Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)

Well, we have our 84th Annual Academy Award nominations as Academy President Tom Sherak and Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence read them off early this morning (video above). And overall, I did pretty well with my predictions. Turns out I made the right call playing it safe, with only a few exceptions. You can read the entire list of nominees here. If one thing's for sure it's that I still have plenty of movies left to see and review. Here are some of the major talking points coming out of this morning's announcement:

-Obviously the huge shocker came last when the polarizing, 9/11 tearjerker "EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE" (sorry, that personal space invading title just begs to be written in all caps) was announced as the final Best Picture nominee. You could hear the gasps of shock and awe after it was read. And the funny thing is I had a strange feeling that could happen and wrestled with adjusting my predictions to include it, before wimping out. We all underestimated the Academy's penchant for embracing sentimentality. It knows no bounds. That combined with the movie peaking just as voters were filling out their ballots resulted caused this. While I haven't seen or reviewed it yet, I've heard it's also the kind of movie you love or hate. Apparently enough voters loved it and it even spread to the supporting Actor category with a surprise nod for Max Von Sydow.

-"War Horse" nominated for Best Picture. I'm glad I stuck with that prediction when everyone else seemed to abandon it. As usual, sentimentality and comfort rule the day for voters.

-Spielberg out for Best Director but Terrence Malick is in for "The Tree of Life", which also scored a surprise, but very welcome, Best Picture nomination. Didn't think voters would go for something this challenging but I'm glad they did. It was an achievement even they couldn't overlook. Justifiably praised to high heaven by critics, it's now officially gone the distance, picking up the two biggest nominations. Easily the best news of the morning.

-I knew David Fincher wouldn't be nominated for "Dragon Tattoo", nor would the actual picture. It's clear now they just don't like him. But I was wrong about Rooney Mara. Always on the radar but somewhat of a long shot, she made it in. Guess they wanted to reward the film somehow, so that makes sense.

-So, what was that I was saying yesterday about pronouncing Michel Hazanavicius? I wouldn't want to be in Tom Sherak's shoes reading some of those tongue-twisters. But on the other hand, he does get to present with Jennifer Lawrence, so there's that. And she was surprisingly skilled at pronouncing those names.   

-I guessed 7 Best Picture nominees. There were 9. And those extra two were shockers so I wasn't that far off the mark there.

-"Midnight in Paris": Best Picture nominee. Ugh.

-Woody Allen: Best Director: Ugh.

-"Bridemaids": Best Original Screenplay. Ugh.

-Surprise Best Actor nomination for Demian Bichir for "A Better Life." Who? What? We'll have to have a fight on Oscar night between him and "The Artist's" Jean Dujardin to determine who gets crowned this year's Roberto Benigni. I understand the desire to not only reward great work and bring attention to an actor and film no one's heard of, but I can't help but think nominations like the one for Bichir do more harm than good, causing people to not want to see the film and tune out of the Oscars altogether. While the performance may be deserving, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the announcement, knowing fewer will care what happens in this category now.

-Two HUGE Supporting snubs: Albert Brooks in "Drive" and Shailene Woodley in "The Descendants." They were screwed big time. There's simply no other way to put it. Two of the best performances of the year don't get in. And now we can officially say it: The Academy hates "Drive." As for Woodley, they probably thought it was "too soon" or she "has time" because of her age so they just didn't vote for her.

-None of my "wish" nominations came to pass. Admittedly, all except a couple were the longest of long shots.

-I'm glad Nick Nolte got in for "Warrior." Same for Jonah Hill for "Moneyball." It's well deserved, even if it doesn't quite take the sting out of Brooks being overlooked.

-Only two Original Song nominees? Why even have the category? If "Man or Muppet" loses with one other nominee we should all riot.

-Thrilled to see J.C. Chandor's original script for "Margin Call" nominated.

-Overall, they could have done much worse. And as tough a time as I'm giving "Midnight in Paris," it is at least a good film. As much as we sometimes complain, the Academy rarely nominates anything of poor quality for Best Picture and this year seems to be no exception. Predictions coming before the big show on February 26th.

Monday, January 23, 2012

2012 Oscar Nomination Predictions

Haven't done this predicting thing in a few years so we'll find out when the nominations are announced tomorrow morning whether I'm an expert, lucky, a fool or maybe just something in between. I learned my lesson last year though when The King's Speech won Best Picture. I'm putting myself in the mindset of your average Academy voter and imagining what would be the safest, most unchallenging picks possible. That's how they think. If something else happens that's great, but I'm not getting my hopes up. Below are my predictions for what will be the nominations in the 8 major categories, along with one "wish" choice I highly doubt will come to pass. Here it goes....

