In its thrillingly designed and edited homages, Hugo takes wing.
  • In its thrillingly designed and edited homages, Hugo takes wing.
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As the year starts to fade, we find time for some three-star entertainments:

Hugo ***

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Martin Scorsese, our national auteur and No. 1 movie fan, converts his status into both commercial and emotional terms with Hugo. Without the old Scorsesean blood sprays, he taps the heart of his movie nostalgia to make his most personal film in years.

Scorsese and adapting-writer John Logan are deeply invested in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the hit fantasy novel by La Jolla resident Brian Selznick. It tells of Hugo, suddenly orphaned and left to secretly fill his father’s job, keeping the big clocks running at a Paris train station in 1930. He also seeks to restore a magical and mysterious automaton found by his late dad (Jude Law). This leads to its inventor, the pioneer of silent-film fantasy Georges Méliès, thought to be dead (in fact Méliès, living until 1938, won honors and was given a home by a cinema society).

Asa Butterfield, 14 but looking younger, is Hugo, a kid ripe in character despite fearful solitude and no evident means of support. Ben Kingsley is a proud, brusque Méliès. Chloë Grace Moretz is charming as Méliès’s daughter Isabelle, who helps Hugo. Horror-film icon Christopher Lee is a stern bookseller, Emily Mortimer and Helen McCrory appear vividly, and Scorsese makes a brief appearance. More of a cranked-up device is the fierce station cop (Sacha Baron Cohen) who, with his Doberman, hounds Hugo. But comedy has never been Scorsese’s best groove.

In his first 3-D film, Scorsese seeks to dazzle, as Méliès so often did at the dawn of films. The result is weak in long perspective and heavy on closeups, such as Hugo’s blue eyes — so intense I felt like a hypnotized optometrist. The runaway-train scene was inspired by a famous photo of an 1895 disaster at the Gare Montparnasse (after the film’s massive crash, where are the lingering consequences?). Though grand and vivid, the station never rivals the power of Orson Welles when he converted the old Gare d’Orsay into the Kafka mazes of The Trial.

Still, Scorsese recreates Méliès’s wondrous studio, streams old film clips, salutes Harold Lloyd and other giants, uses songs from classic French cinema, and channels into Hugo his soulful excitement with the heritage. This is a tribute to the past and a bequest to the young. The salute to old books (also a glimpse of James Joyce) is a mere warm-up for the cine-fanzine fireworks. In it's thrillingly designed and edited homages, Hugo takes wing, going beyond The Magic Box and A Slave of Love and Nickelodeon, coming close to the surreal poetry of Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate.

I love the love that Scorsese has poured into this, enshrining the distant roots of his life’s passion. But 3-D, despite some fine effects, often seems a Magic Marker for the unimaginative (the vintage silent movies eclipse it), and the story is never quite up to the director’s devotion. The central problem is that Méliès was a radical antirealist, whereas candid (though expressive) realism is at the core of Scorsese’s best work. In 1942 the fantasist Georges Franju made a short, fond homage, Le Grand Méliès, but the best artist to do a Méliès tribute would probably have been a greater Scorsese hero, the British visionary Michael Powell.

Le Havre ***

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Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is a fun-ish director. His comedies of serious intent have the puzzled, bemused concentration of a visitor from another planet. The visitor seems more at home now, and Kaurismäki’s wry gaze has become more affirming, less punked out. The fruition is the Cannes fest hit Le Havre.

Filmed in the modern port city and shot by Timo Salminen for a retro look, Le Havre is about Marcel, a former Parisian who makes a meager living by shining shoes. Despite that, he has the proud macho bearing of a veteran of many wars or many noirs. He is acted by Kaurismäki-regular André Wilms (when other filmers made a movie called Robert Mitchum Is Dead, they turned to Wilms). His devoutly loyal wife is played by another Kaurismäki favorite and siren of homeliness, Kati Outinen. Marcel’s dog is Laika, named for the Soviet cosmo-mutt shot into space in 1957.

Marcel harbors a black African boy who escaped from a cargo container of illegal refugees. The terse, resourceful dignity of young Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) matches that of Marcel, whose rep as a sponger doesn’t curb his local popularity. Most neighbors rally as he helps the kid. His effort to raise money involves, very Kaurismätically, the vintage French rocker Little Bob, a sort of munchkin Roy Orbison.

The pleasing big bonus is Kaurismäki’s witty evocation of French movies: the proletarian reveries of Clair, the social-solidarity visions of Renoir and Becker, the waterfront-dreams of Pagnol and Carné, the crime-dramas of Melville, and the daring tales of the Resistance. Also, Truffaut’s childhood survival-classic The 400 Blows — its plucky Jean-Pierre Léaud is, after 53 years, almost unrecognizable as a creepy tattler. The echoes enhance Le Havre, a port of pleasures.

The Women on the 6th Floor ***

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Fabrice Luchini can seem like a mouse who, having little fur, covers himself in charm. Despite the Italian name, he is a born Parisian who helps define “French.” At 60, his sweet rodent smile still has some boyish impishness. Snugly tucked into the role of Jean-Louis Joubert, Luchini effortlessly carries The Women on the 6th Floor.

Jean-Louis has been a mama’s boy. He still lives in the old family home in Paris, its top floor occupied sans élégance by chatty Spanish maids and one bossy French relic, very set in her ways. It is 1962, prime time for de Gaulle and Godard, and mama is finally dead. But Jean-Louis still pads through measured days as a stockbroker. He still supports his skinny-chic wife (Sandrine Kiberlain) in the lunching and shopping avec élégance to which she is boringly accustomed. He still expects his morning egg (in a cup) to boil for precisely three-and-a-half minutes.

Philippe Le Guay’s film is about a small man breaking free. His liberator is the new maid, a bright, sexy workaholic played by Natalia Verbeke. She lures Jean-Louis to the drab sixth floor, rousing his social conscience (and more). Thanks to the vital life above his head, his egg-cup runneth over. Some of the maid repartee is too cute, and the ending is a quaint stretch. But Luchini and the women sustain a Franco-Spanish charm that diverts and amuses.

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