“If things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding.”
Oscars 2011 Best Picture Reviews
Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Descendants
“My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii, we live in paradise. We’re all just out here sipping Mai Tai’s, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our heartaches, less painful?”
The Descendants is a movie starring George Clooney which is set in Hawaii. But if you’re expecting this movie to be an escapist holiday getaway, you’re wrong. It’s about real-life pain and heartache happening in an island paradise.
Matt King is a Honolulu-based lawyer who has to deal with the fact that his wife Elizabeth is in a hospital comatose from a boat racing accident. On top of that he has the issue of dealing with being the sole family member in charge of 25,000 acres of land on Kauai owned by his family for generations which will expire in seven years. The King family decided to sell the land to a developer, something Matt supports. Matt was never really close with his two daughters and always considers himself to be the ‘back-up parent’. With Elizabeth in a coma, he now has to be the main parent and deal with things like youngest daughter Scottie’s inappropriate behavior with other children and teenage daughter Alex’s drinking. As if his ailing wife and the future of his family’s land isn’t enough to deal with.
Matt had always considered himself a lousy husband and make a mental promise to Elizabeth that he will be a better husband to her once she’s better. Then the news drops. She will never recover. She also has it in her will that she be disconnected shortly from her life support. Matt will no longer be the back-up parents. He decides to tell Alex before Scottie. Alex gives the shocking news that Elizabeth was in an affair just before the accident. He later learns the ‘other man’ is Brian Speer. Matt makes a surprising decision: to find Brian and give him the news the Elizabeth is dying and a chance to say goodbye. He learns that Matt is a real estate agent vacationing in Kauai.
After telling the family of Elizabeth’s eventual death, he goes to Kauai with his daughters and Alex’s slacker guy friend Sid to find Brian. He soon finds Brian jogging on a beach and entering into his family’s vacation resort. Matt also learns from Cousin Hugh that Brian has connections to the developer who they’re about to sell their land to. If sold, Brian Speer will gain a lot of money from commission once it’s developed.
Before confronting Brian, Matt introduces himself to Brian’s wife Judy. Soon Matt is able to meet alone with Brian. He drops him the news he’s Elizabeth’s husband and she will die soon. Brian is shocked of the whole thing. He apologizes for the grief it’s caused the family but that the affair was only a fling and he loves his wife and sons. The fate of the land is finally determined.. The cousins meet to vote on the land mostly in favor of the developer but Matt decides to keep the land for other reasons. He doesn’t regret it even if it means potential lawsuits from Hugh or other cousins.
With the issue of the land over, Matt can now focus solely on the last days of Elizabeth as she’s taken off life support. Scottie hears the news from a nurse. Sid, who first appeared like an idiot, is now a figure of moral support for the family. Elizabeth’s father tells Matt he should have been a more devoted husband and father and describes Elizabeth as ‘good and faithful’. Matt expects Brian Speer to show up but it’s wife Judy instead. Matt is shocked but Judy is now aware of the divorce. She gives Elizabeth flowers and says she forgives her even though she should hate her for destroying her happy home. Finally after Alex and Scottie say their last goodbyes to Elizabeth, Matt comes to terms with all that’s happened and all Elizabeth has done and gives her a goodbye kiss. The movie ends with a scene showing that Matt is now no longer the back-up parent.
The best quality of the movie is that it deals with a family problem very likely to happen, if not common enough already. A wife from a marriage that’s already failing is about to die. The husband finds out his wife cheated on her while she’s in a coma with only days remaining. A lot of times, Alexander Payne has focused on stories of people that were either failures or felt like failures. This is a story of a husband and father who is a success as a realtor but paid the price of his success with a failing marriage. Now with his wife dying, he has to confront the fact that she failed him as much as he failed her. He’s forced to confront the fact that he would have to be the full-time parents now that his wife will die. It’s also on the verge of what could be the biggest break of his Real Estate career and the biggest break for a family business. The impending tragedy mixed with lucrative opportunity mix well in creating a story that succeeds in telling a lot about ourselves and our own feelings. Maybe this situation could be happening to an audient who sees this movie.
It also has an important element about forgiveness. For so long Matt thought he was the bad guy and he failed Elizabeth. Then he learns that Elizabeth was the dishonest one. Confronting the sudden fact that one’s dying wife was cheating is not an easy thing to sort out. She’s dying but she was unfaithful. Matt makes a lot of surprising decisions in that factor both on the future of his family’s land and to do with Brian. It’s surprising to see the husband of the cheating wife confront the ‘other man’, tell him she’s dying and offer a chance to say goodbye. It’s also surprising to see Brian’s wife, the wife caught in the mess, confront the dying ‘other woman’ and say that she forgives her despite the pain she caused. Forgiveness is not easy. Necessary but not easy.
George Clooney again shines. This is the best effort I’ve seen him do that involved a multitude of emotions and feelings. This could be his best performance yet. Even though none of the supporting performances were at the same performance level as George, the two best supporting performances came from Shailene Woodley as the oldest daughter Alex and Judy Greer as the wife of Brian Speer. Alexander Payne did an excellent job of directing and co-writing the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne has always specialized in including the story’s region and its charms in stories of people’s failures and difficulties. About Schmidt captured the charm of the American prairies. Sideways captured the charm of California’s wine country. Now The Descendants captures the charm of Hawaii while dealing with the impending death of a cheating wife and mother. Again Payne directs it to perfection. That scene around the beginning which shows homelessness in Hawaii sure says something about a place we all call and ‘island paradise’. The script’s plot and atmosphere combine perfectly to make the story of family problems in an island paradise work. The script’s mix with dramatic and comedic elements as well as some genuinely touching moments makes a situation like this easier to watch on the big screen. The addition of Hawaiian music to the movie also added to its charm. Those lucky enough to see it will be glad they did.