Best Picture
"The Artist"
"The Descendants"
"The Help"
"Midnight in Paris"
 "War Horse"

Comments: Unlike last year when there had to be 10 nominees, there can be anywhere from 5 to 10. I'm going with 7.And this is about as mundane a line-up as possible. I'd be surprised if they nominate "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." Seems too edgy for their tastes, regardless of who directed it. Here's hoping I'm wrong and the average, insanely overpraised "Midnight in Paris" doesn't get in for either Picture, Director, or Screenplay. It probably will though. And yes, I really think they'll nominate "War Horse" despite it being a massive commercial and critical flop. I'd rather not consider the scary possibility "Bridesmaids" could sneak in here. But luckily I don't have to because it won't. They hate comedy.  

I Wish: "Drive" 

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"
Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"
Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Steven Spielberg, "War Horse"

Comments: Here's hoping I'm wrong again and someone like David Fincher displaces Spielberg in this category but I won't hold my breath, especially considering how badly they screwed him over last year. I think Spielberg's in just for being Spielberg. Why do I have this strange feeling George Clooney could sneak in for "The Ides of March or that movie could be nominated for Best Picture?"And what a relief I only have to spell Hazanavicius' name and don't have to pronounce it.

I Wish: Nicolas Winding Refn, "Drive"

Best Actor
George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"
Juan Dujardin, "The Artist"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "J. Edgar"
Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Comments: Yes, I still think they're nominating DiCaprio. It's Leo in a biopic with old age make-up. They don't care if the movie's awful or not. Despite the push, Michael Fassbender probably won't get in for "Shame." It's NC-17 and about a sex addict. Consider it a victory if Academy voters even made it through the film without suffering heart attacks.

I Wish: Ryan Gosling, "Drive"

Best Actress
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Michelle Williams, "My Week with Marilyn"
Tilda Swinton, "We Have To Talk About Kevin"
Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs" 

Comments: If Kristen Wiig somehow, someway gets nominated for "Bridesmaids" it would rank among the most undeserving Best Actress nominations in Oscar history. And boy does that cover a lot of ground. It's just an okay comedic performance and nothing more. For some reason I just don't see Rooney Mara making it in for "Tattoo."  

I Wish: Charlize Theron, "Young Adult" (A long shot, but possible. Fingers crossed for the best performance of the year)

Best Supporting Actor
Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
Kenneth Branagh, "My Week with Marilyn"
Nick Nolte, "Warrior" 

Comments: This is cut and dry. Hard to screw this up. If anyone's getting left out it could be Nolte. Or Hill. If so, it's hopefully to make room for Patton Oswalt who really, really deserves to be here. So does Brad Pitt for "The Tree of Life," but since he's already locked in as lead for "Moneyball" that won't be happening. But it should. It was arguably the better performance.
I Wish: Patton Oswalt, "Young Adult" 

Best Supporting Actress
Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
Octavia Spencer, "The Help"
Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"
Berenice Bejo, "The Artist"
Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"

Comments: A surprise isn't out of the question here. Not enough to go out on a limb with anyone else though. That's the line-up. Of the 50 films in which she appeared this year, it looks like Jessica Chastain's getting in for "The Help." And here's the only category "Bridesmaids" actually deserves to be nominated in.

I Wish: Elle Fanning, "Super 8", Judy Greer,"The Descendants" (Unfortunately no chance for either)

Best Original Screenplay 
Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumulo, "Bridesmaids"
Tom McCarthy, "Win Win"
Will Reiser, "50/50" 

Comments: I've already expressed my displeasure at the underwhelming "Midnight in Paris" being here. And not to beat a dead horse, but the likely inclusion of "Bridesmaids" in this category is even worse. Especially, if it's at the expense of the strongest screenplay of the year, Diablo Cody's "Young Adult." It's embarrassing if those two get in and that doesn't.  

I Wish: Diablo Cody, "Young Adult"

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, "The Descendants"
Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zaillan, "Moneyball"
John Logan, "Hugo"
Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Tate Taylor, "The Help"

Comments: There's really nothing else worth considering, with one exception. But I don't think that's making it in. This category is locked and probably the easiest to predict. It was a really good year for adapted screenplays and this list reflects that.

