PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Help (B)
U.S.: Tate Taylor, 2011, Walt Disney Studios
Like smooth Kentucky bourbon or hot cornbread and jambalaya, or like Ray Charles' great bluesy versions of "Georgia on My Mind" and "America the Beautiful," The Help is old-fashioned, flavorsome stuff -- old-fashioned in many good ways, and a few not-so-good ones.
Set in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, and based on the bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, it feels like one of those warm, feisty, character-rich books that strike a public chord even if some critics remain uncharmed: the story of a group of African American women servants, who work for the city's elite white families. They clean the white folks' homes, cook their food and raise their babies, and here participate in a quiet revolt against the traditional conspiracy of silence about the truth of racial matters down South. That kitchen/household Dixie insurgency is spearheaded by two old friends, Aibeleen Clark and Minny Jackson, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both of whom are about as good as you can possibly be in this kind of movie.
Aibeleen and Minny take their stands quietly, then loudly, by telling their work yarns (often unflattering to their employers, some downright dirty) to one of the most liberal and free-thinking daughters of that elite: returning college student and aspiring writer Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone). Skeeter is stubborn and rebellious, but not Confederate. (Stone is pretty wonderful too, playing here in a more dramatic key than her recent string of good or bad saucy contemporary sex comedies: Easy A, Friends with Benefits and Crazy, Stupid, Love.)
Indeed, both Aibeleen and Skeeter, whose personality and future life patterns we can see forming during the course of the story, are among those classically Southern female observer/outsiders in which American literature (and bestsellerdom) is rich -- from Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird to Celie Johnson in The Color Purple. The story of The Help is an obvious one, but that doesn't make it any less heartening when Skeeter, Aibeleen and the others break their silence and blow the town wide open with their book.
The entire film -- scripted and directed by Tate Taylor -- is full of excellent actors and juicy actor's moments. That's its major strength -- even though The Help, perhaps inevitably, tends to present its characters in shades of black and white: as heroines, villainesses, victims and in-betweeners among the women, as tolerant guys, bigots or go-along-with-the-crowders among the men.
The movie and the cast pump life into all of them. The bad girls, starchy prejudiced matrons or sneaky debutante types with bouffant hairdos, include Bryce Dallas Howard as the nefarious rich girl Hilly Holbrook. The in-betweeners boast Allison Janney as Skeeter's well-meaning but sometimes appearance-bound mom Charlotte, and Jessica Chastain (the earth mother in Malick's The Tree of Life) as the Marilyn Monroe-ish semi-social outcast Celia Foote. The heroines include Aibeleen, Minny, Skeeter, their fellow tale-tellers, and (also the movie's chief victim), the splendid Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson), the elderly Phelan family servant who raised Skeeter, and who, in one scene, just about breaks your heart.
The men are less important -- this is a woman's movie after all (albeit one with universal appeal) -- but they include Chris Lowell as Stuart Whitworth, a seemingly tolerant beau, Mike Vogel as Celia's forgiving husband Johnny Foote, David Oyelowo (the nasty corporate guy in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as local spiritual leader Preacher Green, and Brian Kerwin and Wes Chatham as Skeeter's smoothie brothers Robert and Carlton Phelan.
There isn't a bad performance in that bunch and several superb ones. And they're the kind of roles actors usually love: We see the servants unburden themselves and tell their stories, the resultant ruckus, and the change wrought in Aibeleen, Minny, Skeeter and the others -- including Skeeter's mom (though we don't see much of the stories). And we see the appalled response of the town's ample supply of hypocrites, phonies and bigots.
Political purists might argue that this is another case (as some believe of Glory) where the problems of blacks are dubiously solved by heroic white people, i.e. Skeeter. They might also complain about the Southern black slang and lingo used by the script. But to me, the characters, who are obviously exaggerated and, if they're black, tend to speak in exaggerated Deep South styles, do ring true -- as movie characters. More than that, they capture our imagination and our affections. Anyway, the vulnerable black servants who participate in Skeeter's project, are, in the end, showing more courage than rich white privileged Skeeter, who will be okay even if the whole town turns against her.
I'm also happy that somebody, during our deluge of blood and guts and fantasy and kid stuff, bothers to make a big Hollywood release about adults and families and important social and political issues.
