REVIEW: The Help

9 08 2011

Cynics would say a movie like “The Help” is just a slightly high-brow appeal to white paternalism and guilt, an ex post facto vindication of prevalent attitudes thanks to some mettlesome few (an appeal that “To Kill A Mockingbird” may or may not have ridden to classic status).  But I challenge the cynics to sit through the movie and not be moved.  Because whether it’s set in the past, present, or future, a movie about courage that is well-written, pristinely directed, and impressively acted can be nothing but moving and inspiring.

The movie is being released in a time frame in the cinematic calendar year usually reserved for light chick lit, and while “The Help” will definitely appeal to women, it’s hardly flippant or breezy.  The movie tackles prejudice, both beyond and within the realm of race, and other issues that still affect women to this day.  Director Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of author Kathryn Stockett, gives them the treatment they deserve while also retaining that page-turner bliss that comes only from reading a great novel, a rarity in adaptations nowadays.  He captures not just a moment in time but larger, universal truths about human reactions to injustice, be they from the side of they oppressed or the oppressors.

Had he not appreciated how each self-contained storyline affected the work as a whole, “The Help” would be a bloated, convoluted haul of a film.  Taylor flows seamlessly between the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her nearly surrogate mothering of young Mae Mobley while her real parents neglect her, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and her new job cleaning and practically nannying the air-headed but goodhearted Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Skeeter (Emma Stone) and her rebellious challenging of social and cultural norms for young white women, and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the scared white woman pushing “separate but equal” nearly a decade after it was ruled unconstitutional.  With some help from a fabulous ensemble of dedicated actresses, all the stories feel complete by the end, and none shines excessively brighter than the others.

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REVIEW: Get Low

15 12 2010

It’s always nice when a movie like “Get Low” comes along.  While it’s nothing earth-shattering for cinema as we know it, the movie is just a witty but serious drama propelled by great performances by capable actors and an interesting script that keeps the plot moving.

Robert Duvall stars as the aging hermit Felix Bush, living pleasantly in solitude as the town surrounding him seeks to make him a sort of urban legend.  Rumors abound that he’s a cold-blooded killer and a devil worshipper.  Granted, Felix doesn’t do much to stop these notions, chasing off trespassers with a shotgun and putting up “beware of mule” signs.  But all of a sudden, Felix decides to emerge with a grand plan – a living funeral for the entire town to attend.

It’s hard to tell exactly why Felix wants this at first, particularly because Duvall has given him such a hardened exterior that masks all his true intentions.  Yet pulsating underneath is a heart and soul, and only an actor like Duvall can make it beat in such a profound way.  Slowly but surely, he unravels the character until we see Felix completely unexposed, and the sheer raw emotion makes for a powerful last scene where Duvall goes broke.  The success of the entire movie rests on Duvall and his ability to convey a whole host of emotions at once, and “Get Low” works because he is in peak form.

While the whole business of “getting low” keeps things fairly serious, there’s plenty to keep the movie a light and enjoyable watch.  Bill Murray is perfectly cast as money-grubbing funeral parlor owner Frank Quinn, who makes the living funeral something of a carnival attraction to make up for bad business.  It’s a sly, devious, and understatedly humorous character, and Murray milks it for all the comedy he can get.  It’s Felix who gets us to start chuckling as he unwillingly does ridiculous promotional stunts, but it’s Frank who keeps us laughing with his off-handed comments.  Add in Lucas Blacks as Frank’s second-in-command along for the ride and Sissy Spacek as Felix’s old love to make things grave, and you have one heck of an acting ensemble.

