2012 – Django Unchained











Django Unchained – 2012

I liked this movie a lot!  It was just really fun to watch.  But one of the first questions I have to answer honestly about Django Unchained is, what was it about the film that I liked?  What do all of Quinten Tarantino’s films have in common?  Excessive violence.  When we go to see one of the famous director’s films, we know what we are in for.  We expect it, and we aren’t really satisfied if we don’t get it.  We love his over-the-top style, the heavily stylized blood and gore, and the almost comical, cartoonish violence.

And this film certainly delivered.  But in my experience, Tarantino’s style encompasses two kinds of violence.  There is the gratuitous violence, and the serious violence.  The movie gave us both kinds.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War west and the Antebellum south, and that being said, it is important to note that the film is meant for entertainment, not historical accuracy.

The trick is that the serious violence, the violence that dealt with slavery and the cruelties perpetrated against black slaves by their white oppressors, was accurate enough.  At one point a white slave owner allows a runaway slave to be torn apart by rabid dogs.  Then later, when Django retaliates and goes on a killing spree at that slave owner’s plantation, the gratuitous, and sometimes comical violence came into play.  And yes, I loved it all.

The story begins with the meeting of two men.  Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave who is being led through the wilderness.  He has been separated from his wife, beaten, and whipped.  Dr. King Schultz, played by Christopher Waltz, is a German bounty hunter who dislikes slavery but loves money.  He knows that Django would be able to recognize his current target, and so goes out of his way to free Django by killing his slavers.

The two men become instant friends.  Schultz teaches Django the bounty hunting trade, and most importantly, teaches him to shoot.  The two friends become partners and make a lot of money killing and catching criminals.  But eventually, they agree to track town Django’s wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington.  She is owned by the sadistic southern gentleman, Calvin J. Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Candie is into Mandingo fighting, or the practice of entering slaves into death matches against each other.

Our heroes concoct a plan in which they will approach Candie, offering him twelve thousand dollars for one of his best Mandingo fighters, but with the intention of also purchasing Django’s wife.    The almost succeed but for two things.  The first is Candie’s loyal head house slave, Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who figures out the plan and tips Candie off.  The second is Dr. Schultz’s moral center which drives him to murder Candie rather than shake his hand.  You see, after Django and Schiltz’s plot is revealed, Candie chastises them but agrees to simply sell Broomhilda for the twelve thousand dollars.  Everything would have been fine if Schultz would have only shaken his hand to seal the deal.  But after seeing how cruelly Candie treated his slaves, he murders him instead, after which he is instantly killed, himself.  Then the bloodbath begins.  Django kills white man after white man before being captured, giving himself up to save his wife’s life.

But he quickly escapes and returns to the plantation to get his woman.  He gets the drop on the few survivors and kills them all in cold blood.  He kills Stephen, and in a comical turn, he shoots Candie’s innocent sister.  When the bullet hits her, she flies backward as if she’s been tied to a runaway train.  Then he proceeds to blow the mansion up.  Never-mind the fact that the dynamite was in a single area of the house, but the spectacular explosion came from every area of the building.

As for the stand-out member of the cast, I have to recognize Christopher Waltz.  He was great, creating a character with style, personality, panache, humor, and a fair amount of pathos.  I haven’t seen him in many films, but he always seems to turn in a fantastic performance.  Foxx was alright but his character was a little one-note.  He simply played a modern-day gangster in an old west setting.  True, it happened to work for this movie, but Waltz was just better.

As with all of Tarantino’s films, the music plays an important part.  He has an uncanny knack for choosing the perfect pieces of music to fit any scene.  In fact, very little music was actually written for the film.  Other musical selections, in this case, mostly from between 1966 and 1974 were used.

In fact, the entire film was Tarantino’s homage to the Spaghetti Western genre, based on the 1966 Italian Spaghetti Western film which was just called Django.  It is interesting to note that the man who played the title role in that film, Franco Nero, had a bit part in Django Unchained.  Other notable actors like Tom Wopat of The Dukes of Hazard fame, and Don Johnson from Miami Vice, also had cameo roles.  It is also fun to note that the title, Django Unchained, is an homage to both the 1959 film Hercules Unchained, and the 1970 movie, Angel Unchained.


2012 – Beasts of the Southern Wild











Beasts of the Southern Wild – 2012

This was a very well-made film.  It was a depressing drama that sported an air of hope.  It is described as having an element of fantasy, but I disagree.  If it had truly been in that genre, it would have tried to imply that the supernatural elements were real.  But I think it was clear that they were all contained within the imagination of the film’s main protagonist, Hushpuppy, a six year old girl, played by Quvenzhané Wallis.

The story is a sad and dramatic one.  Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, played by another first-time actor, Dwight Henry, live in an area of a Southern Louisiana bayou community known as the Bathtub.  The area is prone to danger from hurricanes and flooding.  They live in extreme poverty and squalor which is nothing more than a glorified garbage heap.  Wink is an alcoholic whose wife left him years earlier, though it is never made clear why she is gone.

