Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is an enchanting gift from one movie magician to another.
The 3-D adventure about an orphan living in a Paris train station is a paean to George Melies, a silent-film pioneer whose contributions have largely been forgotten.
When we meet Melies in 1931, he’s an elderly man running a toy kiosk at the station where the boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), keeps the clocks running on time. Melies, nobly played by Ben Kingsley, is a former magician so embittered by the calamitous end of his filmmaking career that he hides his true identity even from his goddaughter.
Based on Brian Selznick’s lushly illustrated novel, “Hugo” is a multifaceted story about family, friendship, imagination and loss. It’s also a tribute to the unsung men and women who helped turn a mechanical invention -- moving pictures -- into an art form.
Scorsese, best known for movies about gangsters and other violent misfits, may seem like an odd choice to make a gentle, child-centric film featuring a cute windup robot. But when you consider his visual flair, obsession with detail and passion for film history, it all makes perfect sense.
Unlike so many 3-D films, “Hugo” takes full advantage of the technology.
Combining computer-generated effects with a giant man-made set, Scorsese creates a fairy-tale world filled with vivid characters. They include a gimpy station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) with a squeaky leg brace, Hugo’s surly uncle (Ray Winstone), a haughty book-shop manager (Christopher Lee) and a soft-hearted flower girl (Emily Mortimer).
The story centers on Hugo’s attempt to fix an automaton left behind by his late father (Jude Law), a master clock tinkerer who passed on the skills to his son. The boy searches for a heart-shaped key -- symbolism, anyone? -- that will fit into the robot’s back and allow him to crank it back to life.
Hugo joins forces with Melies’s goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) and a Melies scholar (Michael Stuhlbarg) to uncover the director’s glorious past and restore his reputation.
Scorsese recreates two indelible images from movie history: The Man in the Moon with a rocket embedded in his eye (from Melies’s 1902 “A Trip to the Moon”) and Hugo hanging onto the hand of a giant clock as he dangles high above the street (from Harold Lloyd’s 1923 “Safety Last!”)
There’s also a startling scene -- inspired by a famous photo of an 1895 incident -- where a train crashes through the station and lands nose first on the pavement below. Just another glorious magic trick from Scorsese.
“Hugo,” from Paramount Pictures, opens today across the U.S. Rating: ***1/2
‘A Dangerous Method’
In the opening scene of “A Dangerous Method,” a young Russian woman screams and shakes as she rides in a horse-drawn carriage to a Zurich mental asylum in 1904.
Her name is Sabina Spielrein and she plays a key role in David Cronenberg’s illuminating film about the early days of psychoanalysis.
Spielrein was treated by Carl Jung, who also become her mentor and lover. According to the movie -- some historians dispute this version -- their affair was one of the factors that led to Jung’s split with his mentor Sigmund Freud.
Set in Zurich and Vienna over a nine-year span in the early 20th century, “A Dangerous Method” charts the trio’s evolving relationships and how they helped shape the nascent profession.
Cronenberg gets impressive performances from Michael Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud and Keira Knightley as Spielrein, who became a prominent therapist herself before she was murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
“A Dangerous Method” is more traditional than most of Cronenberg’s films, and occasionally bogs down in “Masterpiece Theatre” mode. But it’s a fascinating look at three people who transformed our modern view of the human mind.
“A Dangerous Method,” from Sony Pictures Classics, opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***
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(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)