Film releases: December 2

Every time we see a great or nearly great film we are Theseus in the labyrinth. In mazes that can seem measureless, we are guided by the frail trustworthiness of an Ariadne thread (our own thoughtwork, patiently paid out) as we approach the maze’s heart. There stands the Minotaur: the monster we must confront, the tragedy or mystery we must solve, the cathartic challenge we offer ourselves up to.

That is why Citizen Kane is the best film ever – moviedom’s great Minoan maze – and why La Règle du Jeu, 2001, The Godfather and others are close behind: labyrinths near-perfect in their meaningful, sometimes minatory ingenuity. And that is why Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a children’s film for grown-ups. It’s a panoramic puzzle made by a cinematic Daedalus. If Scorsese’s last movie was a talented tangle (the psychodrama-surfeited Shutter Island), he needed only one simple instruction to get this maze right: “Make it for kids as well as adults.”

We are all kids, especially when kitted out with 3D lenses. Like kids we complain if the spectacles we wear aren’t matched by the spectacles we watch. (Cars 2? Spy Kids 4?) But Hugo is a delirium that delights and excites. The first seconds whoosh us into the heart of 1930s Paris, then into a giant train station. Soon we are jostled by crowds and cameos: Sacha Baron Cohen as an officious station inspector (the accent somewhere between Peter Sellers and a deranged Rabbi), Ben Kingsley as a mysterious toy vendor … Soon again we are tossed and spun inside the whirrings of a monster clock. The orphan boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is its keeper. What happened to his keeper(s)? We’ll find out.

Brian Selznick’s 2007 graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret sourced this film, much as a temperature upheaval sources a hurricane. Selznick gently topsy-turvied history by reinventing the French surrealist director George Méliès – founding father of cinematic fantasy – as an old gent, broken of heart and will, who is “mended” by a boy working on a clockwork humanoid automaton. Scorsese takes the hint and turns it into Hurricane Hugo. His Paris is the setting for an intricate “clockwork” of meshing destinies – a man refinding his past, a boy discovering his future – which makes us feel as if we are inside every capricious convulsion of time and fate.

It is glorious to be thrown and blown about in this make-believe metropolis. The digitally enhanced shapes and colours suggest Jeunet and Caro (City of Lost Children) reworked by a polychromatic Piranesi. Scorsese pauses long enough, when he needs, to humanise Hugo, to give him a girlfriend (Chlöe Grace Moretz) and to unfurl the culminating Méliès plot like a magic carpet that eases our debarkation from hurricane motion to human emotion. It’s a happy landing: “We hope you enjoyed flying with Air Scorsese and will fly with us again.” Meanwhile I suggest the world’s 3D glasses are all collected up and delivered to the one director who seems able to make good use of them.

Margaret is an equal if different maze. Amazingly – all punning intended – it also involves Scorsese. He and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker rescued a lost Theseus, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (whose previous feature, You Can Count on Me, won a cluster of prizes in 2000), when he couldn’t edit a labyrinthine movie down to an agreed 150-minute release cut. Assailed by lawsuits, a film made in 2005 – with two since-deceased producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella – reaches us on the eve of 2012.

No wonder the distant thunder of 9/11, part of the story’s music, seems dated. Little else does, though. What a mesmerising movie this is. If Lonergan couldn’t cut it down, that is because it deserves four hours and will one day get it. A street accident killing a pedestrian (Allison West Wing Janney, who has five minutes to sear her tragedy into our skulls), haunts and traumatises teenage witness Lisa (Anna Paquin).

Lisa can’t sort out her grief-filled rage. It becomes part of her compound rage against life, incorporating Islamic terrorism, parental divorce (dad on a distant beach, mum romancing ageing opera fan Jean Reno), the precocious confusions of sexuality, the mumbo-jumbo classroom poetry that has hidden but vital meaning (a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem bestows the film’s title), and the thousand ills, alarms and apprehensions that adolescent flesh is heir to.

Paquin is electrifying as this mood-changer. US critics complained they couldn’t see the joins between her outbursts. That is the point. Everything relates to everything invisibly in teenhood – hiddenly, holistically, hormonally – and nothing seems to make sense. The story’s two and a half hours leave a sapient viewer ravening for more while never doubting that the essentials are before him.

Those essentials aren’t always easy: every scene is a question and we are required to supply the answer. Why does Lisa spite a boy who loves her in order to surrender her virginity to a boy who doesn’t? Why does she conduct an impassioned vendetta against the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who caused the accident? Why does she weep in her mother’s arms at the opera?

Why? Because all human life is here – for once the Hollywood-origin chestnut comes hot from the fire – and because Lonergan’s scalding, flavoursome script is directed by a man, Lonergan himself, who knows all its hot spots. The cast too is superb. No group of actors in a film ever had so little time to establish so much complexity or succeeded with such consummate skill.

In Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), motormouthed forces-radio host Robin Williams made a gag about “Pope on a rope”: the kind that doesn’t slip from your hand in the bathroom or indeed the Vatican. Did Italian comedian-filmmaker Nanni Moretti have a moment of Hollywood recall? Michel Piccoli in his We Have a Pope does exactly that, slipping from the Cardinals’ grasp after being elected supreme pontiff. Beset by doubts, unconsoled by a shrink (Moretti), he vanishes into Rome. The Vatican flaps; a Swiss Guard is persuaded to tenant the Papal rooms in disguise, a pacing silhouette to reassure St Peter’s Square. Meanwhile …

Meanwhile I looked at my watch. I waited for the film to get funny, or touching, or pointful. It didn’t. There are cringey would-be comical scenes of Moretti training the Cardinals to play volleyball. There is a baffling subplot about Piccoli joining a production of The Seagull. There are deep meanings (possibly) that never reach the surface. Ah well. Moretti made Dear Diary, April and The Son’s Room. The best of his mournful-mirthful scrawls about Italian life survive to let us forget the worst.

Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias won the Cannes Camera d’Or for best first feature. It’s a sweet, rambling Argentine tale of a trucker (Germán de Silva) and a mother (Hebe Duarte) with a baby. He gives the pair a ride. Shy silences yield to gauche accord. Is this the mating ritual of the long-distance Latino? It’s very touching: a road movie with every kind of changing scene and mood, both inside and outside the cab.

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