So, the Oscars happened. If you missed it, they were pretty straightforward this year, with no major surprises. The Artist swept up most of the awards it was expected to, including the biggies: Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), and Best Picture. Meryl Streep finally has another Oscar, and the Best Supporting winners were the same people who’d been winning everything all season (Christopher Plummer for Beginners and Octavia Spencer for The Help. Out of the nine Best Picture nominees, we actually managed to see four prior to the ceremonies (reviews on three of those are here), and we’re still working to catch up on a couple. The remainder I guess I’m just not that interested in. Anyway, I thought I’d group the more recent two 2011 Best Picture nominees together in one post, so here you have it. We’ll get around to seeing The Descendents someday, probably.
I actually had very little interest in The Help before it started getting a lot of awards buzz. It sounded sappy and a lot of people took offense at how the racial issues and tensions were dealt with (which will always be the case). I guess I can’t entirely disagree with those issues, but I do think there are a lot of good things to be found in the movie. Whether or not it ought to have been a Best Picture nominee is a matter of opinion (In mine? Probably not.) but that’s neither here nor there at this point.
The Help is the story of a recently graduated young woman, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi looking for something to boost her into the world of serious writing. She finds her inspiration in the huge racial divide between her friends and their black maids, who keep their households running and raise their children while being paid a pittance and subjected to things like being forced to use separate bathrooms. Skeeter turns to two members of “The Help,” Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, Meryl Streep be damned) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who give her the inside scoop on their lives. Meanwhile, Skeeter’s “friend” Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, fabulously villainous) is penning an initiative to have a servant’s bathroom installed in every home in the state, and Celia, a newcomer to town (Jessica Chastain, utterly charming) finds herself ostracized by the society ladies led by Hilly.
Is it sappy? Most definitely. Does it just barely scratch the surface of the tensions that led up to the civil rights movement? Indeed. Are there some really great performances to be had from a cast of very talented ladies? YES, and that is what makes The Help worth watching. I do think that Viola Davis ought to have won the Oscar for Best Actress over Meryl Streep. I haven’t seen The Iron Lady, and probably won’t, but I am just not on the “Streep is the best actress ever” bandwagon. To me, she’s one of those actresses who is always herself. Davis was just so effortless and compelling in her portrayal of Aibileen. Her every move conveyed the struggle of a woman attempting to go through a life of ignominy with grace and dignity. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as Minny, but I actually thought that her performance was outshone by two other cast members: Chastain as the sweet and silly Celia was truly moving, and Bryce Dallas Howard really ought to have gained more recognition for her hateful and venomous Hilly.
As a movie, The Help is pretty straightforward. Again, it’s one of those that works really hard to tug at your heartstrings, and it succeeds, but I found myself wishing it had really dug into its subject a little more. The ending, too, was a little too cut-and-dried. It doesn’t indicate that the struggle is over, necessarily, but it could have given a little more weight to the idea that the fight was just beginning, too. The performances are what make it, and I’m glad to see a movie with a predominantly female cast achieve some serious attention, even if I’m not sure it was entirely deserving.
Unlike The Help, I was pretty excited about Hugo. It won several Oscars, mainly in artistic categories, and I daresay most of them were richly deserved. It certainly is a beautiful movie. However, I was ultimately very disappointed in the film, and along with The Help, I question its inclusion in the Best Picture race.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps the clocks running. No-one knows he’s there, and he lives like a shadow: stealing food from the merchants inside the station and making sure to keep away from the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who likes to round up urchins and send them to the orphanage. Hugo has another big secret: an automaton that his father (Jude Law) found abandoned and was trying to repair when he died. Hugo thinks that if he can fix the mechanical man, it will convey to him a message from his father. To that end he also steals mechanical bits and bobs from a morose toy-seller (Ben Kingsley) who, we learn, is a lot more than he seems. Chloe Grace Moretz also stars as the young ward of Kingsley’s character, “Papa Georges,” and there’s a fun supporting cast of various Brits, many of them Harry Potter alum.
I’ll leave the synopsis there so as not to give too much away, but I will tell you that what Hugo really is is a love letter to the movies. Like The Artist, it hearkens back to the early days of cinema. That the film is directed by Scorsese is less of a surprise once you understand that it deals with the history of film (of which he is obviously a scholar), and again, it’s a truly gorgeous piece of work, with no detail left to chance. However, it suffers greatly from being adapted from a novel that is half words and half pictures. The dialogue is at times painfully slow, and the attempts to inject some humor and humanity via the various characters at the train station (including Sasha Baron Cohen’s war veteran inspector) just drag things out even further. With those extra plotlines going on, I felt as though the story of Hugo himself was given short shrift, and Asa Butterfield, while very engaging, was not given enough to work with.
Children’s movies these days seem to be run the gamut from completely insipid to moderately intelligent and well-done. Sadly, I am not entirely sure that Hugo ought to be classified as a children’s movie. I find it difficult to believe that an average kid would want to sit still for the whole thing when I could barely manage it myself. As a work of art, it’s quite beautiful, but as a piece of entertainment, it falls somewhat short of the mark. While the novel benefits from a “less is more” approach, the film adaptation tries too hard, and ends up disappointingly lackluster as a result.