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The Last Temptation of Martin Scorsese

An auteur bequeaths his love of cinema to the muggles in "Hugo."


  • Paramount Pictures

Once during a film class on Martin Scorsese, a professor noted how often characters in the director's wide-ranging oeuvre ended up with blood gushing from their necks like baptismal fountains. I only offer the anecdote to emphasize the surprise at the news that Scorsese has followed "The Departed" and "Shutter Island" with, of all things, a family film.

It's called "Hugo," and it's a live-action film about a boy of that very name (Asa Butterfield) who keeps the gears running in a train station's clocks while avoiding the pursuit of a rigid and severe stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen). But even casual students of Scorsese's films will be reminded while watching "Hugo" that the maker of "Goodfellas" also made "The Aviator." He isn't interested only in bullets and blood, but in the movies themselves — not just putting them in his own as instances of film referencing, but making movies, like "The Aviator," about making movies. He's done something similar with "Hugo," with a movie about the movies, seemingly in an effort to impress his love of cinema upon another generation.

Scorsese's film is an ambitious effort, combining an adventure story with a lesson on the origins of the movies, their early beauty and wonder, by focusing on the fantastical dream films of one of the medium's innovators. Hugo and his new friend, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), are on a mission to discover why a certain shop keeper (Ben Kingsley) at the station is so jealous and evasive about his past, a mystery that might be unlocked by an enigmatic automaton given to Hugo by his father (Jude Law) before he died in a fire. During their quest there are heart-pounding chase sequences and efforts to gather clues, sequences that remind one of the "Harry Potter" series and other children's movies, but also episodes of Hugo and Isabelle gaping at textbooks and archival materials that tell of the glorious early days of motion pictures. Cinephiles will swoon. Children may squirm a little.

Scorsese's film is based on "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner by Brian Selznick, who tried to make a sort of movie book, the closest thing he could to a combination novel and flip book. Scorsese, a film historian as well as maker, quickly secured the rights and has turned in an adaptation that's something of a cinematic equivalent, a combination of the most old- and new-fashioned filmmaking, with state-of-the-art, ultra high-gloss 3-D vying for screen time with snippets of silent film classics and even earlier examples of cinema drawn from the medium's dawn. One amazing result is how well they mesh.

These and other paradoxes confound the effort to adequately rate the movie for any general film-going public. If a cinéaste or historian, or, good lord, a film academic who got lost and wandered into an actual movie, can get past the broad characters and action fluff, they'll be enchanted by the parts of the film that, like "The Aviator" did, start throwing clips of old movies onto the big screen, dazzling glimpses of what it must have been like to see them, in pristine condition, for the first time in those old movie palaces. These portions play like moments from a PBS documentary or Academy Awards interlude writ large. Certainly an unspecified number of plain everyday adults also will be amused by this fond memorializing, especially because these are only small doses of very old movies. (Right before the "Hugo" screening started I overheard another film critic behind me complaining about another new film, "The Artist": "Who wants to watch a black-and-white silent film?")

I hope, like Scorsese, that such children, and their children, will see the work of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks and be amazed, for those films they made are amazing still and in many cases never have been bested.

I don't doubt that given the right conditions they would. Is "Hugo" the right conditions? As much as I enjoyed it, I couldn't help noticing its length (more than two hours), and complex, some-of-the-time-but-not-always-linear plot, things Scorsese fans have come to expect and admire but which may baffle those expecting something more like a movie made by Robert Zemeckis. Much like his adult-oriented films, this Scorsese addition is deeper and more admirable than it probably will get credit for — at least until it becomes part of film history. (PG) 126 min. S


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Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: John Logan and Brian Selznick

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Jude Law, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Helen McCrory and Michael Sthlbarg