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Martin Scorsese Shows Unfinished, Magical Hugo At N.Y. Film Festival

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz in "Hugo"

Even for someone whose job includes early screenings of films, it’s truly exciting to be privy to a movie before it’s finished. That’s exactly what the Film Society of Lincoln Center made possible with this year’s 49th New York Film Festival “Secret Work-in-Progress Screening.”

Tickets were sold with only the slightest endorsement: The movie would be from a “master filmmaker,” and it would be released in late 2011. The speculation was instantaneous. Would it be David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse? Martin Scorsese’s Hugo?

By Monday morning, the trade papers were buzzing that Hugo was the pick — although the Film Society did its best to maintain the mystery right up until attendees filed into Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. When an usher plunked a pair of 3D glasses in my hand, it sealed the deal.

After the lights dimmed, Scorsese was called on stage to introduce his adaptation of Brian Selznick’s award-winning 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. To heavy applause and a standing ovation, the director explained that, “This is a work in progress, which means it’s not color-corrected, we’re starting that right now. … At the beginning of the film and a number of other places there are things that are called pre-visualizations, which means there are kind of crude little computer-generated people. … Visual effects are temporary, the 3D is still being worked on, and the sound mixes are temporary and the music, for the most part, is still temporary. That means it’s the actual score but it’s played on temporary instruments — he’s recording it now in London … Howard Shore. … And you will see a few wonderful green screens. … So I hope you enjoy it, and I hope those of you who really do like it come and see the final film.”

The film’s young stars, Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) and Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In), were brought out for a moment after the credits rolled.

Having only seen a short teaser, I didn’t really know what to expect from Hugo, beyond that it’s Scorsese’s first foray into 3D, and that it’s a family film. While it’s not possible to give a full review, I’ll say this: If you’re a fan of Amelie or Cinema Paradiso, this movie is for you. It captures youth, imagination and Parisian life — all those seemingly unimportant, authentic moments played out in the peripheral — in similar ways, entrenching you in the world so thoroughly you begin to wonder why you don’t feel a chill as 3D snowflakes fall. And, speaking of 3D, Scorsese’s technical prowess clearly knows no bounds. It’s the best live-action 3D I’ve seen to date. He goes beyond the visual by utilizing the technology as commentary on the history of viewing film as a medium. And Shore’s score, even unfinished, is perfection in its understated, whimsical simplicity.

Although Hugo is seemingly marketed as a kid’s movie, it’s not likely to maintain the attention of little ones. More appropriately, it’s for cinema aficionado parents hoping to introduce slightly older children to the material they’re inspired by. It’s sure to make every Film 101 professor envious – no amount of detailed, thoughtful lesson plans could capture a student’s attention on the subject the way Scorsese can.

Diverging from what you’ve seen in trailers, the movie isn’t entirely focused on Hugo (Butterfield could pass for a young Elijah Wood, right down to the huge, emotive blue eyes), an orphan living in a train station hoping to unlock a mystery that lingers after his father’s death. There is a much deeper story at play, one that I hope reviewers of the finished film won’t spoil. Suffice it to say that the subject matter is steeped in the history of cinema. There’s also an array of very familiar famous faces speckled in bit roles throughout — notably, the truly incredible Ben Kingsley as curmudgeonly Papa Georges, the owner of a toy booth in the station. Moretz and Christopher Lee are also charming, and Sacha Baron Cohen manages to overcome a somewhat hokey introduction via physical comedy to steal countless scenes as the tirelessly strict Station Inspector.

Hugo isn’t perfect: The narrative took a while to find its footing, but the second half is a truly engrossing, magical love letter to cinema. This is a movie that Martin Scorsese made for himself — and, frankly, I couldn’t adore him more for it. If there’s any takeaway here, it’s the warmth you feel for the subject matter by default, as the director’s enthusiasm cannot be contained on the screen.

Hugo opens on Nov. 23.

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