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with George

Category: 3 Stars

The Help (2011)

Today, we tackle a rather tricky film to discuss. First off, I am a caucasian (do I capitalize that word?) male. I am telling you this in case there was any question, especially as we dive head-into a film about racism. I will never try to justify the horrible things that my race has done to other races (primarily and most horribly, in the United States at least, African-Americans), and I would like it to be understood that any criticisms I may have of The Help are not meant do so. Be warned, though, I will spoil the film within the following review.

For the first few minutes of The Help, I couldn’t get Gone With the Wind out of my head. It’s an interesting comparison (but don’t worry, I won’t pull another Rabbit Hole/Another Earth on you). GWTW was filmed 30 years before The Help takes place, but somehow the help in that are treated much better than the help in this film from 2011.

That’s because The Help is a film about racism (where Gone wasn’t). I’m usually weary of the race movie that’s set in 1960s’ Southland because there’s no room for thought or rebuttal. Not that there should be any doubt as to who the victims and who the perpetrators are, but I prefer films containing those themes whose main focus is something other than racism. That’s why I like Driving Miss Daisy more than most; the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke is front and center. But try as it might, I saw past the little plot ploy of having the always-likable Emma Stone (Skeeter here) interview Aibileen and Minny (potential future Oscar-winner Viola Davis and definite future Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, respectively). But for every thing I had a problem with, there were 1.79 things I liked about The Help.

The tendency with mainstream Hollywood pictures is for every little detail to be ironed out; this is not the case with The Help. Take for example a black maid getting arrested in the street. We assume this is done because a very mean character didn’t like her talking to Stone (we’ll get to her in a little bit), but this is never explicitly stated. Also, I’m glad the film didn’t stray too much into the typical racial tension move of showing us the KKK. We feel their presence as much as we should, so we don’t really need them there.

In the film, we meet a woman who is a complete bitch; Hilly Holbrook, who is played by the no-holds-barred Bryce Dallas Howard. She’s the one who inspires (if I can say that) Skeeter to write a scathing, but perfectly true, novel about and with the assistance of The Help. I couldn’t figure out why they made her way more racist than all the other little housewives. I thought this was going to be a movie about casual racism and the way a few brave women combat it. But I realize now that Hilly being awful takes the pressure off of Octavia Spencer to deliver a flawless performance (which she does, anyway). What do I mean? I mean we have to forgive Spencer’s Minny for something terrible: baking her own feces into a pie then giving it to Hilly to eat.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe she doesn’t deserve it. But this was a very silly detail in an otherwise very serious film. The movie is comical, but I wasn’t laughing at this. In the end, we (The Academy and I) forgave Minny for her impulsive, repulsive act (how could we not?), but–come on–we watched a woman eat poop.

In 2011, we saw a lot of women on-screen (see: Bridesmaids), and The Help features a cast populated with incredible actresses. In fact, the only male with more than one speaking scene in the film is useless (yes, this is a criticism… nobody cares about Skeeter’s love life… this isn’t her story). Jessica Chastain is delightful as a Marilyn Monroe-lite housewife who could slaughter a chicken but must be coached by Minny on etiquette and family life. Spencer and Davis are both wonderful, and will definitely deserve the Oscars they will probably win (even though Kirsten Dunst should have been nominated for Best Actress). But it’s Allison Janney who steals the show for me as Skeeter’s mother, who is incredibly complicated. She does more with the limited screen time she has than any actress in 2011.

The film ends on a note that conflicted me. The humiliated, herpes-suffering Hilly pulls a classic Hilly: she convinces one of the other white housewives that Aibileen stole a piece of silver from the family, and she insists Aibileen (the only person in the household to care about baby Mae) be sacked. I’m still grappling with the ending of the movie because the evil white lady won. Yes, that’s what actually happened in history (up until a few years later), but still… after all of the triumphs the endearing characters I’d been watching for so long celebrated, we’re left with that ending? It wasn’t so much Viola Davis walking into the horizon. I was fine with that bit, since she seemed hopeful about becoming a writer (that part of the earlier plot should have been played up more, by the way). But seeing that child scream in the window for her Aibileen is tragic and horrifying.

