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

Review: X-Men: First Class

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The Pitch: The origin of the species’ next evolution.

The Review: You’d be forgiven for having lost patience with the X-Men saga by now, after the complete mess that The Last Stand and the Wolverine spin-off turned out to be. Blame for that could feasibly be put at the door of two particular individuals: Bryan Singer, who ran away from the franchise to make a bloated, overly reverential Superman movie, and Matthew Vaughn, who stepped in to direct but then got cold feet over the resources he had to work with and disappeared off to make Stardust and then Kick-Ass instead. But obviously the call of the mutant still remained strong for both men, as Singer returns to produce and Vaughn to direct what was described in some quarters as a reboot but is actually positioned as a fairly direct prequel to the original trilogy. Given how poorly treated many of the mutants on both sides were treated by the original trilogy’s final chapter, it’s also a chance to redress the balance for many of the characters.

But if you’re going to go back forty years, then your most immediate challenge is to find someone to fill the younger shoes, and eventually wheelchair, of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Vaughn has turned to two of the hottest up and coming actors, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Avoiding the trap of direct impersonations that so dogged Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, McAvoy and Fassbender instead bring the same ethos and conflict to their pairing, but both with a twist; McAvoy’s Charles Xavier starts out by using his mind control powers to pick up women in the pubs around Oxford, but eventually his sense of responsibility takes over from his more lecherous tendencies, and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr is almost the anti-James Bond, globetrotting in a mission of revenge that has its roots very much in the character’s origins right back at the start of the original movie. Both of the youngsters are up to the challenge, Fassbender very much with the more interesting and shaded role but McAvoy his equal in the more tense moments. Their relationship is the core of the movie, possibly even more so than in the originals, and they both keep you interested and invested every time they’re on screen.

So First Class is the origin story, and in this case it’s the origin of the differing viewpoints of Professor X and Magneto. Given their ages and the timeframe, the rest of the cast is mainly new mutants, although Mystique is slow enough in her ageing to have been around in the Sixties, here portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, and Hank “Beast” McCoy old enough, so Nicholas Hoult picks up the role. While neither rise to the heights of the two leads, both have some great moments and are absolutely right for their characters. Outside of these four leads the other new mutants get very little to do on the good side, but they do at least fare better than the baddies, where only half of them even get speaking roles, with mixed success. Kevin Bacon is deliciously evil as the head of the Hellfire Club, but January Jones appears to be in a competition of her own making to see how badly she can act and get away with it, as she looks diamond some of the time but acts plastic for the rest of it. The other main role is handed to CIA stooge Rose Byrne, who takes her clothes off to get into the Hellfire Club and then spends most of the rest of the movie earning back her dignity.

Vaughn has also taken the opportunity to populate the rest of the cast with a fantastic array of familiar faces to fans of sci-fi and action genres, with the likes of Oliver Platt, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise and even Michael Ironside popping up, and giving the whole film a feeling of consistent qualityJones is pretty much the only weak link in the whole film. There’s also some fantastic connections to earlier films, both in terms of visuals and personnel, but the depth of the acting quality and the reasonable structure would mean little if the story wasn’t up to much. The concept is great, putting the action in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although you’d be advised not to have your brain fully engaged, otherwise some of the silliness of the concepts may become too apparent. But Vaughn keeps the movie going at a cracking lick, with montages and split-screens used sparingly and effectively, and some set-pieces which have a scale which doesn’t feel out of place in the company of the other summer blockbusters. Singer’s hand as producer has achieved something on the fifth film of this franchise which he didn’t achieve on his Superman gig, which is to make a fifth film that can sit comfortably in the company of the first two. It falls short of the outstanding quality of X2, but there’s enough here to make you want to see what Singer, Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman can make of another trip round this universe.

Why see it at the cinema: Vaughn brings a scope and a scale to the whole enterprise that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and after the damage done to the franchise by the last two sloppy instalments, this will reward you if you’re willing to make the trip out.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Made In Dagenham

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The Pitch: Ford Fiasco.

The Review: The true (or inspired by) story of the plucky underdogs who rise up and achieve has become a staple of British cinema over the past two decades. In everything from Brassed Off to Calendar Girls, that feeling of gritty realism that is still gritty in a faintly British, middle class way, more Richard Curtis than Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, so a movie such as Made In Dagenham comes loaded with expectations. It is almost inevitable that a story such as this, ripe for such a big screen conversion, would be made eventually, but thankfully this version comes loaded with talent and packed with quality.

It’s a simple concept: female workers at the Ford Dagenham plant, who make up a tiny proportion of the overall workforce as they supply the stitched seating and other accoutrements, feel that their low pay and lower grading in comparison to their male colleagues (most of whom are husbands who work in the main plant) are unacceptable, and spurred on by sympathetic shop steward Albert (Bob Hoskins) they begin the battle to get their rights, led by the reserved but determined Rita (Sally Hawkins). Soon their actions get the attention of the government and the female Secretary of State, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), but the question is how far will they be willing to go, or indeed will their husbands want them to go?

The script does a nice job of offsetting the familial tensions created between the two sides of the workforce with the ongoing struggles to get their case heard. Hawkins, Hoskins and Richardson are all playing the type of roles they’ve played before, but in each case bring something fresh; Hoskins has an understated cheekiness and fits well into the all female environment, Hawkins has the fearless optimism from previous roles such as Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy, but also handles herself well in the more heated exchanges at home with husband Eddie (Daniel Mays), and Richardson perfectly captures the bold-as-brass, no nonsense attitude of the Secretary and her unwillingness to back down, even when up against the Prime Minister (John Sessions’ slightly caricaturish Harold Wilson). The supporting cast are all excellent, especially Geraldine James as Hawkins’ right hand woman and Rosamund Pike as her unlikely ally from the middle classes.

We may think we know where the story’s headed, but there’s pain and pathos in the transition, and director Nigel Cole keeps things moving along well, never allowing the pace to sag but still finding time for the dramatic moments to breathe when the time is right. The grimness of the working conditions and the brown Sixties tones are a wonderful setting for such a story, and the whole package has just the kind of feelgood nature, but tinged with something deeper, that the best