Wink loves Hushpuppy very much, though he is sometimes physically abusive to her.  He is a fisherman who owns a boat made out of the back half of a pickup truck.  He tells his daughter that they live in the best and most beautiful place in the world, and like the child that she is, she believes him.  The filthy living conditions are all she knows, and so she is, for the most part, happy, though it becomes clear that Wink is afflicted with some kind of serious blood or heart condition.  But it is all just set-up for the real story.

A great storm comes which destroys the community.  Rather than flee their homes, Wink and Hushpuppy stay to weather the gale.  When the storm is over, they get in their boat and take to the flooded streets, looking for survivors.  They find Jean Battiste, played by Levy Easterly, Miss Bathsheba, the local schoolteacher, played by Gina Montana, and Walrus, played by Lowell Landes.  Together, the rag-tag group tries to rebuild their homes and their lives.

But it is a hopeless endeavor.  The salt-water surge from the storm has contaminated the fresh water supply and both the livestock and vegetation start to die.  To solve the problem, Wink and Jean Battiste blow up a levee, which drains the flood, but brings them to the attention of the mainlanders.  They are quickly rounded up and forced into a shelter.  Hushpuppy has never been in such clean surroundings.  She is afraid and feels like she is in a prison.

And here is the real tragedy of the story.  Hushpuppy grew up in garbage, poverty, and squalor.  There are actually people who live in such terrible conditions, and the fact that the residents of the Bathtub escape the shelter as quickly as they can to get back to the dump they call home is all too believable.  So Hushpuppy will never know that there is a better, healthier, and more sanitary way to live.  I find that even sadder than the film’s actual climax, in which Wink dies of his blood poisoning.

The pseudo-fantasy element of the film takes the form of giant, man-eating, horned pigs which, through the teachings of Miss Bathsheba, manifest in Hushpuppy’s imagination as a metaphor for tragedy or the end of the world, or maybe eventually, her father’s death.  They are shown as coming after Hushpuppy throughout the film, getting closer each time we see them. When they finally catch up with her, she confronts them and they submit to her.  Then she has the courage to face her father’s failing health.

The entire cast did a good job, but Quvenzhané Wallis really stood out as a fantastic little actress.  She seemed to have two things the character needed to work.  She had fire, and she had innocence.  Wallis really surprised me and I was impressed.  She was the youngest person to ever be nominated for the Best Actress award.  She had strength and fierceness, and the capacity for unfettered joy that made her completely endearing.

And there were also some tender moments that showed yet another facet of her character.  There was a sub-plot that involved Hushpuppy’s search for her mother.  After their escape from the shelter, she and her friends swim out to a floating brothel called the Elysian Fields.  While there, she befriends a cook named Joy Strong who may or may not have been her mother, played by Jonshel Alexander.  She invites Hushpuppy to stay with her, but the girl knows she must return home to her dying father.  It was a little out of left field, but sweet.

Overall, even though director Benh Zeitlin made the odd choice of purposefully making a lot of the hand-held camera-work that ended up on the screen out of focus, giving the film a vaguely disorienting feel, the movie had a good story, and some good acting.  I just question the film’s moral message.  Behind all the film’s dramatic trappings, it said that home is where the heart is.  But I find it a hard sentiment to embrace when home is a trash dump.  I guess when you have so little, it is hard to let go of what you have.

2012 – Amour











Amour – 2012

This was a very emotional French language film, but what do you expect from a title that simply means Love.  It dealt with a subject that few movies have the courage to deal with, and it did so with extreme care and sensitivity.  The plot is a simple one and can be summed up in just a few sentences.  An elderly man must cope with caring for his wife as her health steadily deteriorates.  Under this strain, their love is not so much tested as it is tempered and strengthened.  However, the sad climax, where the man euthanizes his wife, while not completely unexpected, was, I think, not as depressing as it could or should have been.

Of course, because it was all in French, I spent the entire movie reading subtitles.  It’s not my favorite way to watch a film, but it’s alright.  The two lead actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, played Georges and Anne Laurent, retired music teachers whose students have gone on to become world-renowned musicians.  One morning Anne suffers a silent stroke, during which she becomes catatonic, completely unresponsive to her bewildered husband.  After a few minutes, she revives.  The frightened Georges questions her, but she cannot remember what happened.  The couple is about to ignore the incident when it becomes apparent that Anne cannot perform the simple task of pouring herself a cup of tea.

The next time we see her, she is in a wheelchair.  Her mobility is limited and Georges must now help her with things that were once simple.  He must help her to bathe and go to the toilet.  He must help her dress and get into bed.  At one point Anne seems to rally as if she is on the mend, but then suffers a second stroke which leaves the right side of her body paralyzed.  From then on she is confined to a sick bed.  Georges must now feed her and change her diapers.

But the film isn’t about Anne so much as it is about Georges.  It is really about his struggles, both physical and emotional as he cares for the woman who he dearly loves.  His emotions are strained as he sees his wife suffer.  He goes through sorrow, depression, anger, and fear as he tries to keep his own spirits up.  He is visited by their daughter, Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert, and one of Anne’s former students, Alexandre, played by Alexandre Tharaud.  As her health declines, Anne begins by telling Georges that she doesn’t want anyone to see her.  Eventually Anne talks about wanting to die.  After that, she loses the ability to speak intelligibly.  Georges’ love remains strong and steadfast as he does his best to respect her wishes.