The Descendants is excellently well-acted, well-directed, well-adapted drama. It features a situation that could be more common than we think and it shines. Definitely worth seeing.
2011 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: War Horse
War Horse is the latest live-action drama by Steven Spielberg. It was originally a children’s story written in 1982 and later adapted into a stage play which debuted on Broadway in 2011 and even won a lot of Tonys. Now War Horse comes to the big screen and it’s only right that Steven Spielberg be the one to create it into an epic movie.
The film opens as young Devon boy Albert Naracott watches the birth of thoroughbred colt and watches him grow up. The colt would become his, but at a cost to the family. The father Ted wins him at an auction at an enormously high 40 guineas, thanks to his intent to spite his landlord. The high price would cause him to miss his rent and he would have to pay by autumn. That’s not an easy thing for Ted as he has an injured leg from the Boer War for which he’s not proud of and drinks to hide his guilt. He even hides his medals away.
Meanwhile Albert grows a friendship out of the horse whom he names ‘Joey’. Each time Ted threatens to shoot the horse, Albert tries to prove Joey is worthy of staying. Albert trains Joey into plowing the farm and succeeds in having it all plowed in a single day. However the farm fails because of heavy rain and Ted sells Joey to an Army Captain as World War I has just started. This breaks Albert’s heart and he even tries to enlist, even though he’s underage. However Captain Nicholls ensures Albert Joey will be fine and will make it home. Albert even ties his father’s war pennant to Joey’s bridle.
Joey is trained for battle and faces his first battle with Nicholls on top against the Germans. The Germans however have the latest artillery which are capable not only of killing horses from far away but making horses now useless in war battle. Nicholls is killed in battle but Joey is one of few horses to survive, only to be captured by the Germans and used as an ambulance horse along with Topthorn, a black horse whom was trained by the British. Joey and Topthorn become friends. The two horses then become owned by two young German brothers who plan to desert the army and flee to Italy. Even though they hide themselves and the horses in a French windmill, the brothers are discovered by the German soldiers and executed by firing squad.
The two horses are discovered by a French farm girl named Emilie, an orphaned girl who has brittle bones and lives with her grandfather. They soon become hers and she’s able to hide them successfully after German soldiers raid their house and take their food. She finally rides Joey on her birthday only to have the horse stolen by German soldiers. The horses are then put to the task of pulling heavy artillery. Joey and Topthorn are the only two pulling horses to survive this.
Meanwhile it’s 1918 and Albert is now a soldier for Britain. He and his allies are wounded by a mustard gas explosion in German trenches. Joey and Topthorn are still alive after years of brutal labor by the Germans but Topthorn can’t take it anymore and dies. Soon after, Joey tries to flee and advancing tank only to end up tangled in barbed wire and fall down in the mud. A British and German soldier clip off the wires together and the British soldier wins possession of Joey in a coin-toss. While Albert is recovering from his gas attack, he learns the story of the miracle horse. Meanwhile Joey is to be put down because he is too injured. Just before he’s to be shot, Joey responds to an ‘owl call’ from Albert. Albert and Joey are back together again but it doesn’t end there as there is still the auctioning of the war horses. What happens after is something for you to see for yourself.
One thing about the movie is that this, like a lot of epic films, does not have that stellar of a script or of acting. The script is good in how it takes one through the adventure from one place to the next with its various twists and turns, but nothing really deep. There are even times in which it comes off as fluffy as a movie-of-the-week script. The acting is flawless but nothing of any real challenge either. There was no real actor that stood out with Emily Watson being the top billed actor of the film and newcomer Jeremy Irvine being the lead human protagonist. The acting roles are well-played but often end up as cardboard as your typical acting in an epic movie.
The lead role and the protagonist in the movie is actually Joey the Horse. The story may mainly be about Albert trying to get Joey back to Devon but it’s Joey’s adventure and trials of it all which is what the story is all about. He goes from being born to Albert’s best friend to a horse in battle for Britain to befriending another war horse named Topthorn to a horse on the German side to being a horse of a French farm family to being back with the German side to being found stuck in barbed wire to being reunited with Albert. I may have knocked the script a while back in my review but I have to say one of the best attributes of the script is that it was able to make Joey into a horse with feelings without coming across as cheesy. That scene where Joey says his last goodbye to the deceased Topthorn didn’t come across as cheesy or manipulative. Also the movie ends with some unexpected twists and turns. Just when you think Albert and Joey are finally reunited, it doesn’t guarantee Albert will be taking him back to Devon. Interesting note is that the scriptwriters worked with Michael Morpurgo, author of the novel, to get the right adaptation of the movie.
Although the script and the acting are not the best attributes of the movie, the cinematography, set design and the accompanying score are the best technical qualities. Spielberg picked out some of the best and most appropriate areas of England for filming this movie, including Devon for the countryside and town scenes, Hampshire for cavalry scenes and an airfield in Surrey for the battle scenes. Janusz Kaminski did an excellent job of cinematography. His cinematography duties for this movie were complex as he had to both capture the grittiness of war for the battle scenes and capture the glamor and beauty of the countryside for the various country scenes. Plus you can’t go wrong when you have John Williams to compose your movie’s score.
However the best overall attribute is its ability to capture battles of World War I. Steven Spielberg is already known for his movies that depict wars and it only seemed right that he should be the one to recreate World War I in this movie. Here, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s able to recreate everything from the horse battles to the ground artillery to the trenches of the World War I battles to the first tanks. He also shows the grittiness of war too with the laying of the dead horses in battle to the execution of boys not yet adults to the rats in the trenches to the explosion of mustard gas bombs. Grittiness of war is something Spielberg doesn’t avoid and he doesn’t avoid it here. It’s also interesting noting the horse statistics of World War I that Morpurgo researched to create the War Horse novel. It is believed that there were 10 million horse deaths during the whole war. Of the one million horses sent from the UK to battle, only slightly more than 60,000 returned alive. The rest were killed in battle or slaughtered in France for meat. So War Horse is quite a story of survival.