I Wish: Hossein Amini, "Drive"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Director: Troy Nixey
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark does a lot right and gets one thing wrong. But the thing that goes wrong will be all everyone wants to talk about when it's over, which isn't completely fair. Having not seen the 1973 ABC made-for-television horror movie that scared Guillermo del Toro enough as a kid to want to produce this remake, I'll guess it's probably more frightening this version, only because I imagine it did less. With a much smaller budget the filmmakers would have no choice. And that's the advantage the older horror movies will always have over their newer counterparts: Age. Anything older tends to look and feel scarier because of the lower production values, while anything newer just inherently looks slicker and therefore less threatening. This remake impresses with how it uses mood and atmosphere to sidestep that problem, fumbling only when it goes for too much. You'd never know from the advertising that Del Toro didn't actually direct this but his fingerprints are clearly all over it, to the point where I occasionally questioned whether his involvement helped. It's frustrating when a movie just needs to pull back and do less to get more because that problem seems so easily correctable. Still, it's a welcome throwback that doesn't feel exactly like your average modern horror movie and the two lead performances carrying it are phenomenal. They're sure to be as underrated and overlooked as the talented actresses giving them, one of whom is back on track in a major way. The rest of the movie is okay too. But it's just okay, when it had the tools to be great.

After a creepy prologue taking place in the early 1900's, the movie flashes forward to the present when young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent by her mother to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in an old, large mansion they're redecorating in Rhode Island. Sad, over-medicated, and all but ignored by her workaholic dad, Sally fails to form much of a connection with Kim, instead spending her time exploring Blackwood Manor. She starts hearing voices from the basement, and after some investigating, unwillingly unleashes an army of Gollum-looking gremlins with razor sharp teeth and almost ridiculously distinctive facial features. They start to wreck havoc, targeting the property's caretaker (Jack Thompson), eating furniture and shredding clothes in hopes of finding a human sacrifice. Preferably a child. The biggest change from the original is making the protagonist a child instead of an adult, a good call considering nothing creates tension and terror like a child in peril. Guy Pearce has the most ludicrous role in the film and it's difficult to tell how much of that can be attributed to the writing, which practically necessitates his character be a dope, insisting everything's in Sally's head and accusing her of acting out for attention. A necessity from a story standpoint, but it's still feels like the normally reliable Pearce is reciting lines and collecting a paycheck. Or it could be that his co-stars are just so good.

The relationship between Kim and Sally carry the film and the performances from Holmes and Madison are outstanding. Precocious but never too cute, Madison makes her character seem sullen and desperately curious rather than just a merely a helpless victim, which is a nice change from the norm. Armed with her Polaroid camera as a weapon (the creatures don't like flashes) she goes on the offensive more often than not. A few years ago when Madison appeared in Brothers I wrote that the weak acting link was clearly Natalie Portman, completely miscast and unbelievable as a mother to her. I specifically suggested Katie Holmes would have been a far better choice and it feels good to be proven completely right, as Holmes really shines here opposite Madison in exactly the way Portman couldn't in that film. After wisely laying low for the past few years appearing in mostly small, independent films (notwithstanding the Kennedys miniseries she did an underrated job in) it's been a long time since she's anchored a mainstream release like this and boy is it great to have her back and firing on all cylinders, especially in a part playing to all her strengths. As Kim, she grows into the unfamiliar role of de facto step mom to this withdrawn child, overcoming her own past to become Sally's protector and the only adult she can rely on. With a mixture of strength, intelligence, sensitivity and warmth, Katie makes her the most likable character in the film, delivering a performance that should win over any doubters. She also makes a surprisingly effective scream queen, letting out a yell at the end of the film that would make Jamie Lee Curtis proud. If horror movies these days were better, I'd say she should appear in more of them, but since they aren't, she probably shouldn't. But this was a good step regardless. Though the bias media would never acknowledge it, Holmes has been clawing and scratching her way back lately, quietly making all the right choices to return to relevance as an actress.