Eva says that her mother should be put in a home to receive professional care, but Georges remains true to his promise to his wife, stipulating that he never do such a thing.  In the end, when he can no longer bear to see Anne suffer, he smothers her with a pillow, and it seems like a kindness rather than a murder.  It is a subject that the film handles with care and we never see Georges as a killer.  Indeed, he is portrayed as sad and merciful.

But that brings us into an examination of a serious and topical subject.  In such a situation, is euthanasia an acceptable course of action?  Was Georges right or wrong in what he did?  And despite appearances, the film takes care to not answer the question.  Director Michael Haneke doesn’t apologize for the ending, nor does he aggrandize it.  Instead, he leaves it up to the viewers to judge for themselves.  You see, after killing his wife, Georges seems to disappear.  He arranges her body with care and dignity, and then walks out the front door.  We are never told what happens to him, except that it is implied that he never returns home.

Is he fleeing the scene of his crime?  Is he wandering off in a sorrowful daze of depression?  He obviously doesn’t tell anyone of his wife’s death, something we know because the story is framed by short scenes at the beginning and end.  In the beginning, we see police breaking into the house and discovering Anne’s quietly decomposing body.  In the end, we see Eve as she tearfully wanders the emptied house.

Trintignant, Riva, and Huppert are the only actors in the film that had any really significant dramatic acting to do.  Of the three, Riva was the clear standout.  In fact, she was nominated for the Best Actress award for her efforts.  She was eighty-five years old at the time, making her the oldest woman to ever be nominated for the category.  She lost the award to Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook.  I’ll be watching that film again soon enough, but based on my admittedly poor memory, I think Riva should have been the winner.  The way she portrayed the different stages of her illnesses and debilitating health problems was incredible.  Anne’s decline was so believably realistic.  I was very impressed with how vulnerable and yet how visceral her stellar performance was.  She was simply wonderful.  The film, as a whole, was very well made, and I’m glad I watched it, despite the fact that the subject matter was inherently depressing.  It was as real as life.

2011 – War Horse











War Horse – 2011

There were several reasons I knew War Horse was going to be a good movie.  First, I had seen a production of the stage play several years ago, and knew that it had a very good and interesting story.  Second, it was directed by Stephen Spielberg.  Third, it had some truly masterful cinematography by Janusz Kamiński.

The movie starred a first-timer to the big screen, Jeremy Irvine, playing the part of Albert Narracott.  He is a young man living on a farm in Devon, England.  One day, his kindly alcoholic father, Ted, played by Peter Mullan, brings home a magnificent thoroughbred horse, which Albert names Joey.  Joey is not bred to pull a plough, which is what the poor family needs.  Ted’s wife, Rose, wonderfully played by Emily Watson, knows that if the animal cannot work as a plough-horse, the family will be destitute and lose their farm.  Albert raises and trains the young colt to pull a plough.

But then World War I begins and the British army arrives.  The Narracott family is saved when Tom sells Joey to Captain James Nicholls, played by Tom Hiddleston.  The rest of the film follows not Albert’s adventures, but Joey’s, as he is inducted into the British war cavalry.  Captain Nicholls is under the command of Major Jamie Stewart, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  His horse is a large and powerful black stallion named Topthorn.  The two horses become friends, and serve together until Nichols dies, and Stewart is captured by German forces.

A young German soldier named Gunther, played by David Kross, and his little brother, Michael, played by Leonard Carow, take the horses and desert their posts.  They go on the run and hide out in an empty barn.  Unfortunately, they are caught and executed.  The horses fall into the care of a young farm girl named Emille, played by Céline Buckens.  She lives with her grandfather, played by Niels Arestrup.  But the Germans raid the farm, taking all the food, and eventually the horses.  The animals are put to excruciating work hauling heavy artillery up steep and muddy hills, under the care of a kindly German soldier, Private Friedrich Henglemann, played by Nicolas Bro.

Topthorn dies of exhaustion, but Joey escapes and runs into a chaotic battlefield.  He gets hopelessly tangled in barbed wire.  When the battle is over, British and German forces on opposite sides of the battlefield, hear Joey’s cries of pain.  Both sides allow a single soldier to approach the animal to free it from its bonds.  Joey is returned to British forces.  Meanwhile, Albert, who has enlisted in the British Army, is wounded in battle.  He has been temporarily blinded by mustard gas, but he is miraculously reunited with Joey.  Though he cannot see, the bond he shared with his horse has remained strong.  At the end of the war, the two return home to Devon together, and Albert is reunited with his parents.

The film succeeded on so many levels, and the music was certainly one of them.   The score by John Williams was, as always, perfectly matched to the story.  I honestly don’t know how William’s does it.  It doesn’t matter what kind of movie he is scoring, whether it is an introspective drama, or whether it is packed full of exciting action, he always knows how to enhance the story by drawing out the essence of every scene’s emotional core.  He is truly a master of his craft.

