Heavenly ‘Hugo,’ Amusing ‘Arthur,’ Marvelous ‘Muppets,’ Engaging ‘Marilyn,’ Middling ‘Melancholia’

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FS
Contributing Writer

 

“Hugo”

Martin Scorsese’s mastery of the medium is evident in every frame of “Hugo” (wide release), a 3-D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book that’s also a love letter by the director to the art of cinema itself.

The title character is an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who secretly runs the huge clock in the Paris railway terminal during the 1930s.  He’s also trying to repair an automaton his father had rescued from a museum, believing the robot will deliver a message from his dad.

The boy’s efforts to steal parts for the mechanism get him into trouble with Georges (Ben Kingsley), a bitter old man who runs the toy stall in the station. But Hugo makes friends with Georges’ goddaughter, and together they discover that the man is Georges Melies, a forgotten pioneer in the cinema of the fantastic whose films were thought to be destroyed.

“Hugo” ends with the boy being embraced by Melies’ family after helping to revive the director’s reputation – and his love of life.

Visually ravishing from first shot to last, the film is also filled with warmth and comedy, provided by a host of secondary characters.  It’s a remarkably charming change of pace for a filmmaker noted for edgier fare, and a holiday treat for viewers of all ages.
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“Arthur Christmas”

The British Aardman Studios, creators of Wallace & Gromit, brings its usual quirky sensibility to the Yuletide season with “Arthur Christmas” (wide release), a genial animated riff on the commercialization of the holiday with plenty of farcical slapstick for the kids and lots of more subtle jokes for the grownups.

The title character is Santa’s younger son, a lanky, old-fashioned kid who labors in the shadow of his older brother, a spit-and-polish type who’s turned the old man’s gift-delivery operation into a massive industrial system run with military precision.

But when one girl’s gift gets mislaid and the others dismiss the omission as a minor glitch, Arthur and his cantankerous grandpa – the former Santa – haul out the old sleigh and reindeer to try to get it under the tyke’s tree in time for Christmas morning.

Witty, fast-paced and colorful, “Arthur Christmas” puts most Hollywood cartoon features to shame.
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“The Muppets”

It’s been more than a decade since Jim Henson’s puppet ensemble made a film, and it’s a pleasure to welcome Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest back in the simply-titled “The Muppets” (wide release).

It’s literally a comeback story, in which the loony bunch are called together after years on their own to “put on a show” – in this case a telethon – to raise the cash needed to save their old studio, now a run-down shell, from the grasp of a greedy oil man who plans to tear it down. They’re aided by a trio of small-town fans – a sweet-natured human couple (Jason Segel and Amy Adams) and the man’s brother, who doesn’t realize he’s a Muppet himself but eventually saves the day.

Endless sight gags and bad jokes, along with some cheerily dumb musical numbers, recapture the spirit of the old “Muppet Show” to a surprising degree. Unlike so many reunions, this is a truly happy affair.
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“My Week With Marilyn”

Michelle Williams may not be the spitting image of Marilyn Monroe, but she does such a startlingly convincing take on the late actress in “My Week With Marilyn” (wide release) that it really doesn’t matter.  And she’s matched by Kenneth Branagh, who does an equally superb job of impersonating Sir Laurence Olivier.

The picture is about the time the two stars spent shooting “The Prince and the Showgirl” in 1956, and it’s based on a memoir by a young man who served as a go-fer on the set and became the person the vulnerable actress leaned on when she found working with Olivier traumatic.

With its rather stolid, Masterpiece-Theatre approach, “My Week With Marilyn” won’t win any prizes for inventiveness.  But it’s a period piece that viewers, especially movie buffs, can sit back and revel in.
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“Melancholia”

Lars von Trier is one of the most controversial filmmakers working today, but his latest, “Melancholia” (Angelika) – unlike the earlier “Dogville” and “Antichrist” – is, apart from a few moments of nudity, not so much provocative as dull.

It’s the story of two sisters, one happily married and the other about to be wed.  But the bride-to-be is suffering from acute mental distress, partially because she’s certain that a massive new planet that’s just appeared in the solar system will collide with Earth, despite the assurances of scientists that it will pass by at a safe distance.

The picture is beautifully made, with a stunning prologue composed of tableaux set to the strains of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” prelude and many stately, refined images the once stridently anti-technology director would formally have dismissed contemptuously as artifice.

But all the lovely packaging can’t disguise the fact that the film, which like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” aims to say something universal about human existence, also resembles it in containing far more pretension than profundity.

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