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For your consideration, Part 4: An early look at Oscar

‘Hugo,” ‘The Help’ both fine, but flawed

POSTED: December 22, 2011 1:00 a.m.
Jaap Buitendijk/AP Photo/Paramount Pictures

Asa Butterfield portrays Hugo Cabret in a scene from "Hugo." The film, adapted from Brian Selznick's award-winning illustrated book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," is about a 12-year-old orphan who lives in a 1930 Paris train station.

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All of the films we've highlighted thus far have been art house fare, destined to reach only limited release. But the Academy Awards, unlike critics organizations and other awards shows, don't often stray too far from the mainstream. They tend to choose well-crafted and crowd-pleasing movies.

They also have a tendency to choose not the best films, but the films that boast the most impressive casts or directors. Which inevitably leads to over-rated Best Picture nominees. Hence our choices for this week.

The Help

Adapted from Kathryn Stockett's popular novel, "The Help" chronicles the efforts of recent college graduate Skeeter (Emma Stone) to document the lives of black maids in segregation era Jackson, Miss.

She focuses on Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), and her exposé ruffles feathers throughout Jackson, especially among Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her racist inner circle.

It's all about the acting with this one, because the script is hugely flawed.

The movie's sole mission is supposedly to tell the stories of black women yet it spends most of its time on white characters, most of whom are standard cookie-cutter Southern stereotypes.

Nor are these entirely untold stories. The 1990 film "The Long Walk Home" does a better job of contrasting the lives of African-American maids and their wealthy white employers in the segregated South. So do a number of short stories and novels.

"The Help" is earning praise even though its racial politics are outdated by decades. That is a testament to the power of the movie's many great performances, particularly those of Davis, Spencer and Jessica Chastain as Celia, one of the few complex white characters.

The film has earned a Golden Globe nomination and numerous acting awards. It has grossed more than $200 million and will undoubtedly be a home video hit. It's a virtual lock for an Oscar nomination, but expect a debate about whether it is deserving.

Hugo

Legendary director Martin Scorsese offers his first foray into both the 3D format and the family movie with "Hugo," an adaptation of Brian Selznick's book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy who lives alone atop a 1930s Paris train station. He spends his time avoiding a persistent station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen) who wants to send him to an orphanage and searching for parts to rebuild an automaton that belonged to his father (Jude Law).

Hugo's quest takes an unexpected turn when he meets aging shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his granddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Georges is bitterly hiding a secret from his past, which Hugo and Isabelle are determined to uncover.

"Hugo," along with "The Artist" and "My Week With Marilyn," is yet another love letter to the movies (it's no coincidence that just when the industry is in its most dire state, filmmakers are celebrating cinema by returning to its past). The story is built around Hugo, but the film doesn't find its energy until Méliès, who was a real, pioneering early filmmaker, becomes the focus.

Méliès was one of the first filmmakers to tell stories on screen. He was the first to push the industry into narrative filmmaking and remains one of the most important filmmakers in history. He created fantastic worlds borne of a unique, childlike imagination. His movies are delightful to this day.

It's wonderful that "Hugo" has revived interest in Méliès, but the rest of the film feels like an excuse for Scorsese to look back at film history and experiment with 3D. Hugo's own story falls flat. Like "The Help," it's highly questionable whether this is truly one of the 10 best films of the year.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.



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