Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is a loving homage to an earlier era of moving pictures, a time before the talkies when movies were accompanied by an organist in a movie palace. Its protagonist is named Valentin, an evocation of Rudolph Valentino. Peppy Miller is the A Star Is Born engenue, whose career eclipses his riches to rags downfall as movies transition to sound. The allusions to earlier films would make for an entertaining round of trivia. The Artist is beautifully filmed in black and white (naturally), and the actors are excellent. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, while not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, delightfully cut the carpet. Even the Jack Russell Uggie who plays Valentin's little dog has us remembering that other screen-stealing terrier Asta, played by the Wire-Haired Fox Skippy in the Thin Man movies. Ultimately, for all its sleek competence and admirable performances, it is a sweet trifle to delight the senses, yet its abundant generosity of spirit and sheer love for the movies shine through.
In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, set in Hawaii, the central character, played by George Clooney, is a lawyer descended from a line of landed Hawaiian royalty. His wife lies in a hospital bed in a vegetative state caused by a boating accident. He refers to himself as the "back-up parent," and his wits are being tested by his two daughters acting out their grief. When the elder daughter reveals to the clueless Matt that her mother was having an affair, Matt has nowhere to direct his anger, confusion and sense of betrayal. As the three try to cope, the larger extended family is hoping to sell the pristine land of their forebears to a real estate developer. The two stories run in parallel and ultimately intersect, as Matt takes the measure of his life and those closest to him and gradually comes to terms with his not so simple twist of fate. An excellent cast in a well-executed film, but I would not bestow an Oscar on it.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was better than I expected it would be, in part because its adult co-stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock pretty much stay in the background. The film, based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and directed by Stephen Daldry, belongs to Thomas Horn as 11-year-old Oskar Schell. His father was one of the casualties of the 9/11 Twin Towers bombings. Scorsese's Hugo is looking for a key to bring his father's automaton back to life. Oskar has a key to which he is looking for a lock. Both are seeking an answer to a father's loss. Because the envelope in which Oskar finds the key carries the work "black," Oskar systematically seeks out everyone named Black in the five boroughs. His search will allow his life to intersect with many others, which is ultimately the point of the film. It is about the grace of shared humanity, and it could stand on that alone without the backdrop of 9/11, which can at times -- especially the falling victim leitmotif -- seem gratuitous. The ending manages a little too neatly to tuck in the edges orderly. Still Horn's performance and a mute Max von Sydow as The Renter keep the movie from becoming cloying or maudlin. It is a tribute to the boy that he holds his own with the 82-year-old veteran.
Tate Taylor's The Help, which I commented on earlier as a pat on the back to white people for giving black people their voice, is a competent, if intensely annoying, film. The writing subverts itself by allowing the story's running joke (which I will spare you here) to undermine any serious issues the film purports to address. Viola Davis's performance is inargueably praise-worthy. In fact, without her gravitas, the The Help would entirely devolve into sheer stereotype. That a film like this could be nominated for Best Picture speaks to the shallowness with which Americans approach history and difficult questions about the moral lapses in its past and present. I'll bet you that when it comes out on DVD, the jewel box cover will hawk the film as "Heart warming!!" I try to stear clear of "Heart warming!!"
Repeat review from "Hollywood III," which also contains Manohla Dargis, historical information on Georges Méliès:
Based on Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a love letter to the movies. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a lonely orphan who lives as a squatter in the clock tower of a Parisian train station where his uncle, before abadoning him, worked as the official timekeeper. Hugo carries on his uncle's tasks tending to the gears and pulleys. The central focus of his passion, however, is a lifesize automaton. It is all he has left of his clockmaker father, and he purloins toys from a gruff toy merchant in the train station (magisterially played by Sir Ben Kingsley) to cannibalize parts he needs to bring the automaton back to life. When the toy merchant catches Hugo pinching his wares, he requires the boy to work for him to repay the trespass. Hugo's life becomes entwined with the toy merchant and his goddaughter Isabelle, who is roughly Hugo's age. Along the way Hugo finds the heartshaped key that might breathe life back into the automaton. Spoiler Alert: Eventually Hugo will discover that the bitter toy maker Georges is Georges Méliès! Scorsese employs 3D technology, but uses it with a judicious hand.This is a magical, beautiful, lyrical, melancholy film that never sinks into mawkishness or sentimentality. Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two.
Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's, what, 50th movie? It is standard Woody fare, complete with neurotic, misunderstood writer, this time transported to Paris. The trick here is that each night at the toll of midnight Gil is transported to ex-pat Paris and the world of Cole Porter, Scott and Zelda, Getrude and Alice, Hemingway, Picasso, Degas and Gauguin, et al. By day, Gil's world is filled with his affluent, narcissistic (How many times have I used that word throughout these little reviews? Is a pattern emerging here?) fiance, her parents, and her pedantic know-it-all friend. It's fun -- especially Hemingway -- and it's very, very pretty, but if I may be allowed to repeat an earlier analogy, it is a trifle.
Repeat review from "Biopics:" Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane's transformation of the Oakland A's by retiring romantic notions of recruitment and replacing them with sabermetric principles. [Yes, I had to look that up.] Bennett Miller's film is servicable; Brad Pitt's performance is quite good. Hollywood has established a biopic formula that gets in the way of authenticity for me. European films portraying actual people usually feel more genuine.
I have always found it interesting that when I ask a class about the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, who ate the fruit of what, they inevitably answer that they ate the fruit of the Tree of Life. This is wrong, of course; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The premise of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life seems as if it might be an exploration of this misperception. The Tree of Life is a lush film in the sense of lavish, fertile, sumptuous, magnificent. It is also quiet to the point of near muteness, introspective, spare. On the one hand it is the story of a solitary individual, a boy coming of age in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. This is the era of my childhood, too, and it is uncannily accurate. The boy is one among a family of four -- a father, a mother, a brother, and, haunting the family, the ghost of a younger brother who died years before. People claimed to be baffled by the film, but it makes itself achingly clear. The cosmic sequences people so hated are the necessary counterpoint to the finite lives of this nuclear family in this particular time and place. This boy lives within this family in this town in middle America in this time, and all the while an infinite universe courses on. There is the microcosm of this family within the macrocosm. The script is bare. It whispers. The boy's father is authoritarian, the mother overshadowed. The boy senses his father's undercurrent of resentment. He had wanted to be a mucisian but settled for making a living as an engineer. (Alexandre Desplat wrote the original score that alternates seemlessly with works by Bach, Mozart, Couperin, Brahms, Mahler, Respighi, Holst, Smetana, Arsenije Jovanovic among others. Berlioz's magnificent Requiem accompanies the film's climax.) The father loves his son, despite being overbearing. The boy loves his father but is wary of his moods. In fact, the movie is palpable with love. It permeates every frame, as does a sense of loss and finitude in the inexorable march of time immemorial. If the Academy has any sense of aesthetic and ethical decency, The Tree of Life will receive the Oscar.
Repeat review from "Hollywood III:" Then there was War Horse with John Willliams's score of such emotional manipulation (of which Spielburg is so enamored) that you'd be crying buckets even if you weren't watching a film in which good actors are being directed in such a way as to make a Hallmark Hall of Fame tear jerker look like hard boiled storytelling. The horse is about the only player in the film whom Spielberg is unable to turn into a caricature. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI.