HAMMOND: Scorsese's 'Hugo' Takes Hollywood; Is It A Best Picture Contender – Or Pretender?

Another piece of this year’s Oscar movie puzzle was unveiled in a big way this weekend when Paramount rolled out Martin Scorsese’s 99.9%-finished version of Hugo, an ode to the early days of cinema and the eye-popping possibilities of movies. It’s the director’s first family film, 3D film and perhaps most personal film. In an intriguing and highly unusual move, Paramount held a packed screening, with tons of invited press and bloggers included, at Regal’s Downtown LA Live theaters Saturday afternoon. Then that night they also played it at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills for the Academy’s official membership screening. That last move was interesting because most films play either the weekend of opening or after for the Acad (although The Weinstein Co.  unspooled their much-praised  ode to the early days of cinema, The Artist, to an appreciative audience for its official Academy screening Sunday night).

It is extremely rare to show voters something that is still unfinished (one special effects shot was missing and the end credits are far from complete), but Hugo‘s media rollout has been different from the start. It was first unleashed in a much-less-finished form at the New York Film Festival last month as a “work in progress.” Reaction on the web was all over the place, generally favorable, but did not signal a major awards contender outside of the obvious technical nominations for the film’s stunning look. That screening in hindsight may have been a miscalculation.

This week, things began to heat up. Paramount had a couple of “tastemaker” screenings for AMPAS members a few days ago (one in the evening, one during lunchtime) where the median age range was said to be 60-plus — with 50 members reportedly at each. There were also reportedly 80 members who checked in for the Regal screening that was accompanied by a lively post-movie Q&A moderated by director Paul Thomas Anderson with Scorsese and his dream team of much-Oscared collaborators including DP Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, composer Howard Shore and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato. Scorsese received an enthusiastic standing ovation when he was introduced, just as he did again today after a DGA screening for a Q&A moderated by James Cameron, who told him Hugo was a “masterpiece.” He added, “finally there is a Scorsese film I can take my kids to.” And Cameron also told Scorsese it was the best use of 3D he had seen, including his own films. At Saturday’s Regal Q&A, Legato actually credited the innovations in Avatar for making possible a lot of what Hugo was able to do. Musician Slash was among those also at the DGA screening  and he later tweeted “Fantastic movie!”

Before now I never sensed Paramount was positioning this film as a major Best Picture contender, but apparently with just 2½ weeks to go before its November 23 opening it is letting the cat out of the bag. In fact, that is just the description one Par staffer emailed me to describe the emerging campaign, saying the studio now thinks the film can possibly go all the way. “The Oscar pic no one saw coming. Stealthy. It is playing like gangbusters with the Academy. The cat is out of the bag,” it read. Another person connected with the film reported on last night’s primetime Saturday night Academy screening, spinning that there were 450-500 members with their guests and that it was “looooooved” with solid, sustained applause and appreciation for “Scorsese’s homage to their industry.” This person feels it will now be a solid contender in most major categories and “across the board” in crafts.

Wishful thinking or based on truth?

The attendance figure at the Academy screening is middling, nowhere near the packed houses for other recent Oscar contenders — Midnight In Paris, Moneyball, The Ides Of March to name three that nearly filled the place. Despite Scorsese’s name, part of the problem might be that it is currently perceived as more of a 3D kids film by Academy members, who generally don’t lavish Oscar attention on that genre. Paramounties are positioning it as something with equal or even greater adult appeal and I would agree, if you can work them to a winter’s passion to see it the way it should be seen. It’s much more ambitious than the average studio family holiday offering. At the very least it’s definitely got HUGE film freak appeal (count me as one of those).

Scorsese working at the absolute top of his game may be key to getting those older butts in seats. From my perspective it is a masterpiece of personal filmmaking along the lines of Fellini’s Amarcord, Truffaut’s Day For Night and Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. It goes without saying that the craftsmanship is as good as it gets, and for those who can’t stand 3D this could be a game-changer. Critic Leonard Maltin (who loved it) commented after the Regal screening that one extraordinary use of 3D in a scene involving co-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s face moving progressively closer into the audience could be the one that “finally makes the 3D sale” to those who just think it’s a fad.