Cowboys & Aliens (B-)
U.S.: Jon Favreau, 2011, Universal, Blu-ray/DVD/digital
Movie Westerns usually take place in a primitive land of the American past full of horses and trains and showdowns and an occasional cattle drive, where the men spend an inordinate amount of time in saloons, and sudden death lurks behind every mesa and second-story hotel window. Science Fiction, on the other hand usually transpires in a dazzling or bleak futuristic world of super-technology and space travel, or of alien invasions of by impregnable-seeming monsters or robots so huge and dangerous that they laugh (or seem to) at our puny guns and bombs, and would giggle at the sight of a six-shooter at high noon.
So what do these two movie genres have in common, enough to get them smooshed together by producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg and director Jon Favreau, with stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and others in the peculiar, sometimes exciting, sometimes silly Cowboys & Aliens?
Quite a lot. In fact, in the early days of magazine science fiction, when the magazines had titles like Astounding and Amazing, many sci-fi stories were ridiculed as "space operas" -- a play on "horse operas," slang for cheap pulp Westerns.
That isn't exactly what Cowboys & Aliens is. In fact, it's a fragmentary science fiction plot -- in the alien invasion mode -- translated onto a Western backdrop, with a lot of typical Western characters. The Western parts mostly work and the science fiction parts mostly don't.
The source for Cowboys & Aliens is a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, about extraterrestrials invading the West. In the movie, it's 1873, and they're looking for gold, and occasionally killing some people who get on their way. Favreau and the producers and writers (seven of them, always a bad sign) turn what's left of Rosenberg's novel into a major movie with mega-stars (Craig and Ford) and mega-effects (space ships attack an Old West town).
The movie starts out well, in a pseudo-Sergio Leone, pseudo-John Ford vein. We get some tense, stylized scenes of Craig as the lone gunslinger, Jake Lonergan, who's suffering from amnesia, sporting a weird wrist shackle and who dispatched three baddies with little effort and then wanders into the town of Absolution, and getting mixed up in a standoff between the local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) and the upright sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) over the ranch king's worthless son Percy (Paul Dano) -- before the aliens in their space-whatevers swoop in like Hitchcock's birds, wreak their havoc and then fly off with Percy and others.
For me, almost every scene without the space aliens worked well, or at least passably -- and almost every scene with the space invaders was out to lunch. As in Iron Man 2, Favreau seems to be trying to make another movie that hits the bell and uses all the elements like Iron Man, and if he wasn't saddled with those aliens, he might have made it.
But imagine Stagecoach, with flying saucers swooping down during the chase on the Salt Flats and pulling up all the passengers, including Tommy Mitchell and Duke Wayne, into the sky. Imagine Once Upon a Time in the West with the railroad workers constructing a space missile instead of train tracks, and, at the end, Charles Bronson taking off for Mars.
If you ditched all the sci-fi, there's enough left to make an okay '70s-style Western. Harrison Ford's Dolarhyde is a good, grizzled old villain, and he should have stayed a villain. Craig is good at the Clint stuff, and the rest of the movie's bunch includes, commendably, Olivia Wilde as a sort of semi-Swedish love interest named Ella Swenson, Sam Rockwell as the likeably vulnerable bartender Doc, Clancy Brown doing a Sam Elliott as shaggy Reverend Meacham, Adam Beach as Percy's Native American pal Nat Colorado, Raoul Trujillo as prickly warrior Black Knife, and, seemingly borrowing a page from Walter Hill's The Long Riders, the talented Taylors (Buck, Matthew and Cooper) playing the nefarious Claibornes (Wes, Luke and Mose). There's also a wonderful, eerie scene with an overturned riverboat, in the middle of the desert -- an oddity that's never explained and that's much scarier than any scene with the aliens. (Extras: commentary and conversations with Jon Favreau; "making of" documentary.)
The Debt (B)
U.S.-U.K.: John Madden, 2011, Miramax
Good, smart international spy thriller about Mossad agents tracking a Nazi war criminal in the '60s, and what happens to change all their lives. With Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington, and Jessica Chastain. Co-scripted by Matthew Vaughn.