On to the final stretch now, with three movies none of which I would have chosen to see if it hadn’t been for this project. That’s part of the point of course. I doubt I would have gone to see Precious two years ago if I hadn’t attempted this experiment then, but I was very, very glad that I did – I thought it was quite magnificent.

I can’t be quite so positive about The Help but I can say that it was nowhere near as bad as I had feared. I am quick to criticise movies for being too long and/or too unfocused and The Help is both of these things, but they weirdly help it to overcome a much more profound and serious problem which is that its central storyline is appallingly trite, sententious, self-important and dated. I have no doubt that the indignities heaped upon black maids in the American South were ghastly, but this is old ground and this story – of a white girl (headstrong, doesn’t fit in, speaks her own mind – standard-issue in other words) who documents the stories of these maids for a book which becomes a best-seller – can’t add much to the corpus.

Not only does it have little to add, the whole approach brings a succession of problems, from the sometimes “Uncle Tom” portrayals of the black characters, to their need to be rescued by a white woman, to the fact that while I’m sure the details are well-researched, the story of the book and its publication is not true. This all means that one particularly outré choice is rendered rather hard to, um, swallow.

In the central role is Emma Stone, who is perfectly capable of playing this kind of part, for whom the word “spunky” could have been devised, but she never seems credibly of the era, in the writing or the playing. She never manages the artful trick pulled off by, say, Peggy in Mad Men – aware of the limitations that this society places upon her, and yet still credibly a part of that society and not an alien visitor or time-traveller. This is a shame, especially as the rest of the movie captures the period and place extremely well, and here is where the length and lack of focus helps. By giving the story breathing space and by creating an ensemble feel, writer-director Tate Taylor allows us to spend time away from the central and problematic central narrative and explore some smaller and more intimate stories, and hang out with a vibrant supporting cast.

These include a lovely turn from Allison Janney as Stone’s mother, hilariously useless white trash Jessica Chastain and some deliciously vile work from Bryce Dallas Howard as the apotheosis of casual racism. And this is without mentioning the excellent performances of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis as the two maids who are the first to jump on board. Spencer is sometimes given some unfortunately stereotypical dialogue, but her manner is so engaging I couldn’t help but smile at everything she did. Viola Davis doesn’t get as much screentime as I might have liked, but towards the end she is given the task of landing the film’s message and grounding it in some kind of human emotion which she manages with real feeling and dignity.

So, not quite the horrendous movie-of-the-week I feared, but still a TV movie with aspirations rather than a real piece of modern cinema. The same cannot exactly be said of The Tree of Life, the fifth film (in over forty years) from famous recluse and madman Terrence Malick. This film provoked both boos and applause at Cannes where it eventually walked off with the Palm D’Or and initially, it did capture me in its spell. Opening with an American family (father Brad Pitt, mother Jessica Chastain again) receiving the news that one of their sons has been killed, we then flash forward to the present day, where the boy’s brother is now a grown up architect played by Sean Penn. From where we go back in time to the creation of the universe (yes, you read that correctly) and then track the family’s early life through the eyes of the Penn character.

Presumably, the need to attach the relatively trivial story to an event as big as the creation of life is an attempt to give it greater depth, profundity and impact, but actually it has the opposite effect. Just as we grieve more for Luke Skywalker’s severed hand than we care about or even notice the dozens of anonymous stormtroopers gunned down by the good guys, it’s by placing us right at the heart of deeply felt events that film-makers can engage our emotions – not by continually insisting on showing us the bigger picture.

Equally misjudged I felt was the camerawork. Malick shoots the entire movie in either extreme close-ups or long wide shots (fitting for a movie which can’t decide on an appropriate scale from suburban to universal) but always with a steadicam lurching drunkenly around the actors. During the opening parts of the movie, this felt appropriate as a visual dramatization of this disorienting effects of grief and loss, but as the movie settled down into its long middle sequence, and as the by and large perfectly ordinary episodes of childhood played out, the looming, reeling camera became distracting and the effectiveness was lost.