In a way, it’s beautiful: we’re left to think about what influenced the child more… an encouraging mother (that would be Aibileen) or a meddling aunt. But in another way, it’s awful: are we to understand that no matter how hard we work, some people will always have the upper hand? What do you think?

My rating: *** (out of 4)

Random notes and amusing quotes:

  • “Shut that goddamn door.”
  • “It’s been endorsed by the White Citizen’s Council!”
  • “That’s a little too everything.”
  • “Your eggs are dying… would it kill you to go on a date?”
  • “We done it now.”
  • “Mexican man shoes”
  • “This. Is. Soooo much fun.”
  • “The Help. H-E-L-P.”
  • “…and I have decided not to die.”
  • It mentions a “gay cure.”
  • Accent-wise, I feel like the movie paints with a broad brush.
  • Oh, come on! No one sits on a desk like Mary Steenburgen did in this movie!
  • Hilly’s senile mother is a hoot!
  • I love it when a movie uses the same location/setting twice to draw a comparison. In this one, see the bathroom ones.
  • I didn’t talk much about the character Jessica Chastain plays, but she’s fun to be with.
  • It’s funny how they donate to starving African children…
  • In my notes, I wrote down both “Spencer – powerful” and “Viola Davis – truth.”
  • The toilet scene was another over-the-top one, but the pie scene takes the cake. (Get it?)
  • While I may have criticized the relationship the film tries to create between The Help and Skeeter, I thought the one between Minny and Chastain’s character was very touching. Seeing Chastain giggle while she was serving Spencer was beautiful.
  • I’m really sorry I don’t know Jessica Chastain’s character name.
  • There was no hard-at-work montage showing late nights typing, and I’m so glad. They kept it simple and real.
  • The Help was the 26th best film of 2011, in my opinion. If you enjoyed it, please see Driving Miss Daisy.
  • Next time: the best movies from the 1940s.

Beginners (2011)

***

Beginners is a movie about two men, father and son. Hal, played very well by Christopher Plummer, is a veteran in life and love who, despite just beginning his life as an out gay man, has it all figured out. His son is Oliver, somewhat of a mail-in performance from Ewan McGregor, and Oliver doesn’t know anything for sure. He too is a beginner, as he has no clue what he is doing.

The movie starts at one point in time, and two relationships are explored differently: the one between Oliver and Hal is told in reverse order, while the one between Oliver and his new girlfriend (Anna, who is played by Mélanie Laurent) is told going forward. It’s an interesting device.

I hate to use the B word on a film that wants to be so heavy, but Beginners is rather breezy. Sure, it’s charming enough, but it never got to me emotionally. I didn’t connect with the Oliver character at all. Some of the scenes between him and Anna are just plain boring. I didn’t care about Anna’s father. There’s no insight. I blame that not only on McGregor, but also on how the character was built. Hal takes risks, and I admire that. Oliver just sits in his house and stares at the walls.

I didn’t dislike Beginners, but I know it could have been better.

The wrong movie got made. Apparently, this actually happened to the director, Mike Mills, which explains why it’s told from Oliver’s point of view. But this film would have been so much better had the focus been on Hal. I know I enjoyed his scenes more than anything else in the film.

Notes:

  • I was distracted by the line the movie ends on. It is almost the exact same quote that Rabbit Hole, one of my favorite 2010 films, ends on. I’m not sure what to say about it, other than “it’s a good line, and it applies to both films.” It caught me off-guard.
  • There are so many quotable, funny lines. Any favorites?
  • Wasn’t quite sure what to make of the dog, but I know I loved him.
  • Did I miss something? Why did she move out of his house?
  • All of the lovers in the film have accents.
  • You’ve gotta love that deadpan comedy.
  • Beginners is available now on Amazon Instant and iTunes.
  • If you see and enjoy Beginners, I suggest checking out Rabbit Hole and Certified Copy.
  • As of November 5, Beginners is the 12th best film of 2011, in my opinion.
  • Coming soon: you decide the best picture of the 1970s. Stay tuned!

Man with the Movie Camera -1929- Old Joy -2006-

Film is a universal language? Maybe. But I think storytelling is the language and film is the dialect.