I also have to praise the performances of the wonderful cast.  In particular, Irvine did a fantastic job.  He actually looked like a young version of the famous actor, Ethan Hawke.  He seemed to have a flare for the dramatic as he bonded with Joey.  There was some real emotion there.  And I also liked the two soldiers who freed Joey from the barbed wire, Collin and Peter, played by Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann.

But really, the real star of the film was Joey.  And for his performance, we have to acknowledge the head horse trainer, Bobby Lovgren and his team of trainers.  During filming, fourteen horses were used to portray Joey, while four were used to portray Topthorn.  Spielberg said it best when he said, “When I’m on an Indy movie, I’m watching Indiana Jones, not the horse he is riding… Suddenly I’m faced with the challenge of making a movie where I not only had to watch the horse, I had to compel the audience to watch it along with me.”

And I must say that the horses were incredible.  There is an exciting little scene in which Joey faces off against a German tank.  He is in a trench which has come to a dead end.  Joey cannot escape and the tank has him cornered.  Joey ends up having to jump onto the tank and run over it to get to safety.  I am always amazed by how deep and expressive horses can be, a trait that can be seen in their beautiful eyes.  The film takes a number of opportunities to focus on their eyes, and the effect was quite moving.  I almost felt as if the horses were actors who understood the parts they were playing.  I’d say that War Horse is a very worthy addition to the prestigious list of Best Picture nominees, and well-worth watching.

2011 – The Tree of Life











The Tree of Life – 2011

I didn’t get this movie.  It felt very pretentious and full of itself.  It seemed to be self-important and self-indulgent.  It was confusing, metaphorical to the point of pointlessness, and took way too long to tell very little story.  It boasted two big names, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  Penn is a really good actor, but in this movie, I couldn’t tell if he was acting the part well or not.  I didn’t understand what was going on half the time, or even what the emotional state of his character was supposed to be.  Before reading the Wikipedia article, I was not even entirely sure what happened in the plot.

Wikipedia does a fair job of encapsulating the gist of the film when it says, “The film chronicles the origins and meaning of life by way of a middle-aged man’s childhood memories of his family living in 1950s Texas, interspersed with imagery of the origins of the known universe and the inception of life on Earth.”  And I must admit that there was some very wonderful cinematography and cool imagery during the sequences in which the origins of life on Earth are shown.  But the problem is that it was done in a very confusing and boring way.  The shots were visually stimulating, colorful, bafflingly abstract, and slow.  Incredibly slow.  I don’t think there was much actual slow-motion, but most of the film was simply slow movements and slow action.  People often moved as if they were walking in a dream-like, existential haze.  And all the while, slow liturgical music was dominating the scene.

The movie seemed to be trying too hard to convey pure emotion, so hard that the emotion was lost.  In other words, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  The movie made heavy use of metaphor and symbolism on a grand scale.  The overt religious overtones and philosophical questions slowed things down even more.  And then there was the whispering.  While images of the forming cosmos rolled across the screen, and soft choral music floated over the picture, every now and then, a whispered word or phrase, which could barely be heard, would creep into the sensual tapestry like a secret prayer.

Very few names were ever given, and the story of what happened to the family was only told in tiny snapshot scenes, which were not always in chronological order.  Pitt played the father.  Chastain played the mother.  Penn played the guy in the office building named Jack.  We can only infer that he is their son.  Mom gets a phone call saying that someone has died.  Dad then gets the same call.  Jack begins thinking of a family member who died, so I have to assume that the deceased is his brother.  We are never told how the brother died.  But somewhere in the second half of the movie, we learn that he was only nineteen years old.  But wait!  If Penn is the older brother of someone who died at nineteen, then he must be reflecting on something that happened about thirty years earlier.  Are his parents even still living?  And somewhere in there is a fleeting image of the earth, billions of years in the future as the expanding sun begins to consume it.  I’m so confused!  Oh, look!  Dinosaurs!

The impression I got from the film, the one which made me think of the movie as self-important and pretentious, was brought out right in the beginning, Mom and dad learn that a son has died.  So let’s go back to the big bang, implying two things.  First is that my son’s death is so monumentally tragic that it makes me question why the universe ever came into existence.  How dare the universe exist when my son has died?  Second is that my depression is so deep and devastating that the entire universe must be able to feel my pain.  Maybe I’m not being entirely fair, or I’m being too harsh, but those were the thoughts going through my head.  And whose pain are we supposed to be feeling anyway?  Mom’s? Dad’s?  Jack’s?

Anyway, we are shown, through the glimpses of Jack’s childhood, how Jack had not one, but two younger brothers.  Mom was loving and nurturing while dad was strict and authoritarian, making his sons call him Sir.  His was actually a complex character, being both an abusive father and husband, and passionately loving towards his family.  The teenage Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, goes through stages of rebellion, juvenile delinquency, and introspection, all directed at both mom and dad, before finally reconciling with his parents.

And lastly, we are treated to a strange and cryptic ending in which the adult Jack is walking through strange desert wildernesses, following an unknown woman.  He eventually ends up on a beach filled with people from his past, most of whom I did not recognize and who are never named.  For example, the film’s cast list reveals that Jack had a wife, played by Joanna Going.  The fact that in the beginning of the film, we briefly see him waking up next to an unidentified woman is the only indication in the film that he was even married.  A few seconds later, we see her place a branch of leaves on a shelf and then stand behind Jack as he starts to remember his childhood.  Huh?  Some of the surrealist imagery was as random as a David Lynch movie.  All I can say is that the film is too slow, confusing, and cryptic for my tastes.  It was just trying too hard to be deep and the result was confusing.

