New on DVD

The Help Worthy the Hype; Cowboys and Aliens Misfires

YEP YEP – Social commentary films always run the risk of pandering or even worse, lecturing. The Help does a healthy bit of both, but it’s still a cinch to grab a handful of Oscar nominations, and they will be well-deserved.

“Sometimes courage skips a generation,” says Allison Janney’s mother to Emma Stone. “Thanks for bringing it back to our family.”

Adapted and directed by Tate Taylor from the Kathryn Stockett novel, The Help capitalizes on a bullet proof premise, a decent script, and a very talented cast – especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer,  both delivering tour de force performances. They may end up duking it out for an Oscar.

I was reminded of two earlier films I admired a lot: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) and Waitress (2007). What all three films have in common is a shortage of redeeming male characters. What The Help offers up, however, that the other two did not, are nasty and downright despicable female characters.

The Help revolves around domestic life in a small Tennessee suburb in the mid 1960s. The white women are well kept and full of gossip, the white men are stiff 9 to 5’ers with perpetual scotch low balls in their hands, and the maids are all black women with zipped up lips and stories to tell – the black men are practically invisible, save for a socially conscious young pastor who periodically shows up to remind us of the significance of the church.

Stone plays ‘Skeeter,’ a socially conscious privileged 20-something who is not nearly as pre-occupied with marriage as her peer group. What she is interested in is journalism and her eureka moment comes when she is offered a chance to substitute write a weekly domestic advice column – she proposes a column dedicated to the perspective of the black female domestic help in her community.

Suffice it to say the stories they tell are heartbreaking in their dehumanizing details, painting an unflattering picture of the south during the civil rights tornado that was the 1960s.

Davis and Spencer both deliver sympathetic and nuanced performances, sure to get one if not both of them Best Supporting Oscar nominations. Davis rocked us opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt (2007), so she came as no surprise; but Spencer’s has been a career of small and somewhat superfluous roles, so her work here is a genuine proclamation of her talent. She soars.

Brice Howard, who was equally unsympathetic in 50/50, plays the picture’s central villain. She’s effective, if not a bit one dimensional. But that’s more of a script agenda than an actor’s limitation.

Stone is up to the task as well. Not quite sure I buy her yet as an ingenue, but in roles like this where her intellect takes charge (she was also good in Zombieland), I’m all in.

Jessica Chastain, however, is the one to track. Chastain has given us three totally different and totally believable performances this year. She was divinely angelic in The Tree of Life, tormented and graceful in the nazi war criminal thriller The Debt, and in The Help she counterbalances the racial tension with her own outsider’s perspective as a discarded ‘floozy’ who isn’t welcome in polite company.

Call me crazy, but Chastain, a Julliard grad from southern California, may just be the new Meryl Streep.

NOPE – Two big problems with director John Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens. One, the story is lame and the script is worse. Two, the film is mis-cast. Harrison Ford should have played the hero but he’s too old, and Daniel Craig should have played the heavy but ever since his James Bond announcement we are supposed to buy him as a leading man.

The film that put Craig on the map was Road to Perdition (2002), where he played Paul Newman’s steely-eyed, stone cold killer son. Perfect fit for the actor. But his lack of vulnerability makes him hard to rally behind.

Harrison Ford always led with his vulnerability, making ‘Han Solo’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ not only heroic but lovable. Watching Ford grunt, bark, and grumble through this film was painful.

One more problem, Olivia Wilde (tv’s House) has about as much big screen charisma as a well chosen curtain. Wilde makes January Jones look like Julia Roberts. Ok, one more thing. If you thought Paul Dano was annoying in There Will Be Blood, he’s equally obnoxious here as Ford’s trouble-making son.

In fact, this is an obnoxious film all the way around. Is it drivel? Pretty close.

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