Last summer, Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help ended up being a surprise hit. A year later, the film adaption proved to be similarly successful, staying atop the box office for more consecutive days than any film since 1999’s The Sixth Sense. The literary work was Stockett’s first endeavor, and in a similar vein, the film is helmed by her personal friend Tate Taylor, himself a novice feature director. Out of this marriage of first-time talent, The Help is born a simple yet sentimental little film that reminds us of our ugly past in very black-and-white terms.
Taking place in 1960s Mississippi, where Jim Crow is law and the white upper class uses black help to raise their children and run their households, The Help‘s setting is a familiar place. Instead of subtle and complex characters, the players here are all archetypal, representatives of boiled-down attitudes and ideologies. Guiding us through the film is the forward-thinking Emma Stone as Skeeter, a young woman who cares more about a writing career than bridge club or finding a husband to start a family with. These priorities put her at odds with her peers, headed by the ruthless Bryce Dallas-Howard, but not as much as her views toward the help. Alone in respecting the help as actual human beings, Stone starts writing a book about the trials and tribulations of the indentured life in Mississippi.
Emma Stone has become very popular lately, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s confident and intelligent and has the sense to try roles in a variety of films. Here, she’s easy to identify with – not only are her views more in-line with today’s thinking, but even her looks make her seem plucked out of the present and dropped into the 60s. Still, if Stone is adequate in her role, the actresses surrounding her are phenomenal. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer bring every scene to life in diametric ways. Davis has a powerful, quiet presence while Spencer is dynamic and in possession of seemingly boundless energy. The friendship that develops between these three women is the thread upon which the rest of the film hangs, and thankfully, it’s a strong one.
Not that it would have to be that strong to support the weight of the morality tale attached to the film. The Help isn’t a film that is trying to present a point in our history through a neutral and objective lens. It is out for your emotions through and through. It aims to make you feel some white guilt and a little discomfort, mostly through the unceasingly prejudice Howard. The viewer need not decipher or decide anything; the film has taken care of all that. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some stories try to capture realistic shades of moral gray; others are simplified parables that act more as moral reinforcement.
Once you accept that The Help isn’t out to say anything new about attitudes during the Civil Rights Era – it sticks with the clear-cut judgment of “They were bad” – then it’s easy to enjoy the film. The talented acting extends past the three principals. Cicely Tyson is excellent in a few scenes as the elderly maid who raised Skeeter. Jessica Chastain is infectious as the bubbly yet vulnerable pariah who shows Spencer that not all white employers are cruel or inhumane. And Sissy Spacek provides some good moments of comic relief as an old woman who sees the absurdity of the “proper” society around her.
With solid acting and a simple story, The Help is the kind of saccharine fare that fans of flicks like The Blind Side will enjoy wholeheartedly. Though it occasionally strays a little too far into the ridiculous (Spencer’s act of revenge against Howard seems particularly out-of-place, especially when it’s used as a semi-important plot point), it’s a movie that succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to succeed at. This movie is here for simple reflection on our society’s not-so-distant past, to make you cry and occasionally laugh, and to ultimately leave you feeling satisfied.
Final rating: 7/10
–James A. Janisse
September 16, 2011 | Categories: 7 - 7.5, Drama, Genre, Ratings | Tags: allison janney, bryce dallas howard, chris columbus, emma stone, jessica chastain, kathryn stockett, octavia spencer, sissy spacek, tate taylor, viola davis | 1 Comment
Aaron Schneider’s Get Low is a pithy little movie partly based on folklore surrounding a hermit who wanted a living funeral. The hermit is Felix Bush, a cantankerous old man who has lived isolated from society for a couple of decades. Feeling that his end is near, he arranges his own funeral and plans to attend it, ostensibly to hear everyone’s wild tales that have sprung up about him over the years.
Felix Bush is played by Robert Duvall, an acting veteran at the age of 79. Bush is pretty indistinguishable from Duvall, and whether that’s due to brilliant casting or brilliant acting, it succeeds either way. Full of quiet acerbic wit, Bush is an intriguing character who I was very interested to learn more about.
The supporting cast is just as pleasant. Bill Murray plays the owner of the funeral department that agrees to Bush’s bizarre requests. Murray oozes with avarice, always interested in the best way to make a buck, and essentially married to money since he seems to be the town’s only divorcee. Lucas Black plays his protege, an ethical foil to his incessant greed. The only time I’ve seen Black previously was as “Jeep” in the awful horrible very bad Legion, and I was grateful to see that, when given real material to work with, he held a strong presence on screen.
