Monday, August 29, 2011

"The Help" may be the most uncontroversial controversial movie ever; anguished broken people trip by the light of "Another Earth"

First off: finished reviews of SOURCE CODE, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, JANE EYRE, and HANNA are finally up. What? It's only been, er, five months.

And now, for more recent movie fare:


directed by Tate Taylor
starring Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek
based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about black maids and their white female employers in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi, has been wildly popular among the soccer-mom set (and others), less so among African Americans (and others) turned off by the premise: a young white woman persuades her friends’ maids to tell her how they really feel about their work and their employers, so she can turn their accounts into a book. A number of critics have questioned the need for yet another story in which the black characters occupy largely passive, subservient roles while the spotlight remains on the enlightened white protagonists. Some take particular issue with the idea of black persons in the ’60s needing a white person to help them speak out, in light of the many courageous African Americans who were speaking out at the time, on their own initiative, and at considerable risk to their lives.

I’ve read The Help and while it’s not without problems, I submit it’s also more complicated and shaded than the negative view suggests. Of the three main characters, two are black, one white, and the narrative is equally weighted among the three of them, as the movie also generally reflects. Neither of the black protagonists can fairly be called passive or subservient, and to the extent they or their peers remain silent about any ill treatment, they’re motivated primarily, if not solely, by economic necessity. And even in the face of that necessity, one of them, Minny, is still notoriously outspoken; the other, Aibileen, while outwardly quieter, inwardly burns at every injustice, and proves to be the primary mover in getting all the other maids to participate in the writing project. The civil rights movement, while relevant and a powerful counterpoint to their story, isn’t supposed to be represented or displaced by it; the tales they tell are as much about the complexity of the ties that bind them to their employers as the injustice of the social order that taints those ties. All that said, there’s no denying The Help is a bit of a white liberal wish fulfillment fantasy—Stockett herself has virtually admitted as much in discussing her affection for the now-deceased maid who raised her, and her wish that she had been able to ask the sorts of questions that her stand-in, “Skeeter” Phelan, puts to Aibileen, Minny, and their peers.

The movie pretty much keeps intact all of the book’s strengths and weaknesses—chief among the former, the vividness of the female characters (the men are barely present here), boosted by stellar performances from the cast. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone convincingly inhabit the three central characters: Davis, not surprisingly, is the most nuanced as Aibileen; Spencer the funniest and snappiest as Minny; while Stone holds her own as the coltish, independent-minded Skeeter. The supporting players add extra comic flair, with Bryce Dallas Howard staying just this side of cartoonish villainy as Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter’s frenemy and the most virulently racist of her set, and Sissy Spacek getting in some good cracks in her limited screen time as Hilly’s put-upon mother. Jessica Chastain, too, in a 180 from her ethereal mother-goddess role in “The Tree of Life,” scores laughs as the ditzy town outcast who married out of her class and also happens to be the only white woman in town (other than Skeeter) who treats her maid, Minny, as an equal and a friend. If this all seems too feel-good, that’s because it is; but the actresses make it work.

Not that “The Help” is all laughs and sunshine. Even if the worst violence of the civil rights struggle remains mostly offscreen, there’s ample racism of a particularly insidious nature on display – most of it channeled through Hilly Holbrook, the story's resident Wicked Witch of the West. There’s also plenty of heart-tugging, and you may find yourself reaching for a Kleenex more than once; Davis’ face alone shows all the wear and tear Aibileen’s experiences over the years have taken on her soul. Though for my money, the best bit of acting in the movie comes from Allison Janney (who up till then is unremarkable as Skeeter’s mom), in a single scene in which, under pressure, her character makes a terrible decision that leads to even more terrible consequences. That scene, along with Mrs. Phelan’s character generally, was revised to make her more sympathetic, which admittedly tends to undercut one of the book’s subtler messages—that otherwise decent, well-meaning people can be intransigent racists. Still, Janney plays the moment so well it’s hard to complain about the change.

Ultimately, “The Help” is closer to what used to be called a “woman’s picture” (minus the pejorative connotations of that term) than a picture about race. Its underlying theme, as in the book, is that all these women are inextricably emotionally connected to one another, and that these connections transcend the arbitrary social boundaries that separate them. Understandably, some may find this message glosses over the destructiveness and divisiveness of racism, which still lingers today. But its appeal is undeniable, and will undoubtedly help “The Help” find a wide audience.


Also saw:


directed by Mike Cahill
starring Brit Marling, William Mapother

That “other Earth” that floats, dreamlike, through this film? It’s a MacGuffin. Put another way, “Another Earth” isn’t sci-fi, at least no more so than, say, “Solaris” was. The improbable (indeed, scientifically impossible) premise of this Sundance fave—that an exact duplicate of our own planet would suddenly materialize in our sky, apparently in our solar system and within a distance reachable by space travel—is no more than a jumping-off point for questions about chance, choice, and redemption, which are thoughtfully if not particularly profoundly explored in the script.

