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Hugo, Muppets, Arthur Christmas, The Descendants 

HUGO

***1/2

Movie mavens startled by the fact that Martin Scorsese has elected to direct a family film when he's exalted for his string of hardcore crime flicks clearly know little about either the man or his achievements. Scorsese has hopscotched between genres far more often than he's given credit for -- the costume drama The Age of Innocence, the religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ and the black comedy After Hours represent just a sampling of his various works -- and when he's not helming motion pictures, he's often championing the cause of film preservation. Scorsese has always been a student of film as much as a teacher and practitioner -- how I love to hear him passionately discuss classics of cinema! -- and with Hugo, he manages to incorporate all facets of his persona.

Even more so than The Aviator, Scorsese's accomplished biopic about millionaire and part-time moviemaker Howard Hughes, this adaptation of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a product steeped in cinema lore, drunk on the fumes of a bygone era yet canny enough to channel its nostalgia through modern innovations. Hugo is available in 3-D, and except for the annoying darkness that's always inherent in live-action films presented in this manner, it makes glorious use of the gimmick, right from the very first shot when falling snowflakes come right at us.

Set in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, the story concerns itself with young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a parentless child who tends to the building's giant clock while constantly avoiding the grasp of an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) hellbent on sending him off to an orphanage. Connected to his late father (Jude Law in a small role) by an automaton that needs repairing, Hugo steals the parts needed from an elderly man named Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toy store in the station. Eventually caught by the ill-tempered gent, Hugo becomes drawn into his life, befriending his ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kick-Ass/Hit Girl fame), learning about his past as a film pioneer, and discovering the key -- literally -- that binds past and present together.

In the name of full disclosure, I've been a huge fan of Georges Melies (who, among other things, invented special effects and built Europe's first movie studio) since I was a teenager, so any movie that celebrates his legacy as competently and gloriously as this one does is already halfway to home plate. But Scorsese hasn't merely made an ode to cineasts; rather, his picture is a moving exploration of the manner in which individuals seek out love and companionship in an effort to form their own version of a nuclear family (every character, even Cohen's bumbling inspector, wages a war against loneliness).

That's not to say the cinematic homages are ever placed on the back burner: A clip from the great Harold Lloyd's most famous film, Safety Last, serves as foreshadowing for a climactic moment, and Melies' own masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon, is given its proper due.

Even with a friendly PG rating, it's hard to imagine families trudging out en masse to check this out: The 125-minute running time, leisurely pace and lack of Muppets will probably cause many tots to grow fidgety before long, and even adults who desire their entertainment fast and furious will wonder if it's too late to sneak into the adjacent auditorium that's playing Immortals. But for the rest of us, we'll always have Paris -- and the enchanting movie set therein.

THE MUPPETS

***1/2

Yes, it may be true that The Muppets is a film for the whole family, but here's a cruel suggestion: Hire a babysitter and leave the kids at home. After all, what grownup weaned on a steady diet of Muppet episodes and movies wants to interrupt their jaunt down memory lane by having to escort weak bladders to the bathroom or hungry mouths to the concession stand?

Well, OK, bring the small fry, but chances are that this is one of those films that will be enjoyed more by the parents than their brood. Jason Segel, a self-proclaimed Muppet devotee who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, plays Gary, who takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his equally Muppet-obsessed brother Walter -- who, incidentally, happens to be a puppet himself -- to Los Angeles for vacation.

When they stop at the old Muppet studio, they're shocked to see it dilapidated and abandoned; they're even more upset when they discover that ruthless businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the property, tear down the studio and drill for oil. In an effort to save the hallowed ground, the trio head off to find Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang, all scattered across the country (and, in the case of Piggy, living in Paris).

I have two major criticisms, both of which admittedly tend to dissipate when reflecting on the sheer joy the overall movie brings. First, Walter's pretty much a drip, both as a character and a Muppet, and instead of even creating him in the first place (when you think about it, he's not really necessary to the overall arc), I would rather Segel and Stoller had spent more time on the already established puppet personalities (personally, I can never have too much Fozzie in my life; ditto those sarcastic old geezers Statler and Waldorf).

Second, the cameos, by and large, are a disappointing lot. Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis have the largest of these parts, and neither is particularly funny; compare their contributions to, say, the manic bits by Steve Martin and Mel Brooks in 1979's The Muppet Movie and the contrast is glaring. The Muppet Movie furthermore gave us comedy titans like Richard Pryor, Bob Hope and Madeline Kahn; this film can only counter with Ken Jeong, John Krasinski and Selena Gomez.

Running the risk of sounding like Statler and Waldorf, though, I had best stop with the naysaying. At any rate, the majority of the film is pure pleasure, full of knowing winks to the franchise's time and place in history: the bouncy "Mahna Mahna"; Kermit's celebrity Rolodex, long outdated ("May I speak to President Carter?"); the lovely "The Rainbow Connection" (just try and not tear up during that moment); and the creation of '80s Robot, whose computer-related gag provided me with the biggest laugh I've enjoyed in a theater this year.

Segel and Adams are both irresistibly appealing and handle their song-and-dance numbers with gusto, but who are we kidding? We're here to see old friends, whether they're flubbing their stage moves, trying to keep Animal in check, or slyly managing to sing a G-rated version of Cee-lo's R-rated musical hit. The Muppets is inspirational, celebrational and, naturally, Muppetational, and if it falls just short of being wholly sensational, I doubt few will complain.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS

***

Folks who worship at the altar of Aardman Animations as much as they do at the temple of Pixar (raising my hand here) will quickly realize -- say, 20 minutes into the movie -- that Arthur Christmas won't come close to matching the giddy heights of the British studio's Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit films. Its characters are more commonplace, its plotline is more conventional, its sentiments are more predictable. What this means, though, is that instead of blazing its own path, the film instead manages to beat the other studios' efforts at their own game, effortlessly rising above the filmic fray involving Gnomeo & Juliet, Puss in Boots and other 2011 'toon disappointments.

Most of the major laughs come toward the beginning of this clever contraption in which the present Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) might finally be ready to retire, set to pass along the reindeer reins to his technically savvy son Steve (Hugh Laurie). The doddering Santa doesn't even consider his other son Arthur (James McAvoy) for the position, since the gangly youth is obviously too clumsy and awkward for such a responsibility. Yet when a wayward present means that a little girl in Cornwall won't be receiving a gift this year, it's Arthur, not his dad or sibling, who does everything in his power to insure that she receives the present.

The idea of a Santa with a non-American accent will probably irk the same stateside folks who bristle at the thought of a non-Caucasian Jesus, but the mostly British cast has been carefully selected, with an unusually animated (in both senses of the word) Bill Nighy especially enjoying himself as the long-retired Grandsanta.

There are sharp sight gags galore -- I especially like the handheld device that gauges a child's naughty-or-nice ratio and fills the stocking accordingly -- and while this all leads to a predestined ending, at least said conclusion goes down as smoothly as marshmallow-endowed hot chocolate on Christmas Eve.

THE DESCENDANTS

***1/2

The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 -- The Ides of March sure wasn't it -- The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States.

With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife, with whom he's grown cooly distant, has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him.

His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed.

Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch.

 

 

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