Scorsese’s homage to his art

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            The Christmas holidays are the season for the Hollywood studios to dump a coal-load of family-themed entertainment into the multiplexes, hoping to score a perennial classic along the lines of “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Results in recent years have ranged from good-hearted (“The Polar Express”) to ghastly (more Chipmunk movies).

            Some of this year’s entries have scored fairly high on the classics-in-waiting scale, including the clever “Arthur Christmas” and the new, non-holiday themed Muppet Movie. (Unlike Chipmunks, Muppets can do no wrong, and I’ll follow them anywhere.)

            Now into the middle of the race Martin Scorsese has dropped a huge surprise: a grand and glittering entertainment that is nothing less than a glorious paean to the art of movie-making. And in a surprising and audacious move, Scorsese has filmed his fantasy in 3D, showing some recent ham-fisted and beef-witted directors that this newest toy in the box can be elegant and witty as well as breathtakingly beautiful and kinetically thrilling. If you know his work only through “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” you need to see what he can do with completely different palette and orchestration.

            Based on a fascinating book by Brian Selznick called “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, it’s the story of a twelve-year old orphan who lives in one of the great railway stations of Paris in the 1930s.

            Son of a clockmaker, young Hugo keeps all of the station’s clocks ticking, while avoiding the vindictive station inspector. Hugo lives between the station’s walls, in a world we’ve hoped all along exists in those huge, beautiful, grimy buildings. Hugo’s obsession is to repair a metal automaton his father discovered rusting away in a museum attic, for which he steals small mechanical toys for parts. It’s the aging proprietor of the toy shop who busts Hugo and supplies the plot’s mystery, as well as a co-sleuth in the form of his charming god-daughter.

            Going no further into the plot here will allow you to discover the clues and surprises for yourself; Scorsese presents each one at just the right moment, with the rhythm of a master tale-spinner. But the Big Finish involves one of the earliest and most accomplished tale-spinners of cinema’s history, which brings the whole dramatic arc to a superbly satisfying conclusion.

            “Hugo” is also one of the loveliest evocations of Paris ever put on film and may have you booking the next flight out of Logan; if I didn’t have deadlines I’d be there by the time you read this. Though not specifically a Christmas film, the sight of Paris under constant snow is enough to put anyone in a romantic holiday mood. In the dazzling opening sequence you will meet again some of the famous characters from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” being entertained at the station café by Django Reinhardt. And some of the character actors you may not know by name but always enjoy seeing are here, such as Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, and the dignified Christopher Lee as the owner of what may be the world’s best bookstore. Ben Kingsley brings his usual subtleties to the role of the toyshop owner; and Sacha Baron Cohen, though hilarious as a lower-class type who wants to rise in the world but can’t decide which accent to use, is out-performed by a Doberman with one of the all-time great comic faces.

            I’ve been ambivalent about 3D technology since its re-introduction, but it’s used here with such flair and finesse that I can begin to see it as a useful and artful tool in the old-fashioned art of storytelling. And since Scorsese is the founder of both The Film Foundation and The World Cinema Foundation, dedicated to film preservation, we expect him to be passionate about all the technologies, both early and recent, that make up the tools of his métier. Though his manipulation of 3D is subtler than James Cameron’s in “Avatar” he can still provide gob-smacking set pieces, such as a nightmare re-creation of the notorious train derailment at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895.

            In 1945 Marcel Carné directed “Children of Paradise,” which said pretty much all there is to say about Life and Art and how they intertwine, in a Parisian setting that throbs with love and treachery and excitement. Scorsese, though his focus is narrower, comes close to Carné’s mastery of character and setting and story, and that’s about the highest praise I have.