(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

[Spoiler Warning: This is a film with a major complication about half-way into the story. I admit it will do the film a major disservice for me to not discuss the film in its entirety, but I will not spoil the film. However, I have included a spoiler section after the end of the review proper, and even there I have tried to be discrete.]

CAPSULE: There is a phantom haunting the Paris Train Station. Twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of the station and maintains all the mechanical clocks. This film is about him, but also about a lot more. This is much more than a children's film about a little boy. Beautifully filmed in 3D it, turns into an education for the viewer on a subject near and dear to director Martin Scorsese's heart. This may be more Scorsese's film than GOODFELLAS or CASINO was. He has made a beautiful tribute to his favorite art form. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

HUGO is a film about a resourceful twelve-year-old boy and his relationship with an adult. It is sweet and sentimental but still uses a lot of special effects. HUGO is educational, and above all it is a film with heart. All this goes to say that the sort of film that Steven Spielberg is criticized for making, Scorsese is being praised for.

The setting is Paris in the 1930s. A boy mechanical genius, Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield), lives in the walls of the Paris Train Station. His self-selected avocation without pay is to keep all the clocks working. He survives by stealing food from the food venders and also stealing mechanical parts for the clocks and for his goal in life. His goal is to fix an automaton his father found discarded in a museum. Hugo has no idea what the humanoid machine does. The secret is in the automaton's clockworks, which Hugo struggles to understand.

Hugo's source for machine parts is the grumpy old toymaker Georges (Ben Kingsley). Georges at once despises the boy who steals from him, but also has to admire Hugo's mechanical aptitude. Georges has a ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a beautiful goddaughter about Hugo's age. She and Hugo have adventures together like sneaking into movie theaters where they both admire silent film. Together they try to solve the secret that seems to link Georges to the automaton.

That is a fair description of the first half of HUGO but the film transforms into a lot more than that. It is a piece of a project very near and dear to Martin Scorsese's heart. To reach his goal he has given us a superbly visual film. Using digitally created crane shots he sweeps us through the Montparnasse train station, into the walls, right into the mechanical workings of the clocks. The clockworks in 3D would make even clockwork enthusiast Guillermo del Toro's mouth water. Scorsese seems to know all the pitfalls to avoid as well as the capabilities of the 3D process to keep the viewer hypnotized. He orchestrated the depth in his 3D images so objects have a continuum of depth. As tribute to other film effects he has a clockwork mouse animated in what is almost certainly stop-motion.

Scorsese complemented his direction with some very nice casting. Chloë Grace Moretz is appealing as the young Isabelle, and Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector is a good villain, well matched to his Doberman companion. (There are also dachshunds, which for me are always a plus.) Christopher Lee is present more for his connection to cinema than because he could bring a lot to this particular role. Emily Mortimer (CITY ISLAND) is fetching as a Montparnasse flower seller. Jude Law is always likeable though a little too English for this role.

Scorsese has made one of the most remarkable films of the year by surprising us and at the same time telling his story with a perfect poetry. I rate HUGO +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. Now will HUGO win a Hugo?

Spoiler ... Spoiler ... Spoiler ... Spoiler ...

-- The reference to the heels of ladies' shoes is said to be false. It was actually the heels of army boots--a little more forgivable considering the circumstances.

-- In the 1930s few people were thinking in terms of rockets as we do today. What Hugo's father saw he would probably call a bullet or a projectile, not a rocket.

-- To the best of my (admittedly incomplete) knowledge Georges was never surprised by a large audience's tribute as shown in the film. I have previously heard that that was actually an incident in Buster Keaton's life. Keaton assumed that with the coming of the sound era his films had been forgotten. When asked to appear before an audience he was certain he would be talking to a handful of polite but unenthusiastic film fans. That was not the reaction. Great film is timeless, which is part of Scorsese's point. Similarly Jack Arnold only discovered toward the end of his life that he had a large admiring fandom.

-- The trailer spoiled the surprise for me. It showed papers blowing around a room and we see the sketch of the man with the plumes of steam coming out of his head. I had seen that sketch before and recognized it immediately.

-- There really was an automaton like the one shown that could do some rudimentary drawing. It drew nothing so complex as we see. And it is stretching credulity a bit far to claim this could be the work of the same man. It is like claiming Albert Einstein was coincidentally also the world's greatest impressionist painter.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper