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A Love Letter to Moviemaking

The film “Hugo,” is the first family movie Martin Scorsese, director of such disturbing works s as “Taxi Driver,” “Cape Fear,” “Shutter Island” and “Raging Bull,” has made. Here, he creates a world about innocence, ecstatic creativity and love of his chosen art, film, which both entrances and instructs. My 12-year-old companion assured me that it was faithful to the book, a graphic novel by Brian Selznick about the true story of George Méliès, a French filmmaker who, at the dawn of the 20th century, made more than 500 short films, fantasies of fairies and lobsters and rocket ships to the moon, before sinking into almost complete obscurity. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a small boy who lives in the Paris train station in the 1930s, keeping the clocks wound and the gears oiled. He tiptoes around, palming a croissant here, a plum there and stealing mechanical toys from the elderly proprietor of the toy shop (Ben Kingsley). But he is caught, and the shopkeeper makes him empty the pockets where he keeps his treasures: gears, tools, and a small sketch pad with drawings of mechanical gadgets, including the inner workings of a life-sized metal man. The sight of these sketches seems to deeply upset the shopkeeper, and he confiscates the book. A mystery unfolds as Hugo tries to get his book back and keep working on the metal man, an automaton his father (charmingly played by Jude Law) found in a museum attic and was attempting to fix when he died in a fire. Its significance to the shopkeeper unfolds slowly as Hugo, assisted by the shopkeeper’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), poke around, finding clues in dusty volumes in the bookshop and boxes of letters hidden in a wardrobe. Gradually the movie shifts from the story of the neglected orphan and his brainy friend to the story of her Papa George, who is, of course, the long-forgotten Méliès. Scorsese lets the story unfold with both gentleness and spirit. His cinematographer, Robert Richardson, brings the detailed charcoal drawings to glowing, sepia-toned, life. The cast is a delight: Kingsley is a fearsome yet sad Papa George, Helen McRory is sad and beautiful as his wife Jeanne, who starred in Méliès’ films and was in his magic act even earlier. She floats above the stage, seemingly unsupported, with dreamy elegance. Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths are aging suitors, kept apart by her fierce little dog, and Sacha Baron Cohen is wonderful as the officious station master, who keeps the station safe from orphans and yearns for the sweet-faced flower-seller (Emily Mortimer). Hugo is frightened yet determined. He believes that everyone has a purpose and his is fixing things. If he can only fix the automaton he’ll receive a message from his father. It turns out his purpose is to fix something entirely different – an injustice of history that robbed Papa George of his rightful place as the grandfather of modern comedic cinema. Film illuminates your dreams — it’s like magic, this movie says — and by invoking Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, and while placing Méliès alongside them as a master of fantasy and comedy, Scorsese has created a romance, an adventure, and a love letter to the craft he has done so much to advance. “Hugo” is rated PG for some perilous situations and smoking. It is playing at The Moviehouse in Millerton, NY, and elsewhere.

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