War Horse may not deserve to win Best Picture as its acting performances, direction and script lack the winning edge but it’s a very good movie on its own. It’s a good family drama for families with older children. I commend Steven Spielberg for making the adaptation of this children’s novel possible on the big screen.
Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Tree Of Life
The Tree Of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film isn’t the typical drama you’d come to expect. Instead it’s more introspective and delivers a message of a common theme of the human existence.
The movie’s story starts upon Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Mrs. O’Brien had always been taught everyone must choose between the path of grace or the path of nature. The son’s death would throw the family in turmoil. The movie then focuses on present-day Jack O’Brien, now an architect. When a tree is planted in front of his building, he reminisces about his life as a young boy during the 1950’s.
A pre-teen Jack is living with his family in suburban Waco, Texas and is now forced to choose the path for himself. His parents have equal bout opposite influences on him. His mother represents grace as she is gentle and nurturing but authoritative, presenting the world as a place of wonder. His father represents nature as he is loving but strict and authoritarian as he tries to make his boys tough for a world here perceives as corrupt and exploitative. He often questions giving up his passion of becoming a musician and instead became an engineer and hopes to achieve wealth through filing patents of his inventions.
Before Mr. O’Brien goes on a trip to market his inventions, a drowning death of a child at the town pool happens. Mr. O’Brien suddenly turns violent and unleashes an abusive rage on his boys and Mrs. O’Brien. While he’s away, Jack and the boys are raised exclusively by their mother and his feelings of rebelliousness start happening. Jack follows along with the other boys in his town and commits acts of vandalism and animal abuse, even theft of women’s underclothing from a neighbor’s house. It’s after that where Jack gets the first natural sense of his consequences and throws the stolen underwear in the river. Mr. O’Brien returns home having failed to sell his inventions. His plant closes and is given the option of staying with the company with an unpromising job or be terminated. He chooses the unpromising job which means the O’Brien family would have to move away from Waco. Upon leaving he asks Jack to forgive him for the harsh treatment of him.
What I just stated in the above synopsis was of the events that happened in the drama. That’s only half of it. The other half is what happens in the more sublime parts. The opening image of the movie is the mysterious flame that flickers in the darkness. We see it at the beginning of the film as it leads to the opening scene of Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Just as soon as an older Jack O’Brien reminisces of his childhood in the 50’s, the movie doesn’t shift back to Jack in the 50’s but of the very beginning of the universe. Galaxies are formed, planets are formed, volcanic activity and the existence of life begin on Earth, dinosaurs fight to survive and fight to conquer, an asteroid hits the Earth, and then the O’Briens marry and have Jack and his two brothers. This leads into the main drama of the story.
After Jack reconciles with his father the sublime returns as it fast forwards to an Earth five billion years later incinerated and shrunken by the sun and left completely devoid of any life. The movie returns to the present as Jack leaves work and encounters a vision of walking on rocks. As he walks through a lone wooden door frame, which is probably the door from the house in Waco which doesn’t exist, and is reunited with his family and all those who were in his life. Even those that died including his brother have been resurrected. The movie ends with the mysterious flame seen at the beginning continuing to flicker in the darkness.
For those who’ve seen the movie, there’s no question that the movie is very much thematic and gets you thinking. The biggest theme of the movie has to be the constant dilemma of the way of grace vs. the way of nature. It’s a constant choice everyone has to face in their life. It’s also made present in the movie that this dilemma has existed ever since there was life on Earth even before the human race. It’s a dilemma Jack is forced to confront as a child and witness his parents representing the two opposites. The way of grace is given additional support by the messages given by the priest. The way of nature is given additional support by all the rough, even destructive games the boys play. That theme and the various part of the film, both in terms of the plot and the sublime, focus on the theme of grace vs. nature being the universal pulse.
If there’s one weakness of the film that stands out, it’s that it tries too hard to be artistic and creative. I actually admire films that try to be original and take artistry to new levels. The only problem is all too often, many artistically inclined films look like they forget they are to be shown in front of an audience. When I critique movies, my attitude towards the more artsy films is: “Okay, I know you are trying to be artistic and creative but don’t forget you’ll be seen in front of an audience.” I also have a tough attitude towards commercial movies: “Okay, I know you want to make big money but give the audience their money’s worth.” Overall I feel a film doesn’t have to be entertainment but it should do something with the audience, like connect with them or get them thinking.
Enough about my critiquing guidelines. The problem with the Tree Of Life is that firstly it takes a subject matter that is common. It also tries to connect the dealings of loss and lost innocence with the existence of earth and the universe itself and even the spiritual world. Yes, it makes for some creative film crafting and original themes but it doesn’t succeed in grabbing the crowd or make them involved in the story line. Often the story tries too hard to let its sublime side get inside the audience that the story comes across as humorless and even unwatchable or confusing at times. That has to be the biggest glitch and that’s why I feel it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. Terrence Malick does his best to write and direct a watchable movie about lost innocence and reconciling with the past that tries to get inside the audience, but it misses in a lot of ways.
