Diamonds in the Dream Factory: 'Hugo'

Like a labyrinth larded with shards of celluloid sensations past and filtered through the latest in Tinseltown commercial gimmickry, Hugo is an amazing masterwork.


Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
Rated: PG
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-23 (General release)
UK date: 2011-12-02 (General release)

The cliche claims its place. It always has. No matter how many times it is said or how often the sentiment seems over-simplistic. Movies are indeed magic, from the very first images ever captured on volatile silver nitrate to the most sophisticated technological advances of the 21st century. From DW Griffith to Alfred Hitchcock, from Steven Spielberg to James Cameron, the ability for mere camera stock to take on a mystical, memorable existence all its own is, without a doubt, the fulfillment of the fantasy factory. It turned a medium meant for capturing reality into the stuff of studied dreams.

In fact, it's never been a question of "if" as much as a determination of "how." For every incredible visual or emotional experience had in a darkened theater, there are hundreds which miss the mark - sometimes by miles. The rare combination of project and prestidigitation is as elusive as the lost classics of long forgotten past masters. For decades now, fans and film scholars have championed Marin Scorsese, turning his every new project into a possible masterwork in the making. Even when he's working in genres outside his comfort zone (if there really are any), he seems capable of gymnastic leaps in creativity. When he bounds, he bounds BIG!

Nowhere is this more true than in Hugo, a wonderful evocation of everything the cinema stands for and can conceivably be. Utilizing the award winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick as a blueprint for his homage to the origins of the format and finding a cast which infuses everything with amazing emotional power, this trip back in time is also a wonderfully inventive primer on how movies becames...movies. By taking the source and stretching it into a mandate on Georges Méliès, Scorsese gets to champion the classic cinema he loves so dearly while adding in barbs over preservation, credit, and historical perspective. Sure, the movie begins as a boy's adventures in a stately Paris train station, but it ends up being much, much more.

Hugo Cabret (an absolutely astonishing Asa Butterfield) lives in the upper ceiling metal works of a famous French depot, his daily job being to wind and mend the clocks and avoid the watchful eye of the wicked, wounded in the war Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Orphaned after the death of his inventor/historian father (Jude Law), he ends up in the mechanical structures of the public port thanks to his shiftless, alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone).

One day, a shop owner (Ben Kingsley) catches our hero stealing wind-up toy parts. Demanding to know why, Hugo lets slip his secret - he has a large automaton in his living space. It was his father's passion. With the help of a needed notebook and some perseverance, he hopes to repair it and decipher its purpose. When he discovers this, the merchant is livid. He grabs the pad and threatens to burn it. Even his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) can't figure out why her 'Papa George' is so angry. When a film scholar (Michael Stuhlbarg) uncovers the truth about the robot and its owner...and the connection to Hugo and his new friends, the news opens up a whole new world for the boy.

Like a labyrinth larded with shards of celluloid sensations past and filtered through the latest in Tinseltown commercial gimmickry, Hugo is an amazing masterwork. It's a film so full of life and invention that it's hard to fathom how others in the same business earn equal footing. Scorsese, already established as a living legend, shows the wannabes how it's done, delivering frames so full of visual and narrative vibrancy that one's brain can barely handle it. When it finally finds a grip, it groans for having suffered through so much meaningless drivel. Then, to make matters even more intriguing, the seasoned filmmaker finds a strong bond between his waifish lead and the audiences' own sense of nostalgia and loss to legitimize the frequent fairytale avenues explored.

In Butterfield, Scorsese finds his Henry Thomas, a young boy of strong adult centers that really anchors his wistful and fancy free ideas. As Cohen provides comic relief (just not in the ways his fanbase expects) and Kingsley prepares to own the second act, our underage hero wanders through the stunning sets and situations, his open eyes consistently on the verge of terror...tears. Butterfield really plays the part as lonely and lost, his frequent attempts at connections countermanded by the storyline surrounding them. Even with Isabelle (a good Ms. Moretz) constantly trying to support him, Hugo has to find his own way. Through Butterfield, the journey to Georges Méliès is heartfelt and heartwarming.

In fact, it's a risk for Scorsese to basically veer away from the whole abandoned kid storyline to focus so much on the invention of film as an artform, but that's part of this movie's endearing charm. Given the chance, handpicking a project that would allow him to indulge his love of the medium's humble origins, he goes overboard, bringing Méliès myth to vivid life. As he did with Shutter Island, Scorsese experiments with different approaches and styles. We get stop motion, time lapse, Zelig-like manipulation of actual footage, and a fascinating lesson in the public's initial reaction to moving pictures. In an even more impressive turn, Scorsese takes the inconsistent and mostly failing 2011 3D conceit and shows everyone how it should and could be done.

Though it's being touted as a family film, the kind of entertainment the kids and their parents can enjoy together, Hugo is really much more. It's a celebration of individuality and personal spirit, a showcase for struggle and the stunning results that can come from such pain. While fictionalizing the case of Méliès and his fall from grace (the famed artist actually did sell some of his films to a company who used the stock to make shoe heels), the spirit of truth pervades every frame. Hugo may be a tribute, but it's a living accolade, a souvenir for and from a sick little boy who spent much of his youth wondering from stately NYC cineplex to the next. Hugo is the dictionary definition of the movie's magical possibilities. It's a must for those in love with the format.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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