2011 – Moneyball











Moneyball – 2011

This is the second time I have seen this movie, and I liked it just as much this time as I did the first.  Now, I’ll say, right off the bat, that though I liked the movie, I shouldn’t have.  I’ve just never been a sports fan, and baseball has never really been able to hold my interest.  Moneyball was all about baseball and nothing else.  Or was it?

The film starred Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  There was only one other actor in the supporting cast I recognized, and that was a very young Chris Pratt.  So really quickly, here is a synopsis of the plot, because it wasn’t very complicated.  The Oakland A’s are in a slump and lose three of their best players to other teams.  On top of that they have only a fraction of the funds available to other professional ball clubs.

Pitt played Billy Beane, the team’s General Manager.  Hoffman played Art Howe, the Manager.  Beane knows that the traditional criteria for hiring new ball players isn’t working so he brings in a new assistant, Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand, played by Hill.  The two make hiring decisions based on player statistics, something which had never been done.  Everyone thinks that their new system will fail miserably because they hire has-beens, injured players, and players with attitude problems.  But despite Howe’s lack of faith in the system, it has surprising results, and the A’s start winning game after game.  They surprise everyone by going on to have a record-breaking twenty game winning streak, and though they come close to making it into the World Series, they ultimately fail.  Beane is offered an obscene amount of money to work for the Red Sox, but turns it down because he is loyal to the A’s, and wants to stay in California near his daughter.

That is pretty much it.  But then, what made the film so good?  First of all, like most sports films, the team we are following is an underdog, and who doesn’t like rooting for the underdog, especially when they start to win?  Second, the three lead actors are all very good at what they do.  Third, the movie wasn’t really about the game.  It was about a man who believes so strongly in what he is doing that he is willing to risk everything to change the very nature of the game.  I wasn’t rooting for the A’s because I like the A’s.  I was rooting for them because I wanted Beane and Brand’s system to succeed.  I wanted them to prove all the doubters wrong.

Aside from that there wasn’t much else to the film.  But it was enough.  It was very enjoyable to watch.  There were a few interesting subplots that kept my attention, like the fact that Billy used to be a baseball player, himself.  He was shown to have a lot of promise, but just didn’t have what it took to be a first string player.  It was there to prove the point that the old way of filling the roster of a ball team, which was based on a player’s age, appearance, and other superficial things.  Beane and Brand’s main opponent was the Head Scout, Grady Fuson, played by Ken Medlock.

The subplot that concerned Howe was interesting, and I even learned a little about the structure of the Management staff for a professional ball team.  The General Manager is responsible for hiring, firing, and trading players.  He is in charge of the scouts, and is answerable only to the team’s owner.  The Manager is responsible for managing the team with the players given to him by the General Manager.  Beane could hire Scott Hatteberg, played by Pratt, to play first base, but if Howe didn’t want him in that position, he could put Carlos Peña on First.  Beane’s solution was to trade Peña to another team, forcing Howe to put Hatteberg on first base.

I liked Pratt, who really looked the part.  I also liked the relief pitcher Beane hired, Chad Bradford, played by Casey Bond.  There were a few other actors who also did a good job like Nick Porrazzo playing Jeremy Giambi, Robin Wright who played Beane’s ex-wife, Sharon, and Kerris Dorsey who played Beanne’s daughter, Casey.  Everyone did a fine job.  Even the film’s director, Bennett Miller, did well.

But here is a bit of trivia that I found in my research which throws a shadow of doubt over the entire plot of the movie.  Does the system really work?  It was based on the writings of a baseball statistician and historian named Bill James.  It was his system that Billy Beane and Peter Brand, who was really a man named Paul DePodesta, were using.  Many baseball critics call the A’s turn-around and winning streak mostly luck.  They say that certain players contributed to certain wins, but many of the twenty games were just good luck.  But I have to disagree.  The implementation of James’ system and the A’s winning streak happened during the same season.  That is too much of a coincidence.  But I’ll admit that there was a certain amount of luck involved.  There had to have been.  So, I have to conclude that the success was due to both luck and the system.  Either way, the movie was mostly historically accurate, and was very entertaining to watch.

2011 – Midnight in Paris











Midnight in Paris – 2011

I’m going to start this review off by saying something which I would normally not say when it comes to a Woody Allen film.  It was absolutely charming.  But I also have to give credit where credit is due and say that like nearly all of Allen’s films, it was clearly intellectual and well-written.  But the film also had one major flaw.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to cast Owen Wilson in the lead role.  I’m sorry, but he is just not a very good actor.