While it's inevitable that at some point we have to see the creatures, many of the scarier scenes come before that, when Sally's alone and we see nothing. When the CGI creatures do show up there's no getting around the fact it seems to come too early and we get too much of them. They don't necessarily look "fake" per se (and I have no idea how their appearance differs from the original), but they are slickly rendered, which probably wasn't the best choice given the old school approach they've already taken with the material. Horror just might be the only the genre where a film's quality has an inverse relationship to the size of its budget. It seems the more money you spend the less authentic things seem to look and feel, and this is hardly the worst offender. In fact, it's rather conservative compared to others in that regard so that even this eventually does give in with the special effects is telling. But more fascinating than that is despite the film being helmed by first-timer Troy Nixey, I'm betting that decision was more than likely made by Del Toro, who (like Spielberg and Lucas) was probably so enamored with the technology that it never occurred to him that approach may not the best fit for this story. He's also obsessed with myths and fairy tales, which is fine, if it didn't lead to an over-explanatory library research scene Holmes is forced to save. Everything else Nixey does from a directorial standpoint in terms of creating suspense is so effective it's reasonable to believe a modern horror classic was within grasp if better decisions were made regarding the creatures and less work was put into making them look cool. Should they have shown them at all? That's the million dollar question. They probably should have, but not as much, and maybe left a little room open for the interpretation that this little girl might really be losing it. Just suggesting that possibility would be more terrifying than anything we're shown.    

Showing too much is a problem found in horror movies today that we'd never have to contend with in the 70's because they didn't have the budget to do that, and the films mostly benefited as a result. That said, despite the somewhat inexplicable "R" rating, this could hardly be considered a gore fest that trades in suspense for brutal kills. It still shows less than we're used to, relying mostly on atmosphere  to tell its story, giving it a kind of a throwback feel that puts it in a different league than most modern day horror. The ending is frustrating, but in a good way. It's never bad when you care enough about a character enough to actually get angry at their eventual fate. It makes the bond between the two main characters seem even more meaningful in retrospect.  For kids who accidentally stumble upon Don't Be Afraid of the Dark on cable in the middle of the night, it's probably just as likely as the original to cause nightmares for those who grew up with it. For adults, it'll be suspenseful and entertaining. It's hard not to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into in re-making this, while still wishing there was just a little less of it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Water For Elephants

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider 
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Poor Reese Witherspoon. Forced to share the screen with an untrained sideshow spectacle who's poked and prodded at for audiences' enjoyment as an evil carnival barker urges them to pour out their pockets in hopes of getting a glimpse. No, it's not Rosie the elephant I'm referring to, but her other co-star, Robert Pattinson, who now faces the challenge of trying to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor after being established as a consumer product studios can make money off of. And outside of the Twilight franchise, even that assumption is uncertain. He's got a long road ahead of him and probably knows it, but all things considered, this is a decent first step. Water for Elephants is the right type of project for him to get his feet wet, playing to his strengths while offering him as few opportunities as possible to embarrass himself. So that's good news in itself. It also helps the film is an easy, enjoyable watch and at least slightly less ridiculous than I expected.

Adapted from Sara Gruen's popular novel and directed with old school flare by Francis Lawrence, the film employs one of my favorite narrative devices: An old man looking back on his life. Unfortunately, that promising device is executed about as clumsily as possible, treated as a mere afterthought before the film flashes back to The Great Depression when 23-year-old Cornell veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) loses both his parents in a car crash. Adrift in life, he starts riding the rails, ending up on the Benzini Brothers Circus Train. He meets the controlling August (Christoph Waltz) the circus owner and animal trainer who's married to the beautiful Marlena (Witherspoon), and prone to unpredictable fits of sadistic rage, treating her almost as badly as he does his animals. After an awkward first meeting, August hires Jacob as the circus vet but it becomes a complicated working arrangement when Jacob starts to fall for Marlena. It might be the one element in the circus that August can't control, with the results of that fledgling relationship having potentially dangerous consequences for all involved.

The big draw here is the circus setting and period atmosphere. From a technical standpoint it's virtually flawless and looks great. There are a bunch of Oscar nominees involved in the costuming, production, art direction and set design and it really shows. From a visual standpoint it actually feels like The Greatest Show on Earth or one of those old style Hollywood epics from the 1950's they don't attempt anymore. The script, however, makes it feel slightly smaller than it should. More like a TV movie, as the doomed lovers plot can't always keep up with the inspired circus backdrop. Pattinson, looking less pale and vampire-like than usual, effectively broods and longingly stares at Reese, but it's clearly the more experienced Witherspoon who's carrying this. She's a genuine movie star in the truest sense and the unattainable Marlena character fits her like a glove. Unlike her role, Pattinson's could have easily been swapped out with just about any other actor in his age range or older with no harm done to the film, but he holds his own, giving what resembles at times a passably strong performance. The two have okay (but not great) chemistry and their age difference isn't much of a factor. If anything, it's interesting to see a younger man and older women for a change, and an argument could be made it better suits the nature of this particular story of the protagonist being shown the ropes.

