By Mike Davis
The Help is an incredibly cautious film about a very important piece of American history. It tells the story about how black maids in Jackson, MS decided to let a white woman write a best-selling novel about their experiences. While the film is enjoyable, with powerful undeniably performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain, it bounces in tone between light comedy and social drama, but never finding a perfect balance between the two. It’s recommended for an enjoyable viewing experience, and may take home Oscars for acting, but the film doesn’t take enough chances or risks to take home the big prize.
Midnight in Paris is a wonderfully energetic, gleeful, and nostalgic effort from Woody Allen that sits as one of the director’s best. It’s happy, kind hearted, exuberant, joyous, and very witty. Owen Wilson plays Gil (the Woody Allen character of this film), a screenwriter who encounters writers block as he is attempting to write his first novel. He and his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) are vacationing in Paris, when strange and magical things start happening to him after midnight and he begins to live out his wildest dreams. To avoid spoilers, I will not go into detail about his nightly exploits. This is a wonderfully light and happy piece about the joy and dangers of living in the past, and the importance of living life to the fullest in the here and now. While not very likely to take home any of the major prizes at the Academy Awards, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable movie that should not be missed!
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is arguably one of the most ambitious films ever to be produced. It attempts to accomplish nothing less than capture the essence and nuances of life, after-life, human history, and all of existence, and fit it into one two-and-a-half hour film. And, ultimately, it succeeds. It follows a very typical American family in the 1950s, consisting of a Mother, Father, and three sons. The film is not so much interested in them as characters as it is with them as specimen, examples of life. It’s surreal and wistful cinematography paints them as essences of human life, fascinated with their emotions & conflicts. Brad Pitt gives the most powerful performances of his career as the patriarch of the family, with the lovely Jessica Chastain exuding playful innocence as the mother. The film also goes back to the beginning of the universe, forward to the ages of dinosaurs, and all the way into the present day as it examines one of the sons as an adult (Sean Penn), and even further into the afterlife, in a very beautiful and surreal emotional sequence on a beach. While it is an unbelievably powerful and accomplished film, it may not be accessible to many mainstream audiences, which may be its biggest obstacle when contending at the Academy Awards.
Alexander Payne’s The Descendents is a well-made family drama with a, great performance from George Clooney, that ultimately falls victim to its setting and tone. The film’s dramatic storyline is very well handled, but it is too greatly offset by the laid-back setting of Hawaii to have as great an emotional impact as it could with a more consistently dramatic tone. There are also some narrative flaws, such as an excessive use of voice-over narration by Clooney’s character at the beginning of the film. This makes it feel as if the film is trying to force-feed exposition to an audience it believes isn’t capable of comprehending it otherwise. It also hinders its ability to hook audiences into the story from the beginning. Despite these flaws, The Descendents manages to be dramatic and emotionally effective, with a strong performance from George Clooney. It also appears to be pleasing moviegoers and critics alike, and might manage to bring home Academy Awards for best actor in a motion picture and/or best picture.