We were surprised when they handed us 3-D glasses for last night’s “Work in Progress” screening at the New York Film Festival, only the second time in its 49-year history that the Fest has sneaked a still-being-completed movie like this. (For the record, the other one was twenty years ago, for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.)
Out walked Martin Scorsese to introduce his fall picture, HUGO.
Mr. Scorsese explained that our screening was indeed of something unfinished. The sound mix and score by Howard Shore were both temp tracks: Mr. Shore is recording the full orchestration in London right now. Some green screens were visible. The first long swooping, panning shot isn’t done yet; we saw a pre-viz. The press was warned: no reviews, this is just for your enjoyment. But I know exactly why NYFF and Scorsese went to all this trouble: (1) it delivers the goods, and (2) there could be no more appropriate venue for this movie than a film festival. So, not a review, but a report; you can judge for yourselves around Thanksgiving. (My first amazement was how little time before release — a date that may have been staked out long ago — they have to complete all this stuff on such an effects-heavy picture.)
It’s based on an illustrated novel for young readers by Brian Selznick (a relative of the moviemaking Selznick family) which I haven’t yet read, and I’m going to assume you haven’t either, so I’ll be careful not to spoil. A boy lives in the walls and the clock tower of a Paris train station in the early Thirties. His late dad, a clockmaker, taught him lots of secrets and the kid is a natural, but he makes do by stealing. A series of incidents turns the story into a love letter to the early days of movies.
It’s the best example of live-action 3-D I’ve ever seen, and that includes AVATAR: at last, even softly lit scenes are bright enough to discern. Certain setups are just breathtaking in the extra dimension: the light from a movie projector bursting toward us, a closeup on a staring Doberman (it’s just funny!), a security guard intimidating a boy by leaning closer, closer… The film is stuffed with British character actors, none of whom attempts a French accent: Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, on and on.
This one is for the whole family and will probably get a PG rating, maybe even an inappropriate -13 if the MPAA drops the ball (there are a couple of intense scenes, but any thoughtful kid will love this, trust me). Mr. Scorsese is justifiably proud, and I’m so glad I got to see it with enough film fans to fill up Alice Tully Hall. I’m gonna suggest it when a niece and nephew visit us around opening day.
11/1/11: Now I’ve read — and seen; the many illustrations work like a movie storyboard — the source novel, and what a wonderful job all concerned did to bring it to the screen, every fillip and tear with very few exceptions. (That light from the projector bursting toward us? It’s in the book.) Here’s one film to which the author can point proudly and say, “Yep, that’s my book up there, all right.”
11/11/11: It got the PG.
1/8/12: I saw the completed film, again in 3-D, at AMPAS’s New York screening room, to which they let a few FSLC folks in. Now the full bravura opening shot, realized at ILM at the last minute, was here, along with the full score, end credits, etc. Afterward, Mr. Scorsese and Sir Ben Kingsley did a beautiful q&a — both are extremely well-spoken gentlemen. I felt the event was an Oscar-voter attempt at keeping this picture top-of-mind, especially since Weekly Variety’s list of top 16 Best Pic contenders shamefully did not include HUGO! The film itself was just as spectacular on second viewing, and my wife, who missed the NYFF “work-in-progress” screening noted in the main post, was happily flabbergasted. Too bad for those AMPAS voters who have to depend on “screeners”: I’ve seen my share of them, and this picture will lose much of its well-designed ability to overpower. Still, the cast and crew have every right to say to themselves, job well done.