It’s easy to give a patina of profundity to a narrative that hasn’t earned it by shooting it elliptically, by chopping up the time-frame or by juxtaposing other material, but is that all that The Tree of Life is doing? I’m not entirely sure. There’s clearly something important going on here for Malick – something about a childhood struggle between rigidity and clarity on one side (represented by Pitt’s manly father) and grace and flexibility on the other (represented by Chastain) – but something has got lost in the translation. I don’t mind the visual poetry of the opening sequence, nor indeed the similarly abstract closing, but if you abandon any sense of narrative and just show an audience a montage of images then to me the appropriate comparison isn’t with written poetry, it’s with a pop music video.

For me, though, it’s the banality of the middle section which kills it. The events of Jack’s life are just not interesting or extraordinary enough to bear the weight of pomposity which get heaped upon them by the modern-day bookends. And while Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are both fine, second-billed Sean Penn gets almost nothing to do (which may explain his negative attitude towards the film).

Overall though, in a year in which so many Best Picture nominees seem so entirely ordinary, I’m glad that the Academy recognised The Tree of Life. It has plenty of fans, even if I’m not one, and it’s certainly a bracingly original, strongly authored piece of work that deserves to have others decide for themselves whether there’s anything to it or not. That I found little may ultimately be my loss.

Finally then, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which has got pretty rotten reviews for a Best Picture nominee. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and directed by Stephen Daldry, this is the first movie I can remember which uses the events of 11 September 2001 not as the main focus of the narrative (United 93, World Trade Centre) but as a mere MacGuffin – a device to get the plot moving and nothing more. That plot is the story of a young boy played with suitable intensity by Thomas Horn – cast after his prize-winning performance on a TV quiz show! – who finds a key presumably belonging to his father who was killed in the attacks. With his probably-Asberger’s brain pulsating furiously, young Oskar Schell sets off in search of the key’s owner in a quest to reconnect with his father.

There is some good stuff here, but there are some lumpen choices which consistently drag the movie back down. One is the largely-redundant voice-over which continually points out what it might have been more satisfying for us to discover on our own. Then there’s the polished and syrupy direction which makes everything look like an advert, even (or especially) the recreated shots of the stricken towers. Overall, there’s a strong sense that the piece has been constructed, rather than evolved. Now, of course, all screenplays are constructed, but the best artfully conceal the nuts-and-bolts of their construction (just as the worst of those which don’t collapse entirely reveal all of the scaffolding). With Oskar’s father sending him off on treasure hunts, the selection of a key with no lock as the clue which Oskar must pursue, the juxtaposition of Oskar’s secret phone messages from his father with his friendship with Max von Sydow’s mute, the whole thing feels deliberately assembled and this makes it very easy to disengage.

It’s not even as if this makes a feature of its artful construction, like Amélie, say or Life is Beautiful. On the contrary, von Sydow’s character is dropped into the story very late in the day to prop up a narrative which is running out of steam, and then summarily removed having altered nothing. It’s a lovely performance, but a horribly clumsy bit of storytelling.

And then, suddenly, just when I was ready to give up on the whole thing, there’s a moment between Oskar and his mother, played with generous restraint by Sandra Bullock, which seems real and true and heartfelt. Some of the less credible details from earlier in the film are rendered much more believable, the script does manage to achieve a certain level of structural sureness and – yes! – that damned voice-over shuts up and for a whole ten minutes it’s a wonderful film.

Before the credits roll though, it’s slipped back into all its bad habits, with a closing sequence which is just as trite, unconvincing, mawkish and lumpen as before. Obviously designed as an Academy Award honey-pot (even down to the name of its central character subliminally suggesting gold statuettes), in the event, it won neither of the awards for which it was nominated.

Finally, let me assess my own performance. Out of eight predictions, I got six right which isn’t too bad for me. My out-there pick of Melissa McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress was proven wrong when the heavy favourite Octavia Spencer was named. And I was sure that The Artist would cement its success by winning Best Original Screenplay, but they actually gave it to Woody Allen. I was also pleased to see the excellent Rango scoop up the Best Animated Feature gong and delighted for Bret McKenzie who won Best Original Song.

Join me again next year – the standard surely can’t be any worse than it was this time!

The Oscars 2012 – Part Four – Predictions
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