Watching I couldn't help but wish everything else had as much bite as Christoph Waltz's psycho circus ringmaster. Again channeling his sadistic streak from Inglourious Basterds he seems to be the go-to sociopath in movies these days, infusing each scene with his co-stars with a genuine sense of danger. There are points we fear for their lives, not to mention the life of the elephant. Besides the framing device mishap (which strangely has the younger Jacob narrating the story even though his older self, played by Hal Holbrook, is telling it in the present day) my biggest complaint is the film does lack that extra edge to put it over the top. Whether there was a fear in alienating faithful devotees of the novel, Pattinson fans or just a concern with preserving that audience friendly PG-13 tone, there are times it seems to be playing it safe when it really needs to cut loose with the romance and violence. Other than that it's difficult to pinpoint much Water for Elephants does wrong, and believe me I was looking. Chalk it up to low expectations if you must, but there's something to be said for telling a simple, but visually compelling story in a smart, straightforward way.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Margin Call

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In the opening minutes of writer/director J.C. Chandor's thrilling debut feature Margin Call, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) a manager at an unnamed financial firm, is let go. He's told it's nothing personal. We see his face as he takes the news, says his goodbyes, cleans out his desk and gets escorted to the elevator by security. Just before he leaves he hands his protege Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive and tells him to "be careful." That's the set up. What unfolds over the next 24 hours is the pay off. When Peter works out Eric's model the results are horrifying and the potential losses for the firm crippling. There would be no firm. He calls back in his friend and fellow analyst Seth (Penn Badgley) along with their boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). The information travels up the chain of command to Will's boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), then to Sam's boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) before finally landing in the lap of CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) whose impending 4 am helicopter arrival is so suspenseful it may as well be Darth Vader arriving on the Death Star. Without giving too much away, in just a few scenes Irons exceeds all expectations of this character's involvement, creating the most intriguing (and scariest) portrayal of a high ranking CEO I can remember seeing on screen. Besides being the best performance Irons has given in decades, it's exactly the type of brief, but gripping work the supporting actor Oscar category seems created to acknowledge. 

It's not so much what's said at that emergency meeting, but how, and the implications for all involved. And for a talky film, there are definitely times when nothing is said but you can still feel that the tension is always escalating. This story is all about escalating tension. It would have been easy to choose to make a film demonizing those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, and even stupider to try to evoke sympathy for them, but Chandor wisely doesn't judge. Your boss has a boss who's taking orders from their boss who's taking orders from another boss and if you're at the bottom of the food chain (or even at the middle), you just do what you're told. The financial crisis started because those at the top got greedy and everyone else just kept following orders. We're taken inside a shark tank where it's a battle for survival but these are real people with qualities both good and bad. The scariest part of the film is how any of them could be any of us if we're willing to take the job and for that money there are likely few among us who wouldn't.

The closest we get to a hero is Quinto's idealistic, inexperienced underling Peter, a rocket scientist whose brains unwillingly take him from the trading floor to a scary meeting with the CEO, where the entire fate of the firm suddenly rests on his calculations. Bettany's Will is a greedy hotshot who has a monologue late in the film that will give you chills. Simon Baker is fantastic as an arrogant wunderkind promoted to securities head before his time but now faces the very real possibility he could be thrown under the bus unless head of risk Sarah Roberston (Demi Moore) takes the fall instead. Though never explicitly stated, we know and she knows it's because she's a woman and she's reached her limit in a man's world. Moore, in full Disclosure mode, hasn't had a part this meaty to chew on in years. The same could be said, perhaps more so, for Spacey, who breaks out of his post-American Beauty slump as a good man torn between doing what's right and doing what's right for the firm, which may or may not be the same thing depending on one's perspective. He knows what the plan is and the devastating consequences for everyone not at the top if they decide to go through with it. A sub-plot involving his ailing dog gives the film an unexpected emotional humanity, serving also as an uncomfortable reminder that situations spiral out of control and anyone, regardless of their values, can be caught up in the current.

