The Help (2011)

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis commiserate in period drama 'The Help'

Adapted for the screen by Tate Taylor, based on the book by Kathryn Stockett

Directed by Tate Taylor

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain

I chose not to read “The Help” before seeing the film. I was tempted, but I abstained from the literary version of this story, because I knew from prior experience that book to screen adaptations always leave something to be desired if you’re too intimate with the story. It would have bugged me knowing which details they changed in order to fit the run time or make the story more palatable for a film going audience.

Not knowing what was left out or homogenized, I was effectively moved, engrossed, enjoyed, satisfied and entertained by this fresh perspective on story telling for the civil rights movement. “The Help” is about a group of women in Mississippi in the early 60’s. Well-to-do housewives, their African-American maids and one Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a college graduate and progressive who grew up with the house wives but is clearly nothing like them. She attends their brunches and well-to-do affairs with a sense of familial duty but clearly has more important fish to fry in the way of a career and advancing the civil rights movement in her own ways. Bryce Dallas Howard plays her (ostensibly) best friend Hilly Holbrook, queen of committees, party planning, events and pretty much any town social gathering. Like so many other wealthy whites in the area, her racist tendencies aren’t virulent so much as they are stoked in tradition and upbringing. She doesn’t see herself as racist- she sees herself as reasonable and realistic. Her fellow housewives take a similar approach.

Meanwhile, their maids sit in silent frustration, halfway accepting their circumstances out of fear, while making stilted half measures of their own to feel empowered, mostly by doing their own gossiping about their employers to each other on the occasion that they’re doubled up to work a party. There’s no question that the maids’ services amount to indentured servitude, with their wages hovering under 95 cents an hour and their duties extending to virtually all household tasks aside from a wife looking pretty and being treated like a queen. They raise the children and have excellent relationships with the little ones, even nearly growing to love their minor charges, all the while knowing these sweet white children will grow up to be spiteful, entitled racists just as their parents had and their grandparents and so on.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer represent the African-American house maids in the story. They play quiet, dutiful veterans of the industry. They have self-respect and their own community and are wise beyond their white counterparts in ways that only a life of hard work can give someone. Davis is a little older and more dignified in her efforts, while Spencer exhibits a stronger rebellious streak. Perhaps rebellious is the wrong word, as the rules they must abide by- such as taking bathroom breaks outside and not using the house bathrooms- are inhumane. However, as circumstances were, Spencer’s character is by definition rebellious.
Skeeter gets a job at the local paper. She’s given the unglamorous position of the new house cleaning advise columnist. She knows nothing about house hold duties- but the African-American maids do. So she sets about looking for basic tips from her friends’ domestic servants. Very quickly Skeeter’s ambition moves beyond ghost writing a column and into literary magnitudes, as she sees an idea for a book. She calls a New York publisher- a progressive Jewish woman- and pitches her on a book from the perspective of African-American maids about life in a white southern household. This kind of information is incendiary and tantamount to high treason within the highly segregated and racist community of Skeeter’s hometown. Without too much coaxing, Viola Davis reluctantly agrees to spill her guts, quickly pulling in Octavia Spencer for additional story telling fire power. Between their stories and Skeeter’s writing talents, they get the book written and published. Various stories balanced between horrifyingly racist and humorously ridiculous anecdotes come pouring out of the two women’s mouths, in between household chore lessons- such as Octavia’s secret that Crisco is cure-all for nearly every house maintenance malady and for proper fried chicken cooking.

Octavia eventually loses employment due to her rebellious ways and finds work with a kooky ostracized white woman, Celia Foote, played by rising newcomer Jessica Chastain, in bleach blonde poofy hair, dressed to the nines, situated in an old plantation outside of town with nothing to do all day. Celia isn’t so much a progressive person as she is too ditzy and caught up in her own eccentricities and neurosis to have time to be a xenophobe or elitist. She wears plunging neckline cleavage-heavy dresses to social events, if she gets in at all. Octavia teachers her how to clean a house and Celia inadvertently shows Celia that some rich white folk can be very kind, fair employers.

The book comes out and all hell breaks loose within the upper crust community, relatively speaking. People get their just desserts, good people triumph, bad people pout and racism is taken down a notch.

All in all, true or not, The Help has some sweet, altruistic notions and gives us a hopeful and milquetoast version of racism, a kind that’s unquestionably ugly, but also quite palatable and easily fixable. It’s not that these rich white women are racist, so much as they’re rich and elitist and the racism comes out of that. It’s not that the black maids are under educated or disenfranchised, it’s that things are just how they are and someone had to come along, buck the system and save the day. Again, these are all wonderfully altruistic and progressive notions, but the story unquestionably skips over the most ugly parts of the civil rights movement, except for a scraped knee and a reference to the murder of Medgar Evers making national news.