Somebody on Flixster called Man with the Movie Camera “Communist propaganda.” I missed that part. I didn’t see any communism here. I just saw a day in the life of the streets in the Soviet Union.

I understand why this movie is important. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, because I did, but I could never love it. That’s because I love narrative, and this didn’t have enough of it. It shouldn’t have had more, though. I’m glad that someone did something this different.

It took awhile, but I warned up for this film. At first, I thought this would be a “one night stand” movie (top 10 list coming soon, I hope)… a film I only saw once. But now, I might see it again, and I’ll probably enjoy it even more the second time. (Still no love, though.)

I will never love Old Joy either, but that’s for another reason: it wasn’t a good film. Spoiler alert: nothing happens. The last five minutes is, for me, the only rewarding part. If I may hate on C-SPAN for just a moment, an hour of Old Joy is equal to an hour and a half in C-SPAN time.

Man with the Movie Camera: there are worse ways to spend an hour. ***

Old Joy: there are worse ways to spend an hour, but that doesn’t mean you should watch this movie. **

Notes:

  • How about that pre-Claymation in Camera?
  • Both of these films are available now on Netflix Instant, but Man with the Movie Camera will expire on November 1.
  • If you see and find beauty in Man with the Movie Camera, I suggest you see My Winnipeg.
  • Coming soon: October Recap and the final 70s poll.

The Fighter -2010- Win Win -2011-

The Fighter and Win Win are both movies set in New Jersey about family and a certain type of sport. It’s combo review time. Let’s do it.

The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as boxing brothers Mickey and Dicky. Mickey is in his prime, despite a small losing streak recently, while Dicky has delusions of returning to his former glory. Melissa Leo won an Oscar for the role of their mother, Alice, and Amy Adams was nominated for Charlene, Mickey’s new girlfriend. (The romantic relationship felt rushed and awkward, and the parts involving Micky’s daughter didn’t really work, probably since there were enough of them, and they didn’t tell us anything new about Mickey.)

Win Win stars Paul Giamatti as a struggling lawyer/wrestling coach who concocts a scheme to keep his practice open awhile longer: become the legal guardian of one of his senile clients, Leo. Only problem… Leo’s grandson shows up out of the blue. He and his wife, Amy Ryan, take him in and treat him like family. It turns out Kyle, Alex Shaffer, is quite good at wrestling.

Win Win made it clear what each of its characters wanted, while The Fighter had some trouble with that. Mickey might be conflicted, but Mark Wahlberg plays it weakly, making it seem like his character suffers from indecision.

Both films are very emotional. In Win Win, when Mike can’t tell Leo what he did, he comes to a realization. (I wouldn’t have been able to watch Mike tell Leo what he did, by the way.) In The Fighter, Dicky started making amends for all the trouble he had caused. Those moments were very touching.

The Fighter didn’t pull on my heartstrings until the end. It only started when Dicky made right on all his mistakes, and pulled the family together. The feeling of elation at the end of the last frame is incredibly powerful. Everyone was happy. These people, for all their fights with each other, were together and joyful at the end. That was the best part.

Win Win was more even, but both films had those moments in which the family fell apart as well as when they came back together. The payoff (the end) of Win Win was sweeter, though. “Wow, this family is dysfunctional,” I said to myself near to the end. But then… they figure it out. Everybody is happy. It was much subtler than The Fighter‘s in-your-face excitedly happy ending.

The end of Win Win came too quickly, while The Fighter got the build just right. I would have added another scene or two after the confrontation in Win Win.

I don’t really like it when people let out screams in movies. It’s fine in movies with high stakes because that makes sense. But the stakes in Win Win weren’t life/death (like in Never Let Me Go, a movie with a very tragic scream in it).

Both movies receive *** (that’s three stars, not a three letter expletive) from me. They’re both win-wins.