The best acting performance overall had to come from then-newcomer Jessica Chastain. It was her performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the struggling housewife, that was the most complex as she plays a character who struggles to keep the calm of the family despite the many fierce adversaries that come their way. Even though Chastain earned an Oscar nomination in The Help, I felt her supporting performance here was much scronger and deeper. Brad Pitt also did well but it was not his best acting performance. Actually his performance was more of a supporting performance as was that of Sean Penn. The leading performance of the movie actually comes from young Hunter McCracken. As young Jack O’Brien, he embodies the loss of innocence unraveling through its joy, anger and its heartbreak. Through young Jack, we see the embodiment of what being a young boy is all about in both a boy’s toughness and tenderness. Young Jack sees all that is happening and what would lead to the decline in relationship with his father that would pave the way for the reconciliation. The film’s best qualities are the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.
The Tree of Life tackles familiar themes of coming of age, loss of innocence and reconciling with the past. The problem with it is it tries too hard to connect it with the existence of the universe, all life on earth, the end times and even the spiritual world. Although it didn’t really appeal to me, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s a love-it-or-hate-it film.
Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Artist
Miss silent movies? Some of you are too young to know what silent movies are, never mind appreciate them. Anyways The Artist is a throwback to the days of the silent movie and it does a top notch job of it.
It’s 1927 and the era of silent films. Georges Valentin is the king of the big screen. The premiere of his latest release A Russian Affair is applauded greatly. He is quite the charmer with his debonair looks and his mall dog Jack by his side. Zimmer, his boss at the Kinograph Studios, loves him. Clifton, his valet, considers him his best friend. Outside he’s signing autographs when a young wannabe named Peppy Miller accidentally falls into him after dropping her purse. The incident is an event for photographers and even leads her to the cover of Variety magazine with the title ‘Who’s That Girl?”
Peppy and Georges meet again as she auditions as a dancer for his latest movie. He insists on giving her a role and even gives her a fake beauty mark for a competitive edge in Hollywood. It works as her fame is soon rising. Meanwhile Georges has a nightmare one night where he’s in a world of sound and he’s the only one who can’t talk.
It’s 1929 and Zimmer announces that Kinograph will now be doing movies with sound, or ‘talkies’ from now on. Valentin is unhappy feeling talkies are a passing fad. He stubbornly makes and directs his own silent film with his own finances. Unfortunately it opens on the same day as Peppy’s latest talkie release. Before the release, she’s being interviewed in a restaurant where she proudly talks of herself as ‘fresh meat’ and ‘out with the old, in with the new’ until she comes face to face with Valentin. Peppy’s movie is a hit while Georges’ silent movie is a flop. Georges’ wife kicks him out of the house and he takes up an apartment with Clifton. Meanwhile Peppy is a major Hollywood star. Despite her stardom, she never loses her thoughts and concerns for Georges. She even attends the premiere of his silent film.
Things turn for the worse for Georges especially after the stock market crash where it gets to the point he auctions everything off and fires Clifton who he hasn’t paid for a year. One day in a drunken rage, he burns all the copies of his movies save one. He’s trapped in the fire and can’t get out until Jack the Dog is able to attract a policeman’s attention. He’s rescued and taken to a hospital where Peppy soon takes him to her house to recuperate.
Georges awakes not only to find himself in Peppy’s house but to learn Clifton now works for her. Peppy then pleads to Zimmer to get Valentin to star in her next film, even going as far as threatening to quit Kinograph if he doesn’t agree. Meanwhile Georges discovers all his auctioned-off items at Peppy’s house and then returns to his burned-out apartment. Peppy arrives at George’s apartment just as he’s about to commit suicide. It’s then when they reconcile and she persuades Georges let go of whatever pride is eating him and star in her next film. I won’t tell you how it ends exactly but it does end happily and on a surprise note.
It’s unique that it shows the swing from the silent world to the sound world as a personal trial of Georges Valentin. The world of silence made him a star, made him beloved and helped define him. When talkies came into play, silent movies went out of fashion and Valentin faded with them. Even despite his insistence of them being an art form, silent movies were not liked anymore. Valentin’s devotion to silence and his anger to his lost fame almost becomes like a source of pride for him as he even goes as far as neglecting the help given from those who act like ‘guardian angels’ to him: Jack, Clifton and Peppy. It’s only in the world of sound, a world Georges feared, that he’s able to recover.
Another thing this movie reminds us is that this world of disposable stars in Hollywood is nothing new. The movie does show a truth that a lot of stars popular during the era of silent films would lose their stardom during the start of talkies to a new era of stars. Does John Gilbert come to mind? And that line from Zimmer that: “The public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.” gives us a reminder of what Hollywood is about and always was about. Those who complain that Hollywood is not about the art of filmmaking and ‘all about the money’ are reminded in this film that it always was that way. Even while it has churned out some of the most classic and most beloved movies of all-time, it was still a profits-first system even during its Golden Age. The battle between ‘film as art’ and ‘film as entertainment’ still continues now.
Overall this was an excellent movie that is the brainchild of French director Michel Hazanavicius. He directs, writes and even edits the film. He also includes Jean DuJardin and Berenice Bejo who have worked with him in two of his past productions. Their performances on their own stand out as two of this year’s finest. Often one thinks that a lot of acting involves annunciation of words but a lot of acting is also done in silence too. In fact there’s even one completely mute performance–Holly Hunter in The Piano–that even won an Oscar. And we see the quality of the silent performances in this movie. Supporting performances from James Cromwell and John Goodman also add to the movie and stand well on their own. Also we have the dog Uggie as Jack the Dog who’s as much of a charmer as he is a scene stealer. The accompanying score from Ludovic Bource is also another top quality of the movie that adds to its highlights. The set design and costuming also work perfectly to set the time period. You’d hardly know this was made in 2011. Overall this is a well-organized film that’s as entertaining as it is artistically merited.