I talked to producer Graham King in the lobby afterward and he said he was actually nervous that they were “finally” showing the film in its (near) finished state but couldn’t wait to have people see it — and see it on a big screen. “I really don’t want to send out the DVD screeners (to voting groups). I guess I have to, but it kills me. It is not the way to see a movie like this,” he said, well aware that screeners are the reality of Oscar campaigning. He’s right, though, and films from master filmmakers that are high on the visually artistic scale of Hugo, War Horse and Tree Of Life among others will undoubtedly be diminished significantly on the home video format. With looser Academy rules this year regarding once-verboten attendance of members where there are Q&As, perhaps the numbers of voters seeing these films in theaters will increase. That would be a good thing all around, and especially for Hugo.

Based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, screenwriter John Logan and Scorsese have certainly retained those fantastical story elements to which kids will relate, but it is in the film’s second half with a plot involving film pioneer Georges Melies (strongly played by Ben Kingsley) and his lost silent movies that the connection to the wonderment of cinema comes alive in the hands of film aficionado Scorsese. “I’m hoping it will be educational for the audience,” King told me. Certainly it will inspire new generations of movie dreamers as well as those who are already living the dream (in other words, the Academy). I would be shocked if some of Scorsese’s chief competitors in the Oscar race this year, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Alexander Payne — film nerds all — aren’t completely in agreement with Cameron’s assessment of the film. The sequence re-creating the making of Melies’ classic A Trip To The Moon is a must for cineastes.

It will be fascinating to see how deftly Paramount can try to steer what on the page is a 3D kids movie — albeit a sophisticated one directed by Martin Scorsese — into a Best Picture race that just got more interesting.

  1. This is the one that’s similar Polar Express, right? Either way, I’ll still pay to see a Marty flick.

  2. saw it last night and absolutely loved it – imaginative, wonderful performances and production design – and the 3D enhanced it but unlike so many other films done in that format, it is not necessary to see 3D in order to enjoy it. Thank you, Mr. Scorsese – your team did a great job.

  3. Don’t send out dvd screeners. Just don’t do it. It will create a sense of prestige for the film, and Academy members can get their fat cans to a theater to see the damn thing. We know a lot of the Academy members don’t even watch the screeners and vote for what their friends/peers/kids/the “in” crowd tell them to vote for, so if there’s enough buzz over Hugo they’ll vote for it, sight unseen.

    Do the right thing, Graham King, do the right thing.

  4. I saw it at the LA screening yesterday and thought it was nothing short of magnificent. I would only drive to downtown Los Angeles for the irresistible combination of P.T. Anderson and Scorsese, I didn’t realize I would be treated to one of the best cinematic experiences of this year or maybe the past several years (save Avatar). The film is not only visually astounding, but the 3D picks you up and drops you inside the story and actually became something I ended up loving rather than despising, as I usually do with 3D movies (again, save Avatar). The last 20 minutes of the film I went through a full mini-pack of tissues. Based on my own reaction and those of the guests surrounding me, I would put money down on this film getting multiple nominations starting with best picture and best director. And, as a cinematographer, I can’t not mention the exquisite work of Bob Richardson. Bravo Scorsese and team.

  5. Loved this film, during the Melies studio sequences I found myself in tears. As jaded as I have become from being out here for so long, I wept during this film. This film speaks to the heart of anyone who grew up sitting in a darkened room, mesmerized, anyone who dreams. It does seem incongruous to have such a powerful, meaningful film in 3D but the idea is that Melies was a technical innovator and so Scorsese waited for this very personal, heartfelt story in order to make his first film using the new technology. Best film of the year, so far.

  6. I was at the Regal screening & the standing O felt like mere politeness to me. As for the film, it’s kind of a mess, isn’t it? I’ll take Taxi Driver any day.

    1. Way to go, man… just another member of this pathetic town of bitter well-wishers? Karma got you where you’re going, baby…

  7. saw this at DGA today – and I agree with James, its a total masterpiece. It takes 3D to another level. Haters, stick your idiotic ramblings up your ass and wait to see the movie before you poison us with your useless gibberish. Scorcese is working at the top of this game and this movie is unlike anything he’s done. Can’t wait to see it again. There’s so much to take in that 3 viewings might not do it.

  8. Ive been excited since the beginning. Can not wait to see it, and the book is great cinematic material. But, the trailers have been ok to terrible. They need to make a trailer that isnt appealing to just children. Most trailers for ‘family films’ are mind numbing, Hugo included.

  9. The Melies sequences were great, but… Yeah. It’s a very, very stilted movie. If this even gets a nom, it’ll be due to industry self-congratulation (it is a great homage to Melies and early cinema), rather than due to true artistry of a cohesive film.

