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With: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
Written by: John Logan, based on a novel by Brian Selznick
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
Running Time: 130
Date: 10/10/2011

Hugo (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It sounds a bit strange to say this about the man who gave us Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and so many other classics of hardcore machismo, but Martin Scorsese's new movie Hugo is delightful. Yes, delightful. It's a movie I would want to hug. I can't say the same for Travis Bickle.

It's appropriate to bring up movie history in this review, since Hugo is steeped in not only movie history, but also the passion for discovering movies, for watching movies, and for thinking about their power. But this movie history goes back a lot further than Scorsese himself, and Star Wars, far back into a time that, despite the wealth of information available, is relatively unknown to movie buffs today.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives in a Paris train station. His job is to wind and maintain the station's many huge clocks, and not get caught by the station's inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). He steals food to survive, and knows every nook and cranny of the station. He also steals mechanical parts from an old man, Georges (Ben Kingsley), that runs a magic shop. Hugo uses the parts to try and repair a wondrous automaton, discovered abandoned in a museum by Hugo's late father (Jude Law).

Unfortunately, Georges catches Hugo in the act and confiscates the notebook that contains all of the information about the automaton. Hugo tries to enlist Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) -- who has been raised by Georges -- to help get it back. Hugo and Isabelle become fast friends. And Hugo discovers that Isabelle has the key (literally) to making the automaton work. The automaton draws a picture that opens a whole new mystery.

I suppose it won't be giving away too much to reveal that George is actually Georges Méliès, the legendary filmmaker, who, between 1896 and 1913, shot over 500 films, including A Trip to the Moon (1902). Even if you haven't seen this 14-minute movie, you have seen the famous image of the rocketship crashing into the moon's eye. This one movie can't do justice to Méliès' vision however; his films consisted of fantasies, magic tricks, and many other unbelievable images. As of today, almost 200 of his films exist, but Hugo takes place when most of them were believed to be lost.

So, yes, Scorsese gets in a few words about his beloved -- and justifiable -- film preservation cause, but mainly Hugo is about where technology and wonder meet. The train station itself is a true wonder, and Scorsese begins the movie by swooping through its various nooks and crannies, showing us the depth and breadth of its secret tunnels. Hugo must wind and oil all the clocks in the station, and we get majestic shots of their gears and innards: the concrete stuff that makes it run, but what is the result? Time. Time itself is something amazing that can't be so easily defined.

And so it is when Méliès builds his first camera and his movie studio. It consists of nuts and bolts, but -- as he tells a young boy -- it's where dreams are made. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Rene Tabard, the author of a book on film history, and an expert on everything Méliès; he believes that Méliès died during the First World War. Like Scorsese himself, Hugo and Isabelle first discover the secret of film history while reading Tabard's book, and Scorsese provides a helpful montage of bits and pieces of great footage from the silent era: Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers, Intolerance, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Louise Brooks, and more.

In a key scene, Hugo takes Isabelle to see her first movie: Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923), in which the great comedian is seen hanging from the face of a clock. (Incidentally, that's another indelible image of cinema that most people know, even if they have not seen the movie.)

And so books become an important part of the history as well. Books are another meeting of technology (the printing press) and wonder, and they are capable of lasting a great deal longer than brittle film stock. Christopher Lee -- a living example of film history -- is here playing a mysterious book seller, who loans books to Isabelle and bestows upon Hugo a handsome volume of Robin Hood. Hugo knows Robin Hood from the Douglas Fairbanks film, but he's just as enchanted by the book. As the movie ends, after technology has brought dreamy happiness to everyone involved, a character sits down to record the entire thing -- in a book.

A few days ago I saw The Artist, a new, mostly silent movie set in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. It opens the same day as Hugo. But while The Artist sees silent era movies as silly, lightweight entertainments, almost as relics, Hugo sees the power in these old movies, and understands that, if people only took the time to watch them, the wonder could work once again. Scorsese's Hugo leaves us, not only with the urge to seek out and watch old movies, but also to strike out and find our own adventures, whether it's dreaming about building something, or building something that makes dreams.

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