This is an astounding debut feature for a filmmaker and it wouldn't be off base to call it Wall Street for the current generation. I'd even go as far as to call it superior to that film (and certainly to its recent sequel) since it has more compelling characters, better performances and isn't as one-sided. It casts no judgment and leaves interpretation up to the viewer, which is why it succeeds. It's a snapshot in time, and a rare opportunity seeing so many actors of such a high talent level appearing together in the same project, much less one with material this strong. They must have been chomping at the bit when they read the script but even with a cast this packed no one seems to be fighting for screen time and each role, however small, feels important. The two standouts are clearly Irons and Spacey but everyone else is excellent, with a few delivering some of their best work. Efficient and tension-filled, there isn't a wasted minute to be found, leaving me pondering what would happen to its characters when the smoke cleared.        

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Director:Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Carla Bruni, Michael Sheen, Alison Pil, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 94 min.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Good news for the present. Someday it'll be the past and then people can finally appreciate it. That's essentially the message of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the most financially successful film of his career, and yet another touching on what's emerged as 2011's recurring cinematic theme: Nostalgia. Whether it was the return of the 70's and 80's in Super 8, The Muppets and Drive, a call back to the silent movie era in films like Hugo and The Artist or a warning against the potential danger of living in the past in Young Adult, 2011 truly was the year we wished we could be in any time but 2011. So now it's Woody's turn and it's kind of unfortunate this carries the baggage of being his biggest moneymaker because now everyone will go in expecting something monumental. It isn't, nor does it signal this huge "comeback" you've been hearing about. In fact, Allen will never need a comeback since he's so inconsistent it would be impossible to tell if it happened. With an unmistakable emphasis on quantity over quality over the years, his output is so hit-or-miss it's almost maddening. More frustrating than that though is an inability to point to anything he specifically does wrong, despite the end result often being unremarkable. This is no exception, but at least it's enjoyable, boasts an interesting premise and features one of the better neurotic Allen protagonists. It's a nice, pleasant diversion. But that's about it.

The story centers on Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and wannabe novelist vacationing in Paris with his overbearing fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy, ultra-conservative parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). While there, they run into Inez's former flame Paul (Michael Sheen), a pseduo-intellectual blowhard who arrogantly (and inaccurately) lectures them on Parisian art and history. Of course, Inez is smitten with him, which only enhances Gil's inferiority complex. After a night of drinking, Gil wanders the streets and is picked up at midnight by an antique car and driven to a party where he's magically transported to the 1920's. Given an opportunity to interact with major art and literary figures from his favorite era such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), things get complicated when he falls for Picasso's mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Now he must sort out his present relationship difficulties with Inez and reconcile them with these magical midnight experiences in the past.

Owen Wilson is tremendous in this and maybe the most likable he's been yet in a leading role. He always exudes a goofy charm but here for a change it isn't masked by the sarcasm or smugness of the character he's playing. He's one of those actors we want to like as a comedy lead but because the low brow material he's often chosen it just hasn't come together for him yet. Here it does as he kind of gets to play the same slightly off-kilter, dorky regular guy he has been but in a more sophisticated story and setting. Much of the film's success hinges on how likable, naive and easy to relate to Gil is and Wilson delivers on all fronts, making this one of Allen's more surprisingly inspired casting choices. Beyond seeing Wilson in this type of a role, there isn't a whole lot that necessarily seems fresh, but most of it works anyway, especially the scenes set in the past. The big standout is Corey Stoll, whose movie stealing performance as Ernest Hemingway, however brief, accomplishes the feat of somehow capturing how we'd imagine the author would talk (i.e. exactly how he writes), making it feel authentic rather than a parody. And as Adriana, Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing to the point we'd question why Gil would even want to return to his current life. While the present storyline represents the same old tired Allen material of clearly mismatched lovers fighting all the time, but it's saved by a hilariously bitchy, against type turn by Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen turning on the sleaze as the ex. Though we're kind of nailed over the head with it, the film's simple message of living for the present is a good one and Allen and Wilson have no problems selling it in the final act.
If this seems like an unenthusiastic recommendation that's because it is. The film will probably play best with diehard Woody Allen fans, literary and history buffs and elderly Oscar voters whose fingers are probably ready to fall off right now from checking it off in every possible category it can be nominated for. But it's definitely NOT a giant leap forward creatively for Allen in any way and exactly the same thing he's been doing for the past twenty years but in more international, worldly locations instead of New York. It's kind of disappointing no one's noticed, or if they have, don't seem to care. Maybe that's because he does it well and his movies (even at their worst) tend to be really entertaining in the most harmlessly enjoyable, inoffensive way. So it's a little frustrating when each new Woody Allen picture is treated as this "big event" when nothing he's done since the late 70's or early 80's has lingered in the mind longer than 24 hours after the credits have rolled. This, despite all the praise it's gotten, doesn't either. But it works for what it is. A couple of times in recent years Allen's deviated slightly from his usual template, but not enough to say he's taken any kind of a risk, which could also help explain how he's avoided a steep decline. Midnight in Paris is mildly delightful, but anyone still hoping for that Woody Allen "comeback" might just have to keep waiting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Help