The Artist is a very charming throwback to the silent movie age. It retains the charm of silent movies and the era while maintaining an intriguing story and top notch acting. The big question is will its silence be golden on Oscar night? It’s heavily favored. We’ll just wait and see.
2011 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: Hugo
Hugo is a delightful movie based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It’s a unique story about how a chance stealing by a young boy changed everything forever.
It all starts in a train station in Paris in 1930. Hugo Cabret has a life no child would want. He lives in the train station completely orphaned and with nothing but a bed and an automaton from his late father whom he hopes to repair. He ended up there after his widowed father was killed in a fire and taken by his alcoholic uncle who would look after the station clock. After his uncle died, Hugo steals food and runs the clock himself from revealing the death of his uncle. If the truth is found out, he will be sent to an orphanage.
One steal by Hugo of a toy part from the station’s toy store owner would change everything. Hugo was able to escape the station policeman thanks to his leg brace being caught in a train. Hugo however loses a book of animated drawings to the toy store owner. For Hugo to get it back, the toy store owner punishes Hugo by making fix his broken toys. The toy store owner is surprised to see that Hugo is very skilled at fixing toys thanks to his father’s teachings.
Soon Hugo catches the attention of Isabelle, the girl who frequently visits the train station. She is an orphan too who is being looked after by the toy store owner, whom she refers to as Papa Jacques. He notices the key she wears: it is heart-shaped. His automaton has a heart-shaped lock. Another link to the mystery. The two spend time together. She sees the clock area Hugo lives and the view of Paris. The two sneak into a movie theatre and see a movie, something Papa Jacques forbids her to see. Later Hugo uses Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the automaton. The automaton draws a picture of the moon with a spaceship in his eye and the name Jacques Melies.
The two try and search further to see if Papa Jacques really is Jacques Melies. Upon a return visit to the house, they try to uncover the top drawer in his bedroom. Out comes a wide variety of imaginative artist images. Nevertheless Jacques is distraught to learn the children have learned of his secret. It’s only until the children bring a young film student to Jacques that Jacques finally reveals that he really is Jacques Melies, director extraordinaire of the early 20th Century. He explains to all why he became a recluse, because of his films failing as the First World War was taking place. He even burned most of the master copies of his films in a fit of rage during his downtime. It is through Hugo and the film student that he’s able to receive an acclaim from a new generation of film enthusiasts. It is also where Hugo finally finds a family.
The movie is more than just a salute to Jacques Melies and his contribution to film in general. This movie is also a salute to moviemaking and movie watching. Movies achieved their greatness by making people’s fantasies come to life. They took them to worlds never before imagined. They took them to adventures and thrills they wouldn’t experience in their own lives. And to think it all started when a film of a train approaching the station made the audience duck for their lives. Nowadays movies face a lot of rivalry from many entertainment sources. Its biggest rival is now video games which allow the viewer to live the fantasy via an avatar, but movies still capture people’s attention and take them to worlds they never dreamed of.
Even though the movie is very much a salute to movies, it’s also a reminder that even then, great directors like Melies faced downtimes too. Jacques created hundreds of movies in his lifetime but as soon as most of the French public lost their liking for movies his fortune disappeared, his studio became useless, burned his films in anger and lived in obscurity for years. Nowadays we hear countless stories of people, especially greats, who had their moment but fade fast and die in obscurity without a penny. It happens to greats as often as it happens to ‘one-hit wonders’. Showbiz is cruel. Fortunately there does come a time long after their downfall when their achievements are recognized once again. It may be while they’re still alive or it may be post mortem but their greatness does become remembered and honored again.
Overall the movie was top-notch quality. That’s something you rarely see in most live-action family movies. There was no one acting performance that stood out or was spectacular but the performances of all worked excellently with the movie. Ben Kingsley was very good as Jacques. Sacha Baron Cohen who’s known for his comedic characters was great as the comic relief of the movie. The child actors of Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz did an excellent job in their lead roles. The story was very well-adapted and well-edited as it’s able to keep the audience excited, thrilled and interested from start to finish. Martin Scorsese did another excellent directing job. He’s tackled a lot of genres of film excellently and now he achieves another triumph in directing family movies. The score by Howard Shore fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also amongst the best of the year. The movie being shown in 3D worked. This was one of the rare times in which the 3D viewing appeared to be less in vain or for extra money and more for the delight of the crowd. It looked like Scorsese knew that if he was to have a movie in 3D, he should have the effects that make it work.
One thing that’s been unique in the film world of recent years is that a lot of well-renowned directors have started to make family movies. Seven years ago, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) released Millions: a story about a boy who encounters a bag of stolen money and consults patron saints for advice. Many years ago, Roman Polanski did his version of Oliver Twist to make a movie for his children who were twelve and under at the time. Two years ago, Spike Jonze directed the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. Even Quentin Tarantino says he’s interested in doing a family film if the right idea comes around.
Now we have Martin Scorsese with a family movie out. It may come as a surprise since he has been renowned for his filmmaking of some of the grittiest legendary dramas. Nevertheless if Martin was to make a family movie, Hugo would be the perfect fit. The celebration of film in Hugo is something Martin would do well because Martin is known to have a love for film itself. Martin even did a documentary series for the BBC years ago where he narrated the history of film and its genres. In Hugo we see Martin’s love for film as much as we see the reasons why movies have become so beloved. Even Roger Ebert described the move as “in some ways, a mirror of his own life.” And the love of film started with Jacques Melies. Martin Scorsese does more than just make a family movie. He also makes a masterpiece that even adults can appreciate, especially those who love film. The film has been nominated for Best Picture and ten other categories at this year’s Oscars. It is the first live-action family movie since Babe to be nominated for Best Picture.