Notes:

  • “More like five weeks.”
  • “That sounds like a big deal.”
  • “He exploded up…”
  • “Can I get you something to drink?”
  • “Really creepy, just saying.”
  • “Not feeling the orange.”
  • Please read: Learning to Love “A Royale with cheese”
  • Also please read: top ten tv opening themes, a guest post I wrote on the wonderful pop culture blog tvdinnerandamovie.com
  • If you want to write up a little something for my blog, please let me know at movieblogger8@yahoo.com.
  • If you enjoyed either movie, you should check out the other. If you saw and liked both, you should see Little Miss Sunshine.
  • Coming soon: my review of Trust and my best films of the year so far list.

Bridesmaids (2011)

***

Melissa McCarthy was amazing. That’s one thing I came away from this movie thinking. She had both heart and humor, a hard combination to pull off now-a-days.

I was under the impression (from the trailer that heavily featured the airplane scene) that this would be a wild-weekend movie, in the vein of The Hangover, a movie I quite enjoyed. I don’t know if it would be better if it were, but I’m sure it would be a whole lot more connected. As it is, Bridesmaids feels a little like an episode of Mr. Bean; in the first half, he might be packing his suitcase, and in the second half on a plane, but the comedy in those scenes are about the jokes involving the scenes themselves. The movie had the tendency to get very involved in a line of moments meant to be funny within a scene, instead of focusing on characters.

McCarthy plays a supporting character here: Megan. She’s one dirty girl (you may or may not want to stay tuned after the film ends). Megan is Doug’s (actor irrelevant) sister. Doug is going to marry Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who has two people vying for her best-friendship: the struggling Annie (a wonderful turn by Kristen Wiig), the main character of Bridesmaids, and the spoiled Helen (the part performed tastefully by Rose Byrne). This competition reminded my of the second half of Season 4 of 30 Rock, in which Jack must choose between Nancy and Avery. Nancy connects him to his childhood and his hometown, while Avery is the business-savvy woman he would be if he were a woman and had her/his own show on one of the NBC cable channels. Lillian never makes the choice herself because the right answer is neatly presented to her by something called a heart.

But most of the characters were thoughtful enough. Annie was fully believable (thanks mostly to Wiig), but the movie didn’t rely only on her for the touching moments. (Despite an early scene, pictured below, Lillian really isn’t painted as someone who would mock the actions of the snobbish. That was sort of a problem for me.) We don’t really get to know any male characters other than Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). There isn’t any explanation for where Annie’s father is. That was a nice touch. It sends the message that women don’t need men in their lives to “form them.”

This is a women’s movie. Don’t get that term confused with “chick-flick,” though. It’s made by women, with almost exclusively female characters, but can be enjoyed by all the different sexes. Going back to The Hangover, both of these movies are about the same thing: friendship. I recommend both.

Notes:

  • I even enjoyed the musical thing at the end, but only because of Wiig and Rudolph’s hilarious best friend moment
  • Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper played interesting characters, although their involvement wasn’t really necessary
  • Bridesmaids is available now on iTunes
  • If you see and enjoy Bridesmaids, you might also enjoy Cedar Rapids and The Kids Are All Right
  • Next time: my review of Citizen Kane
  • Oh, also… I was right.

Paranoid Park (2008)

***

This movie is not a blockbuster. It’s a movie made up, not of big monsters or explosions, but of fragmented memories and guilt. It is neither decidedly sad nor happy. It just studies a boy who makes a tragic mistake.

The boy’s name is Alex, and he accidentally kills a man near a scary skating park called Paranoid Park.

The early scene in which Alex talks to the detective is especially interesting. The camera focuses on him. He knows all the right answers. He never hesitates. He never blinks. The camera does the same thing when he’s interrogated by his mother, and also when he talks to his father. The focus of the movie is him. The focus of certain scenes, however, may not be him. When he breaks up with his girlfriend, later, the moment isn’t about him, as it means way more to her.

I’m not into skating. Or stickers of middle fingers. Or wearing hats indoors. And I hate “scream-o.” When I saw what Alex did (spoiler alert: the man gets cut in half, and they show him crawling around with only half his body), my initial reaction was one devoid of forgiveness. But the beauty of this film is how it got me to sympathize with him. He didn’t know what he was doing. He is scared. There is now a loud load of strange bird noises pushing down on his entire body.

The movie had faults and weaknesses, but its emotions were so strong and real that it doesn’t matter.