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25th February
written by Mad Cow

Nine pictures were nominated for Best Picture this year. All but two, The Descendants and The Tree of Life are tied to an historical event or a nostalgic look at the “olden days.” War Horse, The Artist, and Hugo celebrate those old days, while Midnight in Paris provides us with a delightful antidote to such sentimentality. The Help, Moneyball, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close try to make sense of historical markers important to the American people. Are Americans filled with the urge to look back?

My Choices: The Descendants or War Horse

Prediction: Either War Horse or Hugo will win – in celebration of Spielberg or Scorsese

The Descendants

Mad Cow’s rating:

My pick for best picture is The Descendants. It’s a gentle movie, well written and with great acting. It’s not epic and tries to be too funny in some wrong places, but it’s not cute, not nostalgic particularly, and it’s original. It lacks the amazing cinematography of some of the others. On the minus side, it’s not hard-hitting and may not stand the test of time. The thing is, I’m not sure any of the nominees can meet the longevity test. For a longer review, go to If War Horse wins instead, I’ll understand.

The Artist

Mad Cow’s rating: three cowbells

The buzz says that The Artist will get the top prize, and I’ll be darned if I know why. It’s delightful, silent most of the way, with sight gags, exaggerated movements and smiles that make us smile. Jean Dujardin is quite good as the silent film actor who can’t quite make the transition to the talkies, but he’s no match for Berenice Bejo, his friend and co-star who does make it. Both are up for awards. Berenice lights up the screen, surely evoking some of the audience awe in the old days. Clever jokey quirks use some sound. And there’s an amazing little dog. But it’s a very simple story and while it’s put together with great skill, for me it doesn’t rise to the level of best picture.

War Horse

Mad Cow’s rating:

Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse, another sentimental throw-back, avoids the restrictions of being too loyal to the past. While it reminds one of long-ago movies, it isn’t Black Beauty. Its manner is more up-to-date while nostalgically romantic, although the romance is interspersed with the cruelties of World War I. The film revolves around the horse, Joey, originally purchased by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) as a plough horse. When Ted is unable to train him, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) takes over. At the beginning of the war Ted sells Joey to the cavalry to avoid financial ruin and Albert joins up. Joey changes hands several times and Albert loses sight of him.

The movie is rich in images of the English countryside and spectacular cinematography. The dialogue and pace keep the film from being too sentimental, not an easy feat since the main theme is “boy and horse.” It’s sad that men used such beautiful innocent creatures for their war games. If you don’t take to animals, then you may hate this movie. We who are so inclined follow horse Joey and we fall in love with him, even as we learn a lot about World War I. Another piece that carries this movie is the fact that everyone counts. The cast is a skillful ensemble, with great performances from all, especially Joey. NOTE: this was a Broadway play, with puppets playing the horses and a very small cast.


Mad Cow’s rating:

Martin Scorsese’s film, Hugo, in 3D, is an old-fashioned children’s story based on the brilliant book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The cinematography is glorious and clearly inspired by the book’s wonderful illustrations. It follows an orphan boy who lives in the Paris train station and keeps the clocks going while he tries to put together an unusual robot his father had been working on before his untimely death. The plot is peppered with corny vignettes featuring the station vendors and the station regulars.

Based on the  true story  of the genius filmmaker Georges Méliès, this story is also a celebration of the silent movie era. The Artist could have used the very amusing “behind-the-scenes-of-silent-movie” scenes, one of the best and most fun parts of this picture and a part that could have been introduced sooner. This movie garnered eleven Oscar nominations. Apparently James Cameron told Scorsese that Hugo is the best use of 3D he has ever seen, including his own movies (counting Avatar). Go figure.

Hugo is beautiful but the dialogue is weak, the pace slow, and the child actor, Asa Butterfield, is awful. His girlfriend Isabelle, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is not much better. One can’t help making an unfavorable comparison to Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson as Harry Potter and Hermione. Hugo meets Isabelle through her grandfather Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who operates a toy and candy stall in the station. Kingsley doesn’t seem to rise to the occasion, but instead appears to be what Scorsese imagines as a child’s perception of  grumpy old man.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Mad Cow’s rating:

I wanted to like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a movie about a boy whose father died in one of the twin towers on 9/11. New York and that day will always be in my heart. Alas, the film is much like a made-for-TV movie, that is to say too pat with sloppy inconsistencies of character and far too many disparate demands for suspension of disbelief. The dad, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), was the perfect father while mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) is not even close to the perfect mother, although she eventually gets redeemed in a sappy stupid way. Why can’t American filmmakers leave well enough alone? Anyway, their “Asperger’s like” son Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn)  finds a safe-deposit key with a name on it left by his father and sets out to discover what it will open. His grandmother’s mysterious and silent boarder, “The Renter” (Max von Sydow) accompanies him over New York in search of the person who originally owned the key.

What I liked about Loud and Close was the demonstration that people who live in NYC are for the most part friendly “regular” people, a fact that is foreign to many who live elsewhere. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are really good as two people peripherally involved with the mysterious key even though their story too is sappy. Von Snydow was nominated for best supporting actor, bringing to three the nominees (The Artist’s Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin and von Snydow) who never spoke a word in their films!


Mad Cow’s rating: three cowbells

Moneyball, starring the talented Brad Pitt is a cool film about how a statistician from Yale, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) changed baseball forever. It’s a fun movie based on the true story of Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, who was willing to try a new way to choose players. The dialogue is snappy as it should, co-written by Aaron Sorkin. Philip Seymour Hoffman is marvelous as the A’s manager who thinks the whole scheme is crazy. It could win, it being about America’s game and all (unless we now think America’s game is Wheel of Fortune). But I don’t think so. It’s an entertaining story but doesn’t go deep enough or wide enough for the big prize. Jonah Hill got a nomination and he was good, but it’s unlikely he’ll beat his heavy-duty competition (Branagh, Nolte, Plummer and von Sydow).

Midnight in Paris

Mad Cow’s rating:

Midnight in Paris, written and directed by Woody Allen, is charming. It’s about a guy, Gil (Owen Wilson) who longs for the wonderful old days of Paris, the days of Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and many others. Magically, he is transported to the past each night, meeting artists and writers. I loved the intelligence of the writing and the perfect exaggerations of the 20s characters. It’s unmistakably an Allen comedy, just like the old days, rivaling The Purple Rose of Cairo.

People often talk about the “Woody Allen character” in many of his comedies and Gil is clearly this person. Somehow I find this character amusing every time, while others find him annoying. He’s a nice guy but a dreamer, humbly doubting himself and always asking philosophical questions. Woody cast himself in this role repeatedly, but eventually had to hand it over as he aged, especially since the young guy generally gets the young girl. Unlike Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas, for example, Woody has never been content to play an actual old guy on screen and thus has confined himself to directing.

I don’t think that today’s Academy is likely to give an Oscar for film or direction or best film to a guy who never shows up for the show, even though they have done so before, a bunch of times. The show itself has to make money and Allen can be seen as a spoil sport, and Hollywood may wish to downplay Woody’s  marriage to his ex-wife’s daughter. Woody did show up in 2002 to plead for movie makers to resume making movies in NYC after 9/11, but not to receive an award.

The Tree of Life

Mad Cow’s rating:

The Help

Mad Cow’s rating:  three cowbells

I have reviewed The Tree of Life and The Help elsewhere. The former is for the most part a pretentious bore. The latter has marvelous performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, but it’s simple and fundamentally formulaic. For more, go to:

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