Thursday, August 11, 2011


"The Help" (2011)

It's 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era in the heart of the Deep South middle class. While blacks and whites co-exist casually and brushing shoulders every single day on a regular basis, they are still separate and not equal. White women go about their days of leisure while their black maids take care of the house raising the women's white children. And while they're called maids, they might as well be titled house slaves and -- even more -- surrogate mothers. "The Help," the alive and rich adaptation of Kathryn Sockett's 2009 bestselling novel, is aware of the sobering truth at its center: segregation in the South wasn't just wrong -- it was a grand and sweeping delusion as a proper way of life.

The story is told from the perspective of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid who says she's raised 17 white children in her lifetime. Her grandmother was a maid, her mother was and so is she. Your heart breaks for her when Skeeter (Emma Stone) -- the journalist writing a book composed of interviews with the maids of Jackson -- asks Aibileen if she wants to do something more. The book is dangerous to write exposing the unfair and cruel Southern domestic life these women endure. Completing the book is the film's narrative force, and Emma Stone carries the leading role well. We've seen her as a chipper comic, but here she plays a woman grown to be disturbed by what she witnesses around her.

Take for example when Skeeter persistently questions her mother (Allison Janney) on what happened to Constantine (Cicely Tyson), their maid of 29 years who mysteriously left. The betrayal she feels after hearing the answer brings the South's wrenching moral condition to a personal level. Skeeter takes a job at the Jackson Journal writing a cleaning advice column and recruits Aibileen for help; this leads to the collaboration on something much greater.

Bringing a weight and solemn sincerity to the film is the tough and brilliant performance from Viola Davis as Aibileen. Playing Aibileen's best friend Minny is Octavia Spencer (known primarily for smaller roles), and her performance is just as note-worthy full of fiery sass and spark. These women steal scenes left and right, and the movie becomes solely theirs weaving a story of aspirations and squandered dreams.

Like the book Skeeter is writing, this is the story of the maids and the women they work for. Under the facade of prim and proper bridge games and fundraiser benefits, saying these women take what they call the help for granted would be an extreme understatement. It does, however, seem like most of the women have feebly accepted the social norm and treat their black maids how they have been shown they should be treated. That is except for Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), a vile princess and blatant racist pushing for separate outdoor bathrooms for the black maids -- the domestic equivalent of being forced to the back of the bus. She fires Minny sending her over to Hilly's archenemy Celia (Jessica Chastain of "Tree of Life"), a flaky but well-meaning blond bimbo who hires Minny without the knowledge of her husband; that way home-cooked meals and a clean house look readily prepared by Celia.

When opting for light humor, the movie really gets the laughs. This is especially true when Minny surprises Hilly with a very special dessert delivering hilarious returns. The incident does get played to overkill, however, and here newcomer writer/director Tate Taylor lays bare the film's obvious intentions as a surefire crowd-pleaser -- but it also worked wonders on me. I didn't mind knowing the exact desired emotions because I felt them -- the warmth and hopeful joy sprung from these women's story showing that cruel people in the world get their just desserts. Pun intended.

What I most admire about "The Help" is how it escapes the bounds of its Oprah book club wrapping with exceptional actresses who all make for a touching and exhilarating tale that, in between the humor, is a truly affecting tear-jerker with characters we are moved by and care about. It also doesn't shy away from the dark ugliness of the era. Within the cheer there's a whole lot of sad and aching pain, and at the film's end is the realization that it's still the same Jackson, Mississippi we started with even after Skeeter finishes writing her book.

Monday, August 1, 2011


"Crazy, Stupid, Love." (2011)

Emma Stone is the new go-to girl for light comedy, there's no question about that. She's charismatic, glowing and provides the perfect blend of sassy and self-deprecating humor. In the warm and welcome delight of the summer, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." she's no different.

The revelation here, however, is Ryan Gosling who brings a remarkable knack for comedy we never knew he had before. As the suave, overbearingly charming and hustling womanizer Jacob, he nails it -- with or without his shirt on. I guess that's what you get when an Oscar-worthy actor gets casually tossed into the mix. And after being quietly overlooked for his performance in "Blue Valentine," he's bouncing back with more force, and it'll be nice to see him as the lead in George Clooney's "Ides of March." Gosling and Stone serve as one of the couples we follow in this unassuming comedy, and after seeing them together you might be wondering why we haven't seen it sooner.