Sissy Spacek plays one of Bush’s old flames, and her scenes with Duvall are among the movie’s best. Both of these actors have decades of experience under their belts, and seeing them gently sweet talk each other will make you really believe that they have a life time of history between them.
Get Low is also a rural feast for the eyes. The 1930s setting provides a lot of natural beauty, taking us back to a time when a town and the nature around it were much more entwined, a much simpler time.
The problem with Get Low is that it embraces simplicity to a fault.
The premise of a living funeral can only take a movie so far, and although a great deal is built up around Bush’s past, when the reveal finally comes, it can only be described as underwhelming. We hear a couple of rumor mill reasons why Bush had originally gone into isolation throughout the movie, and I only wish that the true story was half as interesting as any of those. Of course, that could be the point of the movie. It certainly seems as though it champions the mundane over the exciting, flat realism over anything fantastical.
Get Low is a brilliantly acted affair set in a time that’s beautiful to visit. The characters are interesting to watch and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments. If that sounds like enough for you, then it’s probably worth watching. If, on the other hand, you enjoy an engrossing story, then you should probably sit this one out. It never tries to evolve past its original premise, and the mundane plot that follows isn’t enough to hold it up.
Final rating: 7/10
–James A. Janisse
August 1, 2010 | Categories: 7 - 7.5, Drama, Genre, Ratings | Tags: aaron schneider, andrew powell, bill cobbs, bill murray, blerim destani, c. gaby mitchell, chandler riggs, chris provenzano, david boyd, david gundlach, dean zanuck, gerald mcraney, Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, lori beth edgeman, lucas black, rebecca grant, robert duvall, scott cooper, sissy spacek | Leave a comment
True, it may seem a little dated by now. The film was made for a pretty low budget in the early 70s, so gunshot wounds aren’t more than a spot of red paint on the actors’ clothes. Also, Sissy Spacek’s narration, complete with her southern drawl, sometimes seems a little hokey, almost like it’s coming from an old novel. They’re just things you have to get over so you can look at the film for what it is.
And what the film is is wonderful. The performances are quiet and compellingly. Spacek and a very young Martin Sheen are the only consistent actors featured throughout the film, and it’s no problem at all that the film falls on their shoulders to carry. They’re excellent. The characters are so interesting. There’s no flattening of their motivations or feelings – they are conflicted humans who keep finding themselves in deeper and darker situations, and trying to deal with it. They’re not blindly in love; Spacek sees that Sheen’s a bit sociopathic, and acknowledges it. She wishes she was home more than she enjoys being by his side. But there’s no option for her but to go along with his crazy ideas and violent actions.
The best thing about the film is the cinematography. I know that this is Malick’s whole deal, so I’m not really discovering anything new, but no review of this movie would be complete without mentioning the gorgeous shots. Malick takes nature and puts it in the forefront of his movie. Sequences take their time as we explore the surroundings of the characters, from bugs to plants and everything in between. There’s a scene of a house burning down that is filmed in such a way that it becomes almost a dream. In fact the whole film has a sort of dreamlike quality, despite the violence that infects it.
The movie takes no rush to get where it wants to go, but it’s fine. It still has a sense of motion, and is constantly building. Malick gets away with long shots of vistas and nature because every scene builds in the conflict of the characters, and raises the stakes. By the middle of the movie, you know there’s no way these two can turn back. By the end, you wonder how they made it so far.
Some of the music didn’t seem to age as well as the visuals, but it’s okay. Though at times it seems almost melodramatic to have such powerful music accompanying some scenes, it works on a certain level. Most of all, there’s no denying that there is a clear voice and influence behind this movie. It’s not a cookie-cutter studio film to make money, it is Malick’s baby, raised and nurtured by only him, and reflective of his image. It’s a fantastic feature debut, and I’m looking forward to seeing his other three films.
Final rating: 8/10
–James A. Janisse
November 19, 2009 | Categories: 8 - 8.5, Crime, Drama, Genre, Ratings | Tags: brian probyn, edward r. pressman, george tipton, james taylor, Martin Sheen, robert estrin, sissy spacek, steven larner, tak fujimoto, Terrence Malick, warren oates | Leave a comment