -- cuts to the core of the cinema as a medium for the ghosts of images past, and the heavy sway they hold over us for all time. Without leaving the confines of a slyly educational kids movie, Hugo speaks to the currency of moving images in a digital world where they're so rampant and pliable, and Scorsese's ingenious use of 3D brings his audience back to the apocryphal days of Train Pulling into the Station in more ways than one (Hugo also includes all of the most delightful post-conversions in cinema history).
And I thought this was supposed to be a movie about Borat roller-skating into a giant cake.
Okay, I gotta stop. This was intended to be light and casual but I got totally swept up somewhere along the way... and sure, Hugo won't have the same effect on everybody, but I think that it so wonderfully packages Scorsese's fond ideas into a genuinely thrilling piece of entertainment that audiences of all ages will find themselves moved, even if they're too busy learning the references to understand them. As for me, I gotta go make some kids to show this movie to. Hugo -- which is so good it'll make you comfortable to end a post with a preposition -- hits theaters everywhere on November 23rd. It will truly remind you why you love going to the movies in the first place. And if not, it'll be happy to teach you.