Emma Stone once again proves herself to be a valid rising star and lead actress with unconventional but still enjoyable good looks and charm. Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard look like each other’s doppelgangers and also once again prove themselves to be valuable new Hollywood assets .Octavia Spencer and Violet Davis gives exceptionally nuanced performances that don’t come around often in Hollywood and will no doubt get deserved awards consideration come the season.

Ultimately, The Help is not so much a false representation of a horrific struggle for equality, as it is a palatable lesson for beginners. It’s the kind of film that will appeal to people with weak stomachs or who are too young to withstand the brutality of more visceral retellings of history, such as ‘Mississippi Burning’ or ‘Ghosts of Mississippi’. Along those lines, ‘The Help’ could be retitled ‘Mississippi Watered Down: The 60’s”. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film or a sappy film. It’s none of those. There are very strong performances and lots of meaty scenes for the actors to dig their thespian claws into, but the overall film’s tone pulls its punch, when others in the genre normally go for the gut. If I were to blame anyone, it’d be executive producer Chris Columbus, who often presents watered down, family-friendly material. The book, by Kathryn Stockett, by all accounts gives a much more detailed and sullied description of events, not pulling its punches the way the film does. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, merely watered down like a weak iced tea, the kind any self-respecting southerner with real knowledge would disapprove of.


The Tree of Life (2011)

June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt as stern parents in 1950's America in Terrence Malick's opus on existence, "The Tree of Life"

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn

Terrence Malick spent 3 years editing this film and its evident in the final product.

Malick seems to do the same thing in every one of his movies- lots of amazing handheld cinematography, a haunting classically based score, spliced up performances with very little linear movement in the story as we take in the world he presents through whispers and moments, listening to characters speak in hushed voice overs, asking philosophical questions and making vague statements pertaining to the meaning of life.

The Tree of Life is no different. This time, in stead of the Pacific Theater of World War 2 or the shores of Roanoke Island on the eve of Englands discovery of America, we get something both smaller and larger. The smaller part is the story of a family in Texas. A stern but loving father (played by a brilliant Brad Pitt), a quiet and loving mother (played by Jessica Chastain in a mostly physical role), their multitude of young children (strong performances by a brood of unknown tweenage actors) and then glimpses of past, present and future, both of the family, the world and the universe.

It’s a spectacularly photographed film with some of the strongest cinematography I have ever witnessed, to go along with the haunting score and some intense performances that rely on strong physical acting over the relatively sparse dialogue. Malick is showing us the smallest of evolutions- that of an average American middle class family in the 50’s- juxtaposed with the history of the Universe and a hint of what may come in death. He utilized NASA and some of the world’s top scientists to advise him on the sequences pertaining to the larger message of the film, so prepare to be wowed. He’s combined Hubble Telescope Images with Jurassic Park and made it a glorious symphony well worth seeing on the big screen. It’s an intense experience that will conjure up a range of reactions, from feelings of beauty and awe, to visceral sadness and then wonderment at Malick’s ability to craft a meandering, non-linear story that still captivates us.

Malick does so many esoteric things with his movies that in less sure hands would feel gimmicky and pretentious but through Malick’s eyes we see a true, singular vision and meditation on life. Some of the film is simple and glorious- boys running around playing, defying their father, learning from their parents, watching the financial and personal undulations of an average middle class family over time and then other parts are truly spell binding, in which Malick explores life beyond human existence to juxtapose that with the mundane qualities of the daily American grind. The agony of the growing universe is juxtaposed perfectly with the agony of these young boys’ childhoods as they must contend with their stern and officious father.

Brad Pitt is simply brilliant in a role that many could have attempted well, but only he can own. He is utterly convincing and relatable as a man who’s only means to raise his boys is through strict, borderline abusive disciplinary tactics, all the while knowing that perhaps his methods are excessive and unnecessary, but not being comfortable enough with the bigger picture to take the chance that his boys don’t need his iron-fisted parenting style. Think about that in relation to the life cycle, evolution and the violent history of our planet- mostly nature, not man- and you’ll see the poignancy of Malick’s depiction of this family to summarize his feelings about existence as a whole. Sean Penn shows up sparsely, playing Pitt’s grown son as he wanders aimlessly through a vast and cold corporate world. Penn’s presence in the film is fleeting and more metaphorical. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is.

It’s a gorgeous, hopeful, uplifting, thoughtful and brilliant piece of cinema and not to be missed!

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