So let’s get that out of the way quickly and move on.  Wilson has always been one of those actors of whom I am baffled by his success in Hollywood.  First of all, I’m sad to say, he is physically unattractive.  As shallow as my opinion is, his weirdly deformed nose is incredibly distracting.  But what was even more distracting was his style of acting.  Though there are few films in which I have seen him, he always seems to have an almost stupidly dazed persona.  He plays the same character in every film.  He plays himself because he has very limited range as an actor.  But here, I think he tried to stretch himself.  Yes, the stoner vibe was still there, but it was infused with the most annoying qualities of the movie’s director, Woody Allen.  As an actor, Allen has always had a bumbling, neurotic, stuttering, rambling, and vaguely grating personality.  The combination of the two didn’t work for me.

But I’ll stand by what I said.  The movie was absolutely charming.  Its saving grace was the smart and interesting script.  The film was a fantasy romance in which Gil Pender, played by Wilson, is engaged to be married to Inez, played by Rachel McAdams.  Gil was a good guy who constantly allowed himself to be dominated by his fiancé.  She was manipulative, dismissive, demeaning, and always had to have things her own way, without the slightest concern for his thoughts or feelings.

Gil makes a good living as a Hollywood screenwriter, though he is working on his own novel.  The two of them are visiting Paris to spend time with Inez’s disapproving parents, John and Hellen, played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy.  While in beautiful city, Gil and Inez run into her friends Paul and Carol, played by Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda.  Paul is one of those annoying guys who claims to be an expert on every subject, even going to far as to argue with a professional tour guide at the  Musée Rodin about Rodin’s personal life.  Inez buys into all his intellectual chauvinism.

But the film gets fascinating when the time travel starts.  A slightly drunk Gil wanders the streets of Paris alone.  At the stroke of midnight, he is picked up by a car full of partiers straight out of the 1920s.  The automobile is a Peugeot Type 176 car.  The passengers are all dressed in period costumes.  They drive him to a party for Jean Cocteau.  He meets famous historical writers Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, superbly played by Allison Pill and Tom Hiddleston.  They take him to a few bars where he meets various other prominent historical figures, eventually encountering his own literary idol, Earnest Hemmingway, wonderfully played by Corey Stoll.

He goes home and his problems with Inez intensify.  He tries to explain what happened to him, and she calls him crazy.  That night, he goes back again, this time meeting Gertrude Stein, played by Kathy Bates, Pablo Picasso, and most importantly, a gorgeous woman named Adriana, played by Marion Cotilllard.  Gil and Adriana share an instant attraction to each other.

There were two things I loved about the fantasy element of the rime travel.  First, it didn’t draw attention to itself.  It was just there.  It never seemed to matter that Gil wasn’t dressed appropriately.  Nobody seemed to notice or care.  And it was never explained.  There was never a reason for the time travel, and there didn’t need to be.  Second was that it wasn’t played off as a dream or hallucination that took place in Gil’s mind.  It was real, so real that when Gil is in his proper time, he finds a copy of Adriana’s diary, in which he himself is mentioned.

And the time travel goes even further.  As Gil goes back to the 20s, he and Adriana are picked up by a horse drawn carriage which takes them back to the Belle Époque era of the late 1800s.  She chooses to stay, ending her romance with Gil.  And it all has the dual result of teaching Gil that he is in the wrong relationship, and causing him to become a better writer.  Back in his own time, he ends his engagement and finds Gabrielle, played by Léa Seydoux, who is a better match for him.  It was all a little manufactured, but I cannot deny that it was, as I said, absolutely charming.

And I loved the little subplot about the detective hired by Inez’s father to follow Gil in his nightly wanderings.  He also traveled back in time, but got stuck in the Versailles of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  He is last seen fleeing from the palace guards who want to cut off his head.  That one had me laughing out loud.

2011 – Hugo











Hugo – 2011

I had seen this movie a long time ago, and was much more impressed with it the second time around.  It was directed by Martin Scorsese and was a very well-made movie that earned eleven Academy Award nominations.  It took home Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.  I used to think the film was Hollywood being self-indulgent, patting itself on the back for existing.  I thought the story felt forced.  But I can now watch the movie and see it with a more mature eye.

Hugo was written and filmed in the style of a fairytale.  Because of this, characters could do ridiculous things and nobody seemed to care.  A boy could live a charmed existence without a shred of parental guidance or protection, and still be a basically well-mannered mechanical genius.  A man could be a mean, old curmudgeon and still not alienate everybody he comes in contact with.  Even the mean police officer, the film’s main antagonist, could be a sour, evil weasel, and yet end up as a good and sympathetic character.  In fact, every character in the film had a happy, fairytale, ending.

The main character, of course, was Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield, a twelve year-old boy whose father, Mr. Cabret, played by Jude Law, was a clockmaker.  His brother Claude, played by Ray Winstone, worked at the railway station at Gare Montparnasse, maintaining all the clocks, and after his father’s death, he takes Hugo in.  He teaches Hugo how to do his job, then disappears, leaving the boy to carry on the work.  From then on, Hugo lives in a secret hideaway behind the walls of the train station.  He has a maze of unseen ladders, tunnels, walkways, trap doors, and windows through which he interacts with the outside world.