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O' Reilly, Allison Janey, Emma Henry, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek
Running Time: 146 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ¼ (out of ★★★★) 

From a critical standpoint, The Help is underrated. It may seem like a strange comment to make about a decently reviewed awards contender beloved by many and that's grossed over $200 million, but it seems whenever the film's discussed there's always some qualifier belittling or explaining away its success. The most pointed accusation slung its way is that it's a "whitewashing" of racism, taking what's obviously extremely sensitive and important issue and sanitizing it for mainstream entertainment, even going so far as to filter it all through the eyes of a white protagonist. Accused of engaging in revisionist history, many have claimed it presents a Hollywood version of the Jim Crow South that fails to make everyone understand the true pain and suffering blacks experienced during that time. But could any film do that? Should it? Going into Tate Taylor's The Help (based on Kathryn Sockett's 2009 bestselling novel) I expected mainstream fluff, kind of a Hallmark greeting card or Lifetime movie of the week transported to the big screen. Something like The Blind Side meets Driving Miss Daisy. But it's instead a well acted, well directed drama that works as a snapshot of a time and a depiction of attitudes. This isn't pretending to be something it's not, and overlooking that is the biggest mistake that can be made critiquing it. And if it is fluff someone forgot to tell the talented array of actresses who carry it. If anything, it should be praised, not derided, for deftly handling a difficult topic with an intelligence uncommon among most mainstream movies.

It's the early 60's in Jackson, Mississippi and 23 year-old Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) is fresh out of college with a new job writing for the local newspaper, an opportunity frowned upon by her cancer-striken mother Charlotte (Alison Janey) who feels she should just find a man and settle down. Upon discovering their longtime maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) had mysteriously quit then disappeared while she was away, Skeeter's eyes are opened to the racist attitudes her friends and neighbors have toward "the help." The worst of them is stuck-up socialite and Junior League president Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who actually proposes a "Home Help Sanitation Initiative" that would provide separate bathrooms for their black housekeepers. Having not been brought up racist, Skeeter starts questioning these injustices and comes up with the idea to write a book from their perspective, detailing the feelings of maids who've sacrificed own lives to raise white children who will more than likely grow up to become racists themselves. Two maids, the quiet, somber Abileen Clark (Viola Davis) and tough talking Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) agree to participate. The former quietly soldiers forward while mourning the death of her son while the latter isn't afraid of telling it like it is, a trait that gets her fired by Hilly and eventually taken under the employ of social outcast Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). With the deadline from her editor fast approaching, Skeeter must get as many stories from the help as she can, which proves difficult considering the potential consequences of the book's publication.

What really jumps out about the story are the hypocritical attitudes of these well-to-do white women who trust the help enough to let them essentially raise their children, but refuse to share a bathroom with them because of the color of their skin.  While Skeeter is the first to notice this inane reasoning and sets in motion a plan to rectify it, the story really isn't about her. Those complaining the maids' histories are being dictated to a white person should consider the likelihood of any editor publishing a book by a black housekeeper during that era, not mention the chances they'd risk their lives trying to write one. The character of Skeeter actually makes the events seem more plausible, not less. So by even employing this narrative device (taken straight from the novel) the film's already operating at a higher level of realism than it's being given credit for. But the movie is all about the performances, which are just about as good as any from an ensemble cast this year.

As the narrator and centerpiece of the story, Viola Davis has surprisingly limited screen time and dialogue as Aibileen, but the the film never needs to go to the ugly places everyone's complaining it doesn't because all the pain, suffering and indignity these maids begrudgingly endure is visible on Davis' face. Given the opportunity to finally speak out against injustice she's justifiably filled with mixed feelings since it's the only life she knows, as awful as it is. Octavia Spencer steals the spotlight as the feisty Minny, role that was specifically written with the longtime character actress in mind. The special surprise she delivers to her former employer Hilly is easily the funniest moment in the picture, as an ignorant racist finally gets her comeuppance courtesy of an unusual dessert. That a movie covering this topic can even have funny moments and we don't feel guilty laughing should be proof enough something was done right.

