Review: The Help

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The Pitch: Everyone loves Magical Negro.

The Review: Fancy a challenge getting decent parts in the movies? Then try being a middle-aged black woman. (I appreciate this is more of a fact of birth than a life choice, but bear with me.) Hollywood, and to a certain extent the acting profession in general, is still dominated by white males. If you’re only ticking one of those boxes it’s hard enough, but two strikes and you’ve almost no chance. If you then happen to be middle-aged as well and your name isn’t an anagram of Ghoopi Woldberg, then you might as well give up now. So when suitable parts come along, you’d be mad not to grab them with both hands if you fall into that particular demographic, so it’s hard to fault the likes of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for signing up to appear in The Help.

Viola Davis has already been making a name for herself, and it’s one that rolls off the tongue more easily than Ghoopi Woldberg. Credits including a Tony award and an Oscar nomination (for a role in Doubt where she was onscreen for less than ten minutes) almost make her the obvious choice for a role like this, but The Help is a film full of strong female roles. Emma Stone is front and centre on the poster as Skeeter, the determined young writer who senses injustice and a story that might be going hand and hand, which soon sees her coming into conflict with the most prominent of the town’s young ladies Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Skeeter attempts to get Aibileen (Davis) to tell her story, but Aibileen fears the consequences and the reprisals and it may not be enough for her to stand alone.

What’s good about The Help is those performances, which are of a high standard across the board. Stone is resolute and persistent, battling against family expectations as well as those of society. Howard gets a slightly thankless role in some ways, but is believably haughty and eminently dislikeable. The real stand-outs, though, are Jessica Chastain as the woman sidelined by Hilly who starts out as comic relief but turns out to be something more substantial, Chastain excelling ; Octavia Spencer as Minny, Hilly’s maid who isn’t afraid to voice her opinions and who adds charm and heart; and Davis herself, with a past full of secrets that Stone is determined to get to the bottom of. Davis is the emotional centre of the film, often getting little dialogue at the side of scenes, but fierce and intense when the story requires it. There’s excellent support from the likes of Alison Janney and Sissy Spacek in motherly roles, but the men are almost as marginalised in the film as the black maids of the time were in real life.

Ah yes, real life. For all the shots of concerned people of every colour watching Martin Luther King on television, The Help isn’t keen on being upfront with its dealings of racism. There are episodes of Quantum Leap that do more to tackle head on issues of colour in that era, and that was a TV series starring two middle aged white guys. (Heck, there are episodes of Diff’rent Strokes that do more to tackle racism issues – this really is only one step up from The Cosby Show.) The films falls firmly into the trap of what Spike Lee and others called the Magical Negro; black characters acting in a purely advisory capacity to the white characters who actually take action. Despite serving the intent of the story, you can’t help but feeling it’s done more than a little disservice to hundreds of years of struggle for racial equality. (But hey, there’s good acting and some reasonable laughs, so that’s all right then…) So if you come to The Help expecting a genuine exploration of the hardships facing black maids in Sixties Mississippi, turn around and head home now; this is kitchen sink drama at its lightest, and the tenderest and toughest moments come sat around kitchen tables rather than shouting on the streets. The Help is good for what it is, and for the most part is a very entertaining night out as long as you align your expectations correctly at the door, but just don’t expect too much.

Why see it at the cinema: The main selling point of seeing this with an accompanying audience is the collective reaction. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (possibly), you’ll do it much more if you see it with a big group of people.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Bombay Beach

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The Pitch: The Beach Boys: The Lost Generations.

The Review: There are plenty of stereotypes that come to mind when one thinks of America; from the brash New Yorker to the ultra-hip Californian, American ways of life vary more often than time zones as you move from east to west. Attempting to define an American way of life isn’t easy, but Bombay Beach is a unique documentary which attempts to give insight into the lives of average Americans who have one thing in common – they are living in a run-down, almost forgotten backwater (pop. 260) where the American dream seems to be closer to a nightmare.

The 1% of the Beach’s inhabitants that we do follow each have their own problems. The youngest, Benny, comes from a family who’ve had more than the odd run-in with the law and Benny’s mother is doing her best to balance the medications prescribed to moderate his youthful recklessness. CeeJay is a school student hoping to be the first in his family to make it to college, after being sent away from the violence surrounding his Los Angeles home. The eldest of the three, Red, is eking out his final years in the crumbling surroundings with the support of others but  still has the odd indulgence to make his later life enjoyable.