Hugo is a pleasant film not just in terms of family movies but all films. Very rarely is a family movie able to be referred to as a masterpiece. Very rarely does a family movie deserve to be referred to as a masterpiece. Hugo is that rare.
NOTE: Usually around this time, I start my reviews of the Best Picture nominees. I have five more reviews coming. Best Picture nominees already reviewed are: Midnight In Paris, The Help and Moneyball.
Movie Review: Moneyball
We are all told at one point in our lives that we can no longer play the children’s game. We just don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some get told at 18, some get told at 40, but we’re all told.
I don’t know about you but I don’t understand the whole deal about sports and the dollar. One thing I do know is that the mix of sports and money has sure changed professional sports in the last 40 years. It’s the reason why a franchise stays in a city or moves. It’s the reason why stadiums and arenas are now named after corporations. It secures broadcasting rights and merchandising marketing rights. It’s led to numerous league strikes; two of which either prevented a season from happening or ended a season prematurely. Most of all, it has the biggest bearing on how far up the league a team excels. Major League Baseball player-turned manager Billy Beane was the subject of the book Moneyball on his experience as a manager and introducing the use of sabermetrics in managing the Oakland Athletics team of 2002. It’s been made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman and it’s worth seeing.
The movie begins just after the Oakland Athletics were eliminated from World Series play in the 2001 American League Division Series by the New York Yankees; a team with three times the money as the A’s. After losing its three star players to teams with bigger money, general manager Billy Beane tries to assemble a winning team with Oakland’s limited budget but is irritated with his scouts’ decision making. Billy does have a personal issue with baseball scouts. When he was 18, he was scouted out as a phenomenal talent and was signed up with MLB, foregoing a promising college education. His career as an MLB player didn’t pan out and his promise was never realized. After retiring from baseball having played his last game with the A’s in 1989–ironically the last year the A’s won the World Series–Beane became GM of the team years later.
Upon visiting the Cleveland Indians, he meets Peter Brand, an economics grad from Yale with radical ideas in scouting baseball players but is very inexperienced with the business of Major League Baseball. Billy is so impressed with Pete’s thinking and choosing–including how Pete would draft Billy– he hires Pete as assistant GM. Pete’s assessment of players via sabermetrics, statistical analysis of players, and his ability of noticing qualities in players most MLB scouts overlook impresses Beane and helps him make some good player choices. However the scouts at the A’s and manager Art Howe are unimpressed with their use of sabermetrics and believe it’s effectiveness is trumpted by team play on the field. Despite it all, Beane has hope in Pete’s influence on his choices.
The beginning of the 2002 season does not look well. Oakland finds itself in the lower rankings at the early part of the season. Mostly it’s because Howe’s roster decisions conflict with that of Beane and Brand. Even as the A’s find themselves in last place in their Division, Brand still believes his prediction that the A’s will make a huge turnaround in July. This comes as a problem as Howe is still stubborn in his choices. This leads Beane to make tough trading choices for his more struggling players while Howe favors. Beane even gets Brand to tell a player he’s traded.
Now with the new set-up happening in Beane’s favor, we do see a turnaround. The A’s start winning, winning and winning. After winning their 19th straight game, they’re poised to break an MLB record for longest winning streak. One thing Beane notices is that whenever he’s at an A’s game, it’s bad luck for the team. This is the first game of the streak he attends. They have an 11-0 lead when suddenly things go wrong. Error after error happen and the game goes into extra innings. Nevertheless the miracle happens and the streak record is there’s. But it doesn’t stop there. The A’s find themselves back into the running for the World Series playing the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS. They hope it’s not a repeat of what happened to them against the Yankees the year earlier. This also appears critical since this could be whether Beane is kept on as the A’s GM. The game doesn’t go as expected and the aftermath doesn’t either as Beane rejects an offer from the Red Sox to stay with the A’s. I’ll wait for you all to see the movie to find out how much the BoSox offered Beane.
Without a doubt the biggest theme in the movie is money and how it’s changed the sport forever. It plays a role in how it makes certain teams excel further than others. It plays a role in how new players are selected and often enough it’s about their marketability instead of skill. When I saw that scene at the beginning when Oakland’s scouts are choosing players based on image, I asked: “Since when did playing sports become showbiz?” It plays a role in how players are hired, traded and terminated. It even tempts young players, like Billy himself back in 1979, into making an all-or-nothing decision where only time decides if it’s the right choice or not. Sometimes it pans out and sometimes, like in Billy’s case, it’s the deal with the devil. It even causes a power struggle between the managers and the coaches. Often the biggest team issues are more off the field than on the field.
As much as the mix of sports and money is the predominant theme of the movie, it’s also trying to introduce something new into Major League Baseball. Now Major League Baseball has to be the sports league most reluctant to change. While every other baseball league uses aluminum bats, MLB is still strictly wood-only. Drug testing was only introduced in recent years. Even decades ago, video relays and the lights at Wrigley Field caused huge debate. Now for Billy and Pete to introduce sabermetrics via computer into use on their team, even that comes into question with the men with traditional mindsets. I’m sure sabermetrics has attempted to make its way in before even without computers but it never really left much of an impact. Even after it helps the A’s break the winning streak record, it’s still debated after the A’s were eliminated from World Series play. Eventually it does become accepted by some, but not in a way expected.
Another theme that gets overlooked in this movie is about personal relations in such a cutthroat business. Billy has to be a cutthroat fiery worker if he’s to be a manager of a Major League Baseball team. Nevertheless in this fierce business, he’s able to befriend Pete. Interesting since Billy is fierce and cutthroat while Pete is shy and reserved. The movie is also about how Billy comes off as a father to his daughter. You can tell how much of a bond that means to him.