Bryce Howard is brilliantly detestable as Hilly, and while she's the kind of villain you just want to reach through the screen and strangle, Howard's portrayal impressively avoids turning her into a one-dimensional caricature. As in her supporting turn in this year's cancer dramedy 50/50, she makes her character's deplorable actions seem real and sad, not manufactured for the sake of cheap drama. Sissy Spacek provides scene-stealing comic relief as Hilly's mother, who's losing her marbles but can still see what an annoying brat her daughter's turned into. Emma Stone is charmingly goofy and endearing as Skeeter, in a difficult role that most other actresses in her age range likely would have struggled with. She pulls off a surprisingly convincing southern accent, handles the more dramatic scenes well, and effectively conveys Skeeter's insecurity and outspoken bravery. Making her sixth or seventh screen appearance this year, 2011's biggest acting discovery Jessica Chastain disappears into Marilyn Monroe lookalike Celia, a social outcast who ends up having a lot more substance to her than it seems at first. On the outskirts and sheltered from the racist views of her peers, the emotional bond she forms with new employee Minny is one of the film's many surprising pleasures.

The big mystery and what her mother's been keeping from Skeeter is what exactly happened with their longtime help Constantine while she was away at school. It's a secret that's kept throughout the entire film, until being revealed in a flashback in the third act and without spoiling anything, I'll just say it's one hell of a scene. I can't understand how anyone can watch this powerful sequence and the heartbreaking performances of Allison Janey and Cicely Tyson in it and still claim this is just fluff.  There's an indelible image that concludes this expertly directed and acted scene that's difficult to shake after it's passed, regardless of anyone's feelings on the film's treatment of history as a whole.

Is the movie meant to be a mainstream audience pleaser? Absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with that. While there are inherent limitations when you take this approach and the length of ten football fields separates the quality of something like this and the year's higher quality films like The Tree of Life or Drive, I still wouldn't begrudge the casual moviegoer--who maybe sees only a handful of features each year--for naming it one their favorites. To say it's "dumbed down" for mainstream audiences or they want to be spoon-fed a revisionist history isn't exactly fair since the presentation of the material never really backs that argument up. It's presented in a manner that definitely aims to make it feel more accessible, but it isn't dumb. If anything, it would hopefully get viewers unaware of the exact history to learn more about the actual events that inspired it or seek the kind of documentary some critics are complaining this isn't. And it shouldn't be punished for tackling a sensitive topic in more lightweight manner, especially if its intentions are clearly laid out from the onset and it doesn't waver in that approach all the way through. It was obvious from the first frame what the goal of the film was and it almost flawlessly delivers on that promise with just a few missteps, such as a poorly developed sub-plot involving Skeeter and her boyfriend (Chris Lowell), that's left dangling without any clear resolution.  

Negotiating his way some tough tonal territory, relatively unknown director Tate Taylor keeps the pace moving breezily along for almost two and a half hours, while the production, costume design and cinematography succeed in creating a feel for the setting and period. Given all the complaints I heard before seeing it, you'd figure the film toppled Gone With The Wind in its stereotypical depiction of black maids in the south, but these two characters are way too well written and performed to even jokingly warrant such a comparison. They're strong, brave women trying to improve their situation, not helpless caricatures.

I know it's generally frowned upon for a critic to even react to the reaction of others to a film, but getting to it so late and hearing so many accusations beforehand, there really wasn't much choice. I'll admit it probably doesn't bode well for its shelf life that I had to work this hard defending it. Great movies should be enthusiastically praised without reservation rather than defended with a laundry list of excuses of why it isn't as bad as everyone says it is, followed by an apology. And because the filmmakers took this lighter approach it just simply won't stay in the mind as long as something with more substance to it. That's no one's fault, just an inevitability when the decision was made in the pre-production stage to remain faithful to the source material. I understand and even appreciate many of the criticisms leveled against it, but at the same time there's no denying the on screen results are above average in every possible category. The unusual rating above comes from sensing this is exactly the kind of movie I'll forget about it in less than a month, if I haven't already. Or maybe I'm just kind of disturbed only half a star would separate this from the very best, putting it on par with films that actually do dig deeper. Either way, it seems those most offended by The Help are more against the idea of it being made in the first place, which becomes another issue altogether. In this case, approaching a movie for what it is rather than what it isn't, is a tip some critics could have taken from audiences.