Newcomer Brit Marling, who also co-wrote that script, stars as Rhoda Dawes, a bright young girl and budding astronomer who, on the night the “other earth” first appears, makes a disastrously stupid mistake that wipes out her promising future and exacts a far higher cost from several other people, including a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother). Four years later, we see Rhoda living with her family in Connecticut, but basically existing in utter isolation—that is, until she encounters Burroughs, who’s now a shell of his former self. Intending to apologize, she loses her nerve when he doesn’t recognize her and instead of identifying herself, tries to make amends to him in other ways. The result is the gradual development of a tentative relationship between the two that feels both plausible and queasily wrong. Meanwhile, Rhoda contemplates entering a contest to win a free seat on a privately funded shuttle flight to “Earth 2.” She can’t help but wonder—wouldn’t you?—if there’s another version of herself over there, and if so, whether she’s made the same decisions, the same mistakes, or followed precisely the same path. (In one of the movie’s best scenes, a scientist makes direct communication with a counterpart on Earth 2, and finds herself talking to…herself. Or is it really herself?)

“Another Earth” has the grainy indie-film look down pat, and like others of its ilk, it’s a little too in love with the use of hand-held camera, though the jagged movement and bleak, wintry hues reflect Rhoda’s mental and emotional state aptly enough. The plot follows a fairly predictable course, though one tinged with dread at the prospect of Burroughs’ reaction if he ever discovers the truth about Rhoda. (That dread is heightened by the casting of Mapother, who tends to play menacing types and whom I, for one, will always associate with creepy Ethan from “Lost.”) Overall, though, the film is less a suspense or plot-driven vehicle than it is a mood piece that plays with various philosophical and existential questions, tossing them out there for the viewer’s consideration, rather than rigorously engaging them. This approach doesn’t always work; for instance, I could have done without the saintly, shuffling Indian mystic whose name, I kid you not, is Purdeep, and who seems to serve as a walking trope rather than an actual character. But for the most part, the film’s light touch is appropriate to the modesty of its scope: it’s trying to make you think, not blow your mind, and at that level it succeeds.


Capsule reviews:


directed by Glenn Ficcara & John Requa
starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, others

Although it’s being billed as a romantic comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is really more of a dramedy. It seems to be mining Cameron Crowe territory with its equal attention to the difficulties of beginning, ending, and sustaining relationships, but sadly comes up short. (That’s not really a slur, considering Cameron Crowe himself came up short with his last film, “Elizabethtown.”) It’s hard to tap into both the humor and the pathos of love and create an emotionally coherent film, and this isn’t it. Tonally, CSL feels disjointed, shifting abruptly between various registers, from poignant reflection to broad comedy to puppy-dog romance to full-on tearjerker mode and back again. The quality, too, is uneven: there are some wonderful moments—mostly involving Ryan Gosling as the ladykiller who teaches Steve Carell’s schlumpy divorcé how to be a pickup artist, but himself falls for the one girl who resists his game—and some cringeworthy ones, mostly involving the teenage son of Carell’s character and the beestung-lipped babysitter with whom he’s besotted. Gosling and Carell have a pleasant rapport, and Emma Stone, as Gosling’s love interest, is as winsome as always. But I never found myself truly caring about the relationship between Carell’s sad sack and his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), which I sense is meant to be the emotional core of the film. Perhaps the writers should have spent more time on developing that relationship, and less on the teenage son’s romantic travails. Not that teenage romantic travails are by definition less interesting; they’re just not made compelling here. Paging Cameron Crowe, circa 1989…



directed by Joe Johnston
starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones

“Captain America” was exactly what I was looking for on a hot July night—good silly fun. There’s something inherently appealing about a superhero who was once the proverbial 90-pound weakling, and the movie spends just the right amount of time building sympathy for him before juicing him up, even if the sight of Chris Evans’ head atop a shrimpy body that’s clearly not his is somewhat distracting. Evans manages to convey the fundamental decency of the “weak” Steve Rogers, who’s all heart, no muscle, and has some nice moments with the always-great Stanley Tucci, barely recognizable as the German doctor who recognizes Steve’s quality and chooses him for his superhero serum. Post-transformation Steve, aka Captain America, is less interesting, though still likable, but that doesn’t matter so much once the action kicks into full gear. Besides, there are plenty more interesting characters around him, including the delightfully unhinged Nazi villain, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), and the gruff, unflappable American officer played by Tommy Lee Jones. The movie’s supposed to take place during WWII, but the stylized, vaguely unreal sets and coy love story (with Hayley Atwell as a doughty British female agent) feel a little like they’ve been lifted from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The plot barrels efficiently towards a climax that would feel much more dramatic if we didn’t all damn well know the whole thing is just a segue to next year’s “Avengers.” Still, as a result of that tie-in, the movie ends on an unexpectedly wistful note that’s rather charming. And I admit it: I’m looking forward to “The Avengers,” if only to see Chris Hemsworth’s Thor interact with Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man.