The best quality of the movie is how it’s able to make a story that’s very smart very winning on screen. It’s able to take a very intelligent and very popular topic and create a story about it that’s able to entertain audiences and keep them in suspense. It’s able to have an ending that’s different from your typical Hollywood ending and still come off well. Scriptwriters Steve Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin did an excellent adaptation to make a story thrilling with unexpected turns. Bennett Miller also did an excellent job of direction. Mychael Danna delivered and excellent accompaying score. However the movie’s best quality is its acting. Brad Pitt did a very good job in paying a role that wasn’t your typical Brad Pitt role. Jonah Hill was also excellent in a role that was different from the ‘big goofball’ roles he’s been known for. Philip Seymour Hoffman again becomes the character in his latest role and again pulls it off excellently. It’s this type of work that has to make Moneyball the best baseball movie in years.
Moneyball is definitely this fall out-of-leftfield surprise winner. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, it will open your eyes about sports and actually get you hoping for the A’s. Even if you don’t like baseball, or movies about it, you’ll find something to like about it.
Move Review: The Help
I know what you’re going to say before I talk about The Help. There have already been a lot of movies about racism and segregation. Yes there have been. Nevertheless The Help is a well-made story about showing a black woman’s point of view on racism from a state most synonymous with segregation: Mississippi.
The movie revolves around three women in particular. The first is Abilene; an African American maid whose latest maid work comes right after the death of her son. The second is Milly; another African American maid who was recently fired from Hilly Hollbrook–Jackson’s white female ringleader–for using a toilet meant only for Hilly’s white family and is only rehired by a white ‘misfit’. The third is Skeeter; a white journalism grad from Ole Miss who is unmarried and wants to make a career for herself in writing but lacks a story.
The setting is Jackson, Mississippi. Segregation is alive and well but is facing abolishment. The black maids have had enough while the white upper class females want to see it kept. Hilly herself wants to enact a passage of a law to make it standard for separate bathrooms for white and colored people. Skeeter is tired of writing a housekeeping column and wants an actual story. She comes across it just after her former maid Constantine, who she always looked up to as a child, is mysteriously gone, Hilly speaks her pro-segregation mind at her ‘clique meetings’ and she encounters Aibilene and Minny. They have quite the story to tell and she learns a lot from what they have to say and what they’ve experienced. Even Milly’s story of her revenge on Hilly with ‘the pie’ makes for some colorful. Nevertheless a book publishing company wants to have the points of view from twelve maids, not two. It’s a struggle for Skeeter as she becomes more of a misfit in Hilly’s clique for being unmarried and being opposed to segregation and because of state law: Mississippi law can imprison writers and interviewees for cross-race writing. It isn’t until the shooting death of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers that Skeeter finally gets her twelve to interview, however giving them pseudonyms to protect their identity. The result is the novel finally being made and boy does it stir up a lot of debate and reactions.
One thing about the ending is that a lot is accomplished and many good things come out of it. Despite positive changes, some bad things still remain and the movie doesn’t end on a completely positive note. The ending takes a turn for a different more negative ending. Nevertheless it did so on the right note. It reminds us that even after segregation was ended for real in the Southern States, some negative aspects of racism still remained and some changes didn’t go as far as it should have.
There have been movies about racism in the past and conquering racism but hardly has there ever been such where it’s on the basis of the black maids for white families. It touches on a common notion. The white children were raised and cared for by the African American maids and many of the children would look up to them as a mother figure. As most of those white children grew up as adults, they would then go on to the hiring and firing of them. They would adopt the cruelness to the maids their own parents had. The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi around the time of the civil rights movements and around the time Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, is where segregation is possibly the most alive and well. The story features Skeeter, an aspiring writer who’s looking for a story and sees one. Remembering how Constantine was like a mother to her and wondering whatever happened to her, she hasn’t developed the hardness of heart her girlfriends had developed over the years. It is with her willingness to see the maids’ side and write about it that made her want to set the record straight. That helps to create the intrigue of the story.
One of the interesting themes in the movie is oddly enough its use of toilets. Many people including myself still look at toilets as something taboo but in recent decades, many people and many creative artists have defied this taboo and become more public about it and even incorporated it into art. In this film, it plays a significant role because as we remember, toilets were a part of the days segregation: separate ones for whites and colored. The Help presents toilets in many different references. It is Aibilene’s toilet teaching where she shows she’s a better mother to Mae Mobley Leefolt than Mrs. Leefolt is. It is where Minny uses a toilet for white people only in Hilly’s house that gets her fired. It’s where Hilly strongly believes in segregated bathrooms to the point to where she’s willing to take her plea to the surgeon general. It’s also the prank Skeeter uses to pull on Hilly for her lobbying. As taboo as it is, there’s no denying the significance of toilets in the movie.
One thing about the movie The Help is that it’s based on a novel that is complete fiction. That fact might make some question the triumphant moments in the movie. Question it all you want. One thing you can’t deny is that despite it being fiction, there are a lot of hard truths experienced by the African Americans in Mississippi that are portrayed very well and will make you think. Seeing how Hilly treats her maids meanly to the point of firing them instantly and even getting them arrested makes you think how many others were as mean as Hilly. That scene where Minny is with her eldest daughter in a maid’s uniform about to board the bus can also disturb you. Imagine a future that limited. Also that scene where Charlotte told how and why she fired Constantine. How many times do you think that has happened in the past? So the novel may not be based on a true story but possibly based on a thousand true stories.
The directing from Tate Taylor was top notch. He did an excellent job of directing the movie and writing the storyline well. The acting however is what made the movie most. The standout without a doubt was Viola Davis. Her performance of Aibilene was the glue of the movie and had the most to tell. Her acting was full of believability from start to finish. Octavia Spencer was the top scene-stealer as Minny. She was able to make for an excellent turn with adding elements of humor to her role. Emma Stone delivered possibly the best performance of her career. Already people are saying she’s the next big thing. Her performance of Skeeter demonstrates she can also make a good actress of herself. Also a standout is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her character acting was so excellent, she will easily make you hate Hilly.
