Movie News & Reviews

'Hugo' ranks as one of year's best

Some people are so talented you can't help but want to steal their hearts and livers, boil them into heart-liver stew, and drink it down to make that talent your own.

Sound gross? Well, that's the history of Thanksgiving and the pilgrims you're retching at, sir. Why else would they eat all those turkeys? Not for the dry, flavorless meat. It was to absorb the turkeys' avian cunning and preternatural ability to not die of starvation. Not what you'll read in the history books, obviously, but those things don't even acknowledge the presence of our second moon. So how can you trust what they say about turkeys?

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

When it comes to directors, then, Martin Scorsese has to be the turkey of the field. Anyone would respect and envy him, and they'd be right to do so. The dude's made gritty classics suchas Taxi Driver, gangster masterpieces like Goodfellas and The Departed, and well-received historical flicks like The Aviator and Gangs of New York. As if that weren't enough, now he's conquered 3D and family-friendly movies with Hugo.

Asa Butterfield lives inside the walls of a Paris train station, maintaining the clocks like his father taught him. But he's a penniless orphan and must steal food from the station's shops to survive, putting him under constant threat from station cop Sacha Baron Cohen.

But toy vendor Ben Kingsley is on to Butterfield's games. Catching him stealing a wind-up mouse, he confiscates Butterfield's notebook, threatening to burn it — and with it Butterfield's only link to his dead father.

I saw Hugo in 2D, because 3D is a sham to take your money away, like higher education and not stealing your neighbors' newspapers. Most movies handle their the 3D the same way I paint your house, which is to say they slop a few things here and there before going straight for your wallet and whatever else you may have left in the front yard. You want some sprinkler heads? Because I've got some sprinkler heads.

Yet I immediately regretted not shelling out the extra $3.50 for a pair of glasses made of $0.02 worth of plastic. Scorsese clearly conceived Hugo for 3D straight from the start. The opening shot is one long, long zoom from the Paris cityscape all the way to Butterfield's nest in the walls. Scorsese doesn't limit his use of the medium to that initial dazzling display, either. The whole movie is like that. Also, can sound be 3D? No wait, I think 3D sound is just called "sound." In any event, the sound is as surrounding and immersive as the visuals.

So Hugo looks and sounds great, and unless you are sitting behind a row of hobos or have a very literal film fetish, those are all the senses a movie usually delivers. That's a good place to be in, but as Speed Racer proved, repeatedly and thoroughly, all this can be undone by a sufficiently annoying kid.

Hugo has nothing to worry about in that department. Butterfield's role as a talented orphan is nothing new, but he plays it with dignity and is supported by a sprawling side cast of train station denizens that feels downright novelistic. Oh. Because it is. Based on a novel. All these side stories are a lot of balls to keep in the air, but in this metaphor Scorsese is apparently an accomplished circus clown because he pays each one just enough focus while weaving in and out of Butterfield's tangled interactions with Kingsley and his adopted daughter Chloe Grace Moretz, which must be the flaming chainsaw of this analogy, meaning it's time to abandon it.

And as predictable (yet still moving) as certain elements of Hugo's noble orphan story may be, other elements are a genuine surprise, particularly when the story takes a sudden turn into a celebration of movies themselves. This is a risk, in that it could easily come off as self-congratulatory — imagine if I used this column to talk up the glory and life-fulfilling majesty of film criticism (note to self: do that) — but Hugo's warm story and visual wonder makes it easy to believe how important movies can be. This is one of the best of the year.

Grade: A

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, and through Smashwords.

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