Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Hugo" Is Magical, Fantastical and the Best Movie of the Year

If you love movies, you will love "Hugo." It's as simple as that.

I have never been a huge fan of Martin Scorsese as a director, although I've found his period dramas ("The Aviator," "The Age of Innocence") more accessible to me as a viewer than his tough-guy stuff ("Raging Bull," "Goodfellas"). So I wasn't sure what to expect of "Hugo." A Martin Scorsese movie based on a kid's book*? A Martin Scorses 3-D project? Set in Paris in the 30s, with watchmakers and automatons in the background?

Turns out "Hugo" is not really a children's story, and the titular Hugo is not even the most intriguing character. Instead, "Hugo" is about the magic of the movies. Scorsese combines a sweet, nostalgic look at film pioneer Georges Méliès with one of his favorite topics -- film preservation -- inside a narrative that feels wistful, involving and personally affecting all at once. The 3-D effects are used just as wisely, to show us how special Méliès' movies were in their time, replicating the wonder of the very beginning of movie art. It's pretty obvious that we're going to see a train charging straight toward us, just as the first movie audiences did. And the other bits of film homage -- Harold Lloyd and his clock, the golden machine from "Metropolis" -- are also lovely. You can play "Spot the Movie Reference" as you watch.

For me, "Hugo" came alive, both as Scorsese's love letter to the movies, and as a creation of my own book and movie dreams from childhood. Not because I wanted to write books or make movies myself, but because I loved nothing more than curling up with and losing myself in a book or a movie when I was a kid. "Hugo" perfectly creates the world of my childhood dreams. I suspect it will work that way for others, too, with its enchanting railway station (Gare Montparnasse in Paris) that operates as a community of its own, complete with bookstore, cafe, musicians, toy store, quirky inhabitants, and a whole lot of clocks (and endless gears and machinery to run those clocks, all hidden inside the walls and in the attic).

We come to Gare Montparnasse with Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan boy left behind by his drunken uncle to make sure the clocks are wound. Hugo cadges food (from the cafe) and tiny mechanical parts (from the toymaker) as he tries desperately to fulfill the dream left behind by his father, a watchmaker who died in a museum fire. That dream is to complete a golden automaton, a machine that looks like a man, sits at a desk and writes... If Hugo can make it work. He longs to finish it, to find out what the machine will write, which he imagines will be a last message, some kind of sign, from his late father.

But the railway station is not an altogether friendly place. There is an officious Station Inspector (played with humor and even a little vulnerability by Sacha Baron Cohen) who likes nothing better than catching and busting homeless children who try to invade the place, as well as the no-nonsense toymaker (brought to life beautifully by Ben Kingsley) who knows that Hugo has been stealing from him. The toymaker has a mysterious past and a bad attitude about the movies, as well as a a godchild, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who makes friends with Hugo behind Papa Georges' back.

That friendship, along with Hugo's need to stay under the Station Inspector's radar, creates the plot, as we see Hugo and Isabelle research the machine, the movies, and her godfather, racing against the clock to bring all three back to life.

I loved seeing so many wonderful character actors filling out the community of the Gare Montparnasse, from Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as a pair of would-be lovers kept apart by a cranky dog to Emily Mortimer as a pretty flower-seller and Christopher Lee as the owner of the bookshop. Oh, that magical bookshop... Talk about childhood dreams. Jude Law also shows up in a spot-on performance as the memory of Hugo's father, with Ray Winstone properly awful as the horrible uncle, Helen McCrory hitting all the right notes as Papa Georges' wife, who has a secret past of her own, and Michael Stuhlbarg filling the critical role of a professor who can supply answers when the children come looking. Martin Scorsese himself shows up, beaming with pride as as a photographer who took a picture of Georges Méliès way back when.

The recreations of Méliès' movies are worth the price of admission, all by themselves. The color and images are fabulous, made even more amazing with the use of 3-D.

"Hugo" was first released around Thanksgiving, which means you may have to search to find it on a screen near you. It seems to have left Bloomington-Normal, but there are still showings in Champaign-Urbana (Carmike Beverly Cinema 18 and Goodrich Savoy 16) if you can get past today's snowstorm and get over there. I can promise that the 3-D snowstorm in the movie is a lot warmer and more magical than what's going on outside today.

*"Hugo" is based on the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick. The screenplay for this film was written by John Logan, the playwright who also wrote "Red," about artist Mark Rothko, and "Hauptmann," currently playing at Community Players Theatre.

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