Overall, The Help is a very excellent movie revealing a harsh reality of 60’s Southern racism. Some say it’s not as harsh of a depiction as it should be. Nevertheless we shouldn’t forget that even in racism situations that aren’t as harsh, the hurt can still be felt and the picture can have an ugliness of its own.
Movie Review: Midnight In Paris
Midnight In Paris turned out to be one of the most unlikely sleeper hits of the summer. Little was expected of it: Owen Wilson being the biggest name, a romance featuring characters older than the 20’s, a Paris setting and a trip back to the past. Somehow it was able to capture people’s imaginations and make moviegoers want to see it.
The story is about Gil: a Hollywood screenwriter who’s successful but easily distracted. He’s engaged to Inez, a daughter of wealthy conservative parents. While the four are vacationing in Paris, Gil is struggling to finish his first novel about a man working in a nostalgia shop; a novel for which he plans to give up his scriptwriting career and move to Paris for inspiration. This does not sit very well with Inez’s parents as they don’t favor the arts or Paris nor does it sit well with Inez herself as she intends to live in Malibu. Meanwhile Inez’s friend Paul who appears to know a lot of the artistic greats makes things more complicated as Gil finds him insufferable and even phony.
After a wine tasking one night, Gil is drunk and alone outside the hotel. At midnight, Gil comes across a coach leading a group to a secret place. Gil joins the group and the people appear to be celebrating 1920’s couture. Later we see that the coach leads to a place where the 1920’s come alive with the Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda. He even meets Gertrude Stein and offers her to look over his novel. One catch we learn as he returns to the hotel, he’s back in the present.
Gil goes to return the next night novel in hand and offers to bring Inez with him but she’s annoyed with what he says and returns to the hotel. The coach returns at midnight and this time Ernest Hemingway is inside. He gives Gertrude his novel and she introduces him to Picasso. Gil encounters Picasso’s mistress Adrianna whom he has become attracted to. The following day Paul shows Gil and Inez Picasso’s painting of Adrianna at a museum and tells his story about it. Gil contradicts with the truth he just saw the other night, only to annoy both Paul and Inez.
Gil visits the past more often for inspiration for his novel which annoys Inez. Her father even hires a private investigator on him, only to be lead to the Versailles during the era of Louis XIV and never to be found again. Gil spends more time with Adrianna, who leaves Picasso for Hemingway. This confuses Gil as he feels he’s falling in love with her. Meanwhile he meets with surrealists like Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel who see nothing strange about him coming from the future. Gil goes furniture shopping with Inez but comes across and an antiques dealer who’s selling Adrianna’s diary. He also learns from a conversation with the antiques dealer herself that she also has the same fondness for the 20’s Gil has. Later a guide from the Rodin Museum translates Adrianna’s diary and he learns she’s in love with him. Gil returns to the past and confesses his love to Adrianna. A coach leading them to the days of the Belle Epoque drives up and Adrianna opts to go in, talking of how she longs of the days of the Belle Epoque and how the 1920’s are so imaginative. It there that Gil learns about the illusionate lure of nostalgia and learns to accept the present for what it is. In the end, the romantic triangles between all involved take a surprising turn and Gil makes some surprising decisions.
I don’t think the movie is stressing too many points but rather telling an amusing love story where artistic inspiration and one’s passion are the top themes. It does pay an admiration for the writers and thinkers in the past but it reminds us to admire their influences rather than dwell back to their time.
Another theme that’s common in Woody Allen’s movies is about artists and their inspirations. It shows how a top Hollywood writer feels that burning desire to create a novel that no Hollywood millions can take the place of. Allen puts in many legendary artists, writers and filmmakers—including some from an American expatriate group in Paris at that time–who received their inspiration in Paris to make his point. It also reflects on Allen’s feelings of conservatism being stuffy, especially with the Tea Partiers. Interesting how Gil is an artist mesmerized by legends of the past while Inez’ father admires a political party known for its past thinking.
In terms of the movie’s acting, this is the best acting I’ve seen from Owen Wilson. He seems in these past few years to be leaving his past Slacker Pack schtick behind and is now doing more sensible roles. This is an excellent move for Wilson. Here he plays a man who’s smart but easily distracted. Very good job. The supporting roles were also excellent, especially the character acting. Most of the characters of people from the past are so well-acted, you easily forget who the actor is. It took me a while to recognize Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Marion Cotillard as Adrianna and Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald. The most recognizable was Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. Nevertheless her acting was still top quality.
The best effort has to come from the directing and writing from Woody Allen. I will admit that Woody Allen’s humor and comedies are not as fresh as it was during the 70’s and Midnight isn’t that different. If there’s one thing I like, it’s that Woody Allen is able to keep quality and good effort in comedy. While most comedic writers rely on cheap shots, one-liners and slapstick to make hit comedies, Allen keeps the intelligence in his storylines and presents comedies with amusing situations, full characters and an ending that differs from your typical Hollywood endings. Here we have characters that make you laugh and think at the same time. Here we have a return back to the past that fits the story well. Here we have a romantic comedy that doesn’t end the way your typical Hollywood romantic comedy ends. in terms of box office, Midnight is Woody’s highest-grossing film in North America ever. Impressive.
Midnight In Paris is not a comedy for everyone. I don’t think a trip into the past in Paris at the stroke of midnight will draw everyone. Nevertheless it is a refreshing break from your typical predictable, formulaic Hollywood fare and will impress whoever is willing to view it.