Sometimes a movie comes along that takes you for surprise and sweeps you off your feet. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("I Love You Phillip Morris") is that movie. You may go in just expecting a conventional romantic comedy, but don't be fooled. With a stand-out ensemble cast and a thoughtful look at life that feels ever so real, it's a movie that is potent with true value and emotion firing on all cylinders. Best of all, it comes off as such breezy entertainment while dealing with weighty issues about love, longing and loss. Its characters are able to laugh it off because, before truly understanding what it means to follow your heart, they understand the pain that comes with it.

Opening with a punch to the gut, Cal (Steve Carell) hears from his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), on a nice dinner out that she wants a divorce. He's shocked to the point where exiting a moving vehicle feels like an appropriate response. She has slept with another man, a co-worker whose name turns into a repeated curse word, David Linghaden (Kevin Bacon). Maybe Cal has lost his alpha male instinct after being a cozy husband and father of three as he loafs around in wrinkled khakis and worn-in New Balance sneakers. Enter Jacob who finds Cal pitying himself in a glitzy bar and makes it his duty to give Cal both a physical and personality makeover. As Jacob tells Cal to "be better than the Gap," their moments together are magnetic, and that's only the beginning.

Other romantic mismatching involves Cal's 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who has a major crush on his babysitter, 17-year-old Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). She, however, has eyes for an older man: Robbie's dad. There's also Marisa Tomei having tons of fun as Robbie's eighth grade school teacher who feels betrayed by Cal. And, of course, there's Jacob relentlessly courting law student Hannah (Emma Stone). All of these minor subplots surround the main issue of Cal and Emily's divorce, and they are all fleshed out with fully realized characters. Each of them play an important role in the larger scheme, and even when the converging plot lines amount to absurd coincidences, the script from Dan Fogelman makes sure to keep the situations grounded in rather poignant naturalism.

There are plenty of moments worth savoring such as Emily calling Cal under the facade of having a maintenance problem but only wants to hear his voice or the night of flirtatious seduction between Jacob and Hannah which is easily the film's highlight. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is at last what feels like an updated look at contemporary behavior in relationships -- the way they work through all the hardship and heartbreak and the hope that leaves us clinging to that crazy word we call love.


"Cowboys & Aliens" (2011)

With the most boneheaded and literal movie title since perhaps "Snakes on a Plane," there should be no room for sentimentality in "Cowboys & Aliens" from director Jon Favreau ("Iron Man"). Taking itself way too seriously for its title, there's too much schmaltz coating what otherwise should've been a rollicking romp out of the toy box pitting two character types in a head-to-head battle. It's a movie about cowboys and aliens -- obviously -- not the end of the world. Tone it down a notch, let loose a little bit and have some fun.

This lack of fun lends to the movie's failure as a genre mash-up. Set in a rural mining town in 1873 with a boozing saloon, local sheriff, reckless gunslinger and a bunch of rugged cowboys, why not throw in an alien invasion? It's funny because when the first attack occurs, none of the citizens seem concerned about the manufacturing behind an alien invasion of such magnitude. I mean, these people don't even know air travel -- let alone automobiles -- and yet they're not fazed by flying spacecrafts shooting down beams of light that torch their town and abduct defenseless victims. In any case, Favreau and his team of writers take the worst clich├ęs from westerns and sci-fi flicks and carelessly cram them together without offering up anything new. These two genres are so appealing that the concept of them teaming up easily put a smile on my face; that is, until I witnessed how noisy, messy, leaden and downright boring the results turned out.

It's a shame, too, because Daniel Craig as the cold and hardened outlaw Jake Longergan wears the American drawl well and plays up the classic western figure of a bad man rising too goodness with nice finesse. I wouldn't mind seeing him later on starring in his own western -- minus the aliens. And then there's Harrison Ford who's a hoot as a crotchety old colonel. When these two share screen time, they're snarky cool. The issue is that it happens maybe twice. Their potential comic timing together is vastly underused.

Olivia Wilde looks astoundingly too attractive for the scenery around her, Sam Rockwell lands his first bland role and Paul Dano is, well, his kooky self. The characters involved in the Old West alien takeover may as well be as faceless as those attacking them. Speaking of which, these guys are grotesque. With bugged-out eyes and a chest cavity that opens up to reveal slimy and spindly arms, watching them get disposed of is at least satisfying. The violence is gruesome considering the PG-13 rating and is shown frequently throughout the repetitious action set pieces that become increasingly dull and inane.

Want the closest thing to cowboy and alien action without subjecting yourself to this? Think back to the imaginative opening of "Toy Story 3" with Buzz Lightyear and Woody. There you go.