The stories of these three and their friends and families reflect a lot of what we think we know about America – as well as the mundanity of middle America being taken to extremes, the stories give insight into the everything from the prescription drug culture to the gun culture which blights the US, but attempts to put it into the context of the regular lives of these small-town folk. Director Alma Har’el spent a year chronicling the lives of the residents of this failed resort and is never afraid to get up close and personal with her subjects, getting the camera right into people’s faces and eavesdropping on fights and tantrums in an attempt to understand what makes them tick. Despite the shabby surroundings, all three subjects seem keen to make the best of their lot in life  and their story is one as much of hope as it is of destitution.

Emphasising that hope, Har’el has each of her subjects take part in a choreographed dance routine. Using the music of Zach Condon and Bob Dylan and the various dance routines, Bombay Beach is transformed from measured to magical, as if Har’el has managed to capture the very essence or soul of her subjects. Har’el doesn’t attempt to draw too many conclusions, instead allowing the viewer to make up their own mind, and that allows the more extravagent touches to be at their most effective. The setting might be bleak, but somehow it serves to inspire both its residents and the filmmaker and Bombay Beach is a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting snapshot of life on the poverty line in the American heartland.

Why see it in the cinema: Not only for the fantastic use of the desolate landscapes, but also the intimate character work which makes great use of the wide screen, and plenty of humour to share in the mix as well.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Paul

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The Pitch: Close Encounters Of The Nerd Kind.

The Review: Great comedy double acts of the cinema used to be common, from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, from Hope and Crosby to Prior and Wilder, but nowadays we have to put up with the likes of the Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar. Also, Laurel and Hardy aside, there’s never really been a British pairing to compare; at least until the 21st century, when the unlikely geek stylings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been brought together on worldwide cult hits including Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. With a Spielberg movie (admittedly a motion capture one) also in the can, the pair have taken off the Edgar Wright-shaped stabilisers and have written and are starring in their latest adventure, this time with Greg “Superbad” Mottola behind the camera. The pair gained inspiration from their time spent hawking their various other wares at events like Comic-Con, so this sees them start at that very event and get drawn into a road trip with a small grey friend they inadvertently pick up along the way.

It’s testament to how far special effects have come that Paul is a fully realised and integrated character in the story. Even ten years ago, he’d have either been some form of puppet or Muppet with possibly the occasional CG shot and a midget running around in the costume, filmed from a distance, but he gets plenty of screen time and he’s far and away the best thing in the film, thankfully, not only for the remarkably conveyed emotions in his well animated face but also for Seth Rogen’s stellar voice work. It’s also fair to say that Paul gets the vast majority of the best lines, almost as if he’s wandered in from a much funnier movie. His story, as such, is fairly linear but it does take an occasional detour, and along the way manages to pick up additional stragglers, including Kirsten Wiig’s one-eyed Christian and a succession of shady government characters including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader trying to capture Paul before he can reach his goal.

It’s a stellar supporting cast, many of whom get reduced to barely cameos, and some of them do serve to take you out of the story, if only briefly. However, they pretty much all manage to make an impact of some sort, which leaves only two characters who struggle to truly engage, which strangely are Graham and Clive, a.k.a. Pegg and Frost. They have somehow not recaptured the chemistry of their Wright collaborations and end up both playing the straight man in the comedy double act to Paul’s broader laughs. Consequently the movie is as flat as a pancake until Paul arrives, and also nearly gets derailed with the ham-fisted subplot around Kirsten Wiig’s beliefs. While the kinetic energy that Edgar Wright brings might have been too much for this more casual road movie, there’s still a lack of drama or tension at many points in Greg Mottola’s more restrained direction and the eventual outcomes are all signposted a mile off.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy, because there is. As well as the titular alien lighting up the screen, Wigg, Bateman and Hader all fill out their roles well and Sigourney Weaver relishes her role as the boss trying to stop Paul’s progress. The whole movie is a love affair to Spielberg, so there’s plenty of nods, nudges and winks and even an appropriate cameo, and if you’re as geeky as the lead characters you’ll have a whale of a time spotting all of the references. Somehow the special magic of the Pegg-Wright collaborations gets missed here, as the references feel more obvious, possibly because of the setting, and drama and pathos are also somewhat lessened. Crucially, it’s just not as consistently funny as Shaun or Fuzz, and so ends up being a movie you’ll probably like rather than love, but it doesn’t stop you wondering what this comedy double have in store for us next.

Why see it at the cinema: The wide open spaces of the US of A get a good airing on the cinema screen, and the giant viewing area will allow you to take in the amazing detail of Paul’s animation at its best. There’s just about enough laughs to warrant the communal viewing experience as well.

The Score: 7/10