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The first thing to know about Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which screened in unfinished form as part of the New York Film Festival tonight, is that it must be seen in 3D. This surprised me as much as anyone else. Yes, Hugo is a new 3D film from a filmmaker who's not just great, but an expert on film history and the medium itself-- it was clear that Scorsese wasn't going to half-ass this. But it also seemed unlikely that the director, master as he is, could bring something new out of a format that already was seeming like a gimmick, a trick to make more money that wore out its welcome the moment the novelty faded.

As it turns out, Scorsese revived this new format by going back to something old, specifically the early French films that were some of the first movies ever shown as public entertainment. Though Hugo will be sold, somewhat correctly, as a children's adventure film set amid the great creaking clocks and colorful characters of a Paris train station, it's a love letter to movies, and more specifically the importance of preserving films for future generations. It's probably saying too much to get into the extent to which old films play a part in the film, but they become vitally important, and even in grainy black and white or artificially hand-painted frame by frame, they come alive under Scorsese's direction in a way that will wow anyone even nominally interested in film history.

The 3D technology links directly back to the wonder that French audiences felt when they first saw moving pictures, so lifelike they were convinced the train coming into the station would run them over; Scorsese looks at the people who call 3D a gimmick, compares us to those who thought motion pictures were a fad a century ago, then goes on to show us what's probably the most gorgeous live-action 3D film ever made. The 3D isn't just a new cinematic trick for Scorsese to play with, but inherently tied to the narrative, a key element that shines up everything else around it.

And how is the movie behind all that technology? The story stops and starts a bit too often, and some side plots could use tightening, but the movie is a charmer overall, combining physical comedy-- very clearly inspired by silent films of the era-- with some touching coming-of-age elements and, of course, a full-throated love of the movies. Asa Butterfield carries the film with his enormous expressive eyes and minimalist acting, in unfortunate contrast to Chloe Moretz, who is all forced sparkle as his partner in crime and grating by comparison. On the adult side, Ben Kingsley brings his customary gravitas with a hint of a twinkle in his eye, and though Sacha Baron Cohen's railway inspector character doesn't fit gracefully enough into the narrative, all of his big moments shine; one of the best uses of 3D in the film is an increasingly large close-up of Baron Cohen's face, intimidating and hilarious and in perfect synch with the 3D technology that enhances it. Baron Cohen, usually the ego-monster star at the center of his films, does great work opposite nearly everyone he comes in contact with, including one equally expressive Doberman who shares his crack comic timing.

Visual appeal is a huge part of Hugo that will presumably be even better when the movie is finished, and I imagine a second viewing might put less focus on the unnecessarily complicated narrative, which often pauses or veers in illogical directions for the sake of putting more beauty on screen. Set for a Thanksgiving release, it has a lot of the warm holiday charm of the early Harry Potter movies, but with a fierce love for cinema and an uncommon cast of characters that makes it unique, and maybe even better suited for adults than for kids. Uncle Marty is taking us to film school and using all his cinematic magic to make us like it; even if a history lesson isn't what you come in for, you'll probably leave glad to have enrolled.
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