There’s nothing to go proclaim from the rooftops about “Get Low.”  It’s not going to amount to much more than nice acting, a suitably engaging script, and a glimpse at some beautiful Southern woods and forests.  But sometimes, that’s just the kind of movie you need.  B+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 5, 2010)

5 03 2010

The celebration of the Academy Awards here at Marshall and the Movies extends to all corners of the blog, including my weekly “F.I.L.M.” of the Week column.  I felt like this week’s movie should be a Best Picture nominee, so I decided on “In the Bedroom.”  In 2001, this subtle work by Todd Field (director of my personal favorite “Little Children”) lost out to “A Beautiful Mind.”  Yet it still remains one of the most talked-about Best Picture entries from that year, so I have been compelled for a long time to watch it.

“In the Bedroom” was definitely NOT what I expected.  I had heard people call it one of the most forceful and compelling dramas of the decade, so I was anticipating a typical display of strong emotion and grief a la “Revolutionary Road.”  However, other than one incredibly affecting scene, it is a very subtle work.  The movie struck me as strange when I first watched it because it doesn’t really cling to any genre or cliché.  It is an unsparingly honest portrait of a couple dealing with the murder of their son.  Nothing is held back; nothing is candy-coated.

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson turn in deserving Academy Award-nominated performances as the aforementioned parents, whose twenty-something son (Nick Stahl) gets caught up in a messy love triangle with a single mother (Marisa Tomei) and her jealous and violent ex-husband (William Mapother, Ethan Rom from TV’s “Lost”).  They warn him to get out, but he believes he has something special with Natalie.  His defiance ultimately leads to his death at the hand of her former spouse.  Matt and Ruth (Wilkinson and Spacek) have a lot to deal with following the death: grief, sorrow, regret, longing, loneliness.  These all contribute to the crumbling of their relationship and any sort of peace of mind they might have found.

“In the Bedroom” will shock you in many ways, chiefly with its brutal realism but also with the state that it leaves you in.  I wasn’t quite sure how I felt when the credits began to roll, and I didn’t become more certain in the days and weeks that followed.  It’s not an unsatisfying feeling, and I’m not even sure that I would call it depressing.  It’s certainly unconventional, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel.  The movie presents the events as they are, void of sensationalism.  Perhaps you’ll feel a little numb – or not feeling anything at all.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 5, 2010)

5 02 2010

The “F.I.L.M of the Week” is not independent, just to get that out of the way.  “North Country” is, however, first-rate.  The movie’s critics will probably say, “Haven’t I seen this movie before?  Oh, right, every two hours on Lifetime and Hallmark channels!”  To them, I say – yeah, maybe a little bit.  Sure, it doesn’t stray too far from the stock story of courage in the face of terrible circumstances.  But it has a tremendous power which can make you forgive the formulaic nature of the movie.

This power comes from a fantastic ensemble cast, led by Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances.  Theron plays Josey, a determined woman with two children that she needs to feed.  She moves back to her hometown and takes a job at the local mine, where she can bring home the biggest paycheck.  There are very few women employed there, and the men go out of their way to make sure they know that they aren’t welcome.  Horrible epithets fly and despicable deeds are committed.  The men succeed in their goal of making the women dread coming to work.  Josey and the other women, including the tough-as-nails Glory (McDormand), try to stand up for themselves, only to be told to “take it like a man.”

But what they don’t count on is Josey’s iron will.  She calls friend and lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to take on a landmark case – the first ever class action sexual harassment suit.  The town instantly turns against her, thinking she might be trying to shut down the mine.  Josey even manages to earn the ire of her father (Richard Jenkins).  But, as all these movies tell us, humanity and courage triumph over all perils.

Keep an eye out for Jeremy Renner, the now Oscar-nominated star of “The Hurt Locker,” who delivers a particularly haunting performance as one of the main perpetrators.  He also has a unique position in the conundrum because he was an old flame of Josey’s during high school.  It’s another role filled with emotional depth that Renner absolutely nails.  If anyone had any doubts, he’s definitely not a one-trick pony.

I’m sure the real events that inspired “North Country” were much less campy and melodramatic.  Nonetheless, the film gets you worked up, emotional, and impassioned.  For just another inspirational movie, that’s about as good it gets.