  10. Loved it. And the way he moved the camera into and out of spaces was a perfect melding of his style and 3D.

    There is another extended love letter to Melies created by Tom Hanks in the final episode of the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. The focus was different, certainly, but no less reverent.

  11. I might go see it if the trailers actually gave some hint as to what it was about. Looks like great cinematography but that’s about it. If this film fails to turn a profit, blame should be placed squarely on whomever cut those trailers and ran the PR campaign.

  12. Haven’t seen it. And even a “good” Scorsese film is better than most directors’ best works. I would venture to guess, that with 10 Best Picture AMPAS nomination slots, it should easily get a nod.

  13. I’m sorry, I wanted to love it but it’s not very good. The kids are vapid, the comedy is flat and the story meanders. Visually, it’s amazing, but it’s not best picture material. Scorcese’s worst since Bringing out the Dead.

  14. I saw the film. I definitely agree with the majority of the posters here are about the direction, the use of 3D (which is masterful), etc. And I too hope that it sparks an interest in the life and films of Melies.

    However it is very telling that there is either no discussion of the script or, at the very least, a subtle skirting around this subject. Could it be that we all really want to love Hugo because it does light us up when we think of the magic of moviemaking…. but if we are being truthful is there just a bit of something that feels missing in the overall film?

  15. I’ve never seen a 3-D movie, even “Avatar” that was “wholly immersive”. Indeed, after 3 minutes of novelty, where the damned stupid glasses saw into your ears, you begin to wish you’d bought tickets for the 2-D version.

    Which is something that happened last week, when I saw “Tintin”. After an hour of watching the movie, and honestly being a little bored, I dropped my glasses. THAT was when I was blown away. All of the jaw-dropping textures of Weta Digital’s computer graphics (forget “Avatar”: this is the real deal, America) and colors just popped off the screen in a way I can’t remember since seeing “Dick Tracy” 20 years ago.

    James Cameron has turned into a huckster. Anything in 3-D, he’ll pronounce as “industry changing”, simply because this bozo put his neck on the line as the “godfather of new 3-D”. Well, guess what, Jim? Your novelty is no better than the 1983 craze, or the 1950s craze. It’s still a flat planar gimmick. It’s not holography. It’s not immersive. It’s a pain in the ass. And this stupid craze has infected the home industry also, and we’re now watching true industry pros like Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson getting suckered by Cameron’s snake oil salesmanship.

    Is it any surprise this was shown to the Academy? They’ll all clap their hands dutifully at Scorsese, despite his film output being anything like impressive for a decade, because this is an industry of hype. Every producer and studio is going to wave its pompoms, because they’ve invested a shitload of money in a ridiculous system that has brought digital projection to widespread use (which in itself is no bad thing), but brought with it silvered screens that cause hotspots on normally projected movies, and a massive plague of projectionists who are too lazy to change the bulbs, and consequently ALSO ruin the viewing of conventional 2-D movies with insipid lumen-challenged imagery.

    The trailer makes this thing look like a turkey. I’ll be interested to see if that’s indeed the case, and all of this is desperate investment-protection hype and puffery.

  16. Similar to Polar Express? Not even close. Real people are used in HUGO in front of the camera. Not just glossed over. This is a great example of the future of movie making; not filmmaking. The same rapid advancement of digital based software and cameras, etc., will filter down to the indie moviemakers, who can create product to go directly to the global based HD tv consumer and stay away from huge salaried stars, and theatrical release venues etc., which stop a lot of storytellers in this medium from breaking into Hollywood. I do appreciate the big gun studios putting lots of money into RD for this technology. For me.

  17. Are people liking it because, overall, it IS actually very good OR because it’s Scorsese and they find 20 minutes of the film emotional?

  18. Attended the Saturday afternoon Hugo screening. While I found much to enjoy, especially in the visuals, it was an endurance test with an oddly jumbled sense of pacing. As the Hugo story gradually unfolded I found myself thinking more and more about “The Artist.” Both films are love letters to film and how it can tap into the imagination. One is a lilting symphony that takes your breath away and leaves you smiling; the other is a scholarly treatise and history lesson that offer much food for thought. Not saying one is right and the other wrong, just curious about which target is better to deliver the message: the head or the heart?

  19. Saw it at the DGA screening. Beautifully, shot, well crafted, but left me unmoved. The story itself is disjointed and there are some big, gaping plot holes.

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