Like the mysterious Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo lives alone and watches the lives of the people who work at the station unfold.  He seems to know them all, though none of them are aware of his existence.  He only comes out to steal food to eat, and mechanical parts to tinker with.  Do you see how it resembles a fairytale?  And that is just the setup.  The gears, springs, and wheels he collects are all pilfered with a single goal in mind.  He wants to fix a mysterious and fabulous automaton that he and his father had been trying to restore.

Hugo spends much of his time trying to avoid being caught by the train station’s police man, Inspector Daste, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who wants nothing more than to send the boy to the orphanage.  Daste is a mean cripple who has no problem injuring innocent people and destroying their property in his attempts to catch Hugo.  Personally, I’ve never had much respect for the actor, but I suppose, in this case I have to cut him some slack.  Here, he played the part he was given.

One day Hugo is caught stealing a mechanical toy from a shop owner named Papa Georges, played by Ben Kingsley.  He also meets the man’s granddaughter, Isabelle, played by Chloe Grace Moretz.  Soon after the two become friends, Hugo meets Mama Jeanne, Georges’ wife, played by Helen McCrory.  Hugo and Isabelle fix the automaton.  The fantastical humanoid machine is designed to draw a picture, which ends up setting the two on the path toward adventure.

From there, the remarkable coincidences kicked into overdrive.  Whatever needed to happen to move the story along to its inevitable conclusion happened at just the right moment.  If they needed a special heart-shaped key to start the automaton, Isabelle just happens to be wearing it around her neck, having been given it by her grouchy old grandfather.  If they need to learn about the early days of cinema, Christopher Lee, playing the part of book seller Monsieur Labisse, knows exactly where to find the perfect book about it in the library.  But the most blatant example is when they needed to know about the early film director, Georges Melies, the author of the book they are reading, Rene Tabard, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, just happens to see them reading his book.  He takes them to his home where he has an entire room dedicated to early silent films, and the last copy of one of Melies’ films.  I had to roll my eyes just a little.

But the movie had some really great visuals that often reminded me of the films of Tim Burton, and some pretty inventive special effects.  The automaton was particularly magical.  The music by Howard Shore was brilliant.  But I think the most important aspect of the film was its use of the actual films of the real Georges Melies, the most famous of which is A Trip to the Moon, the one with the iconic image of the rocket ship crashing into the eye of the man on the moon.  In retrospect, Hugo seemed to be a fanciful story that was, above all else, an homage to the important early days of cinema, without which, all the wonderful movies we enjoy today could never have been possible.

2011 – The Help











The Help – 2011

This review has to start off with a big round of applause for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  These two women did a fantastic job in this period piece that examined a very specific kind of racism in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi.  It is important to note that some critics were upset that we weren’t treated to a dark and disturbing film about social, financial, physical, mental, and sexual abuse endured by the maids because that’s how things really were.

But that isn’t the movie that director Tate Taylor was making.  That’s a different film with a different feel and a different aesthetic.  So we got a little comedy, a little drama, and an entertaining peripheral glimpse into a time and place in history, about which most people are ignorant.  They weren’t trying to make a hard-hitting drama.  And I know, the movie wasn’t as good as the book, but it’s OK.  It never is.

The Help is about three women who were brave enough to fight back against racism and abuse during the time of the Civil Rights movement.  Davis played Aibileen Clark, a black woman working as a maid for a rich white family who, like all the other rich white families in Jackson, treated the help as little more than a slave.  Minny Jackson, played by Spencer, also a maid, and after being fired for using the wrong bathroom, cooks up a horrible bit of revenge.  Emma Stone, playing the part of Skeeter Phelan, a young white woman who wants to be a professional writer convinces Aibileen and Minny to tell their terrible stories in the form of a book called The Help, implicating their overprivileged employers in acts of extreme racism.

All three of them did a fantastic job, but I have to give Viola Davis the real props.  She was incredible.  She was arguably the film’s protagonist, though that title might also apply to Skeeter, as she was the driving force behind the writing of the aforementioned book.  Davis had a powerful character arch and an undeniable gravitas that was impressive.  She really stood out as a phenomenal actress.  But it was Spencer who took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress instead of Davis.  True, Spencer deserved it, but I think Davis might have deserved it more.

Now, whenever I think of this film, the first thing that comes to mind is the infamous pie scene.  Minny’s gets her revenge by making her former employer, Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, a pie.  She takes it to Hilly, calling it an apology.  Hilly eats two slices before being told that it contained Minny’s… poo!  What made she scene hilarious was that Hilly’s mother, played by Sissy Spacek, was watching her daughter eat the pie.  When the truth is revealed, Mrs. Walters starts laughing hysterically, while Minny runs away.  I was laughing out loud.

There was a wonderful sub-plot in the film, concerning Minny’s new employer, Celia Rae Foote, played by Jessica Chastain.  She was a white woman who was a social pariah.  She can’t cook or clean, and only has a husband because she got pregnant out of wedlock.  Her handsome husband Johnny, played by Mike Vogel, is a good man who is generally away at work.  Minny can’t get a job because of Hilly’s influence over the other white women, but Celia Rae takes her in, befriends her, and together, the two of them help each other to thrive.

But the real drama of the story concerns Aibileen.  Her story about her son’s cruel death, which goes into Skeeter’s book, is heartbreaking.  And it is through her courage and the friendship which develops between the two women, that all the racist skeletons are brought out of the closet.  And the final scene of the movie in which Hilly convinces Aibileen’s employer to fire her based on false accusations, was both heart-wrenching and uplifting.  She shames Hilly, calling her a godless woman who will never know peace, then proudly walks out, holding her head high.

I also have to mention wonderful performances from Allison Janney, playing Charlotte, Skeeter’s mother who is battling cancer, Chris Lowell, playing Stuart Whitworth, Skeeter’s racist boyfriend, and Ahna O’Reilly as Elizabeth Leefolt, Hilly’s friend and Aibileen’s employer.  All of them, especially Janney did a great job.  But I also have to mention one little performance that had me rolling my eyes a little.  The small part of Mr. Blackly was played by gay comedian, Leslie Jordan.  I’m sorry Leslie.  I know you tried, but I didn’t buy your act straight for a minute.

Either way, the movie was good.  The villans, the wealthy white women who were always pretty and smiling, tried to hide their vicious racism beneath a veneer of girlish sweetness.  Even in this comical, softened version of reality, their behavior was almost sickening to watch, just as the courage of the Skeeter and the two maids was uplifting.  This was just a well-made and entertaining film.

2011 – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close











Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – 2011

This was a movie of contradictions.  It was good but not great.  It was moving, but sometimes felt forced.  It was serious but a bit insensitive.  It is as if it were trying too hard to be emotional, and ended up being passionless.  It felt like it was well-made, and at the same time, most critics seem to hate it.  In fact, it is the only Best Picture nominee to have a “rotten” rating of 46% on the widely respected Rotten Tomatoes review aggregation website.

As I watched the film, it occurred to me that it is the only movie I know of that deals with the September 11th tragedy in 2001.  But the movie wasn’t about the event itself, but of the quest of a nine year old boy named Oskar Schell, played by Thomas Horn, as he attempts to find a lock in New York City that would fit a mysterious key he finds in his father’s possessions.  His father, Thomas, played by Tom Hanks, had died in the infamous terrorist attack.

As we are shown in flashbacks, the young man loved going on scavenger hunts that his father would arrange.  It was perfectly logical for Oskar to assume that the quest to find the lock that fit the key had somehow been arranged by Thomas.  After all he was only a child, and it was made clear that Thomas might have Asperger’s Syndrome.  As Oskar tries to make sense of the terrorist attacks that killed his father, he becomes obsessive compulsive about completing his mission.

The name Black had been written on the envelope in which the key had been found.  So Oskar goes through the New York City phone book and makes a plan to visit and interview all four hundred seventy-two people with that last name.  So, imagine, a nine year old boy with a mild neurological personality disorder wandering the streets of New York City alone and making calls on complete strangers.  Because of the nature of his father’s death, he has an innate fear of enclosed places like subways, unstable places like bridges, and of course, high-rise buildings.

At the same time, as he goes on his quest, he becomes more and more distant from his mother, Linda, played by Sandra Bullock.  She tries her best to get him to talk to her, to open up to her, but seemingly to no avail.  Along the way, Oskar meets the mysterious man known only as The Renter, who rents a room from his grandmother, who conveniently lives across the street.  The Renter, played by Max Von Sydow, cannot speak and must communicate through his notepad and a pen.

Overcoming his many fears, Oskar meets and many people with the last name of Black.  Among them is Abby Black, played by Viola Davis who, when he meets her, is in tears because her husband is leaving her.  She knows nothing about the key, but after weeks of the boy’s fruitless searching, she seeks him out to tell him that her ex-husband, William Black, played by Jeffrey Wright, might know of the key.

The kid was troubled, to say the least.  To put it bluntly, he was a jerk.  He was mean, dismissive, rude, demanding, insensitive, and all this with a sense that he was always right.  At first, I didn’t like his character, but after giving it some thought, I have changed my opinion.  Sure, none of those negative qualities had changed, but it was all appropriate.  The child had Asperger’s Syndrome.  The few people I have known people with that condition have very similar traits and are sometimes difficult to like.  Little Thomas Horn actually played the part perfectly.

So, I was sucked in.  I wanted to know what they key unlocked.  I wanted to know what his father had laid in store for him.  But in the end, we never get to find out, precisely.  It turns out that the key was never meant for Oskar at all.  It was a red herring.  But by the end, it became unimportant.  The realization of the goal was never as important as the journey to get there.

The key belonged to William Black.  It had ended up in Oskar’s father’s possession by mistake.  To Oskar, it meant nothing, but to William, it meant everything, and the meeting between the two turned out to be a wonderful catharsis for them both.  And this seems like the perfect opportunity to mention how much I enjoyed Jeffrey Wright’s performance.  In fact, every time I see him in a film, I have always loved him as an actor.  He always does a great job, and his part in this movie was no exception.  Viola Davis also really caught my attention.

And I really liked the film’s ending.  As it turns out, Oskar’s mother was just as concerned as I was about a young child wandering the streets of New York as I was.  But she had to let him do what he needed to.  It was the right thing to do, and they became closer because of it.  It was a touching ending, despite the difficult journey.  This is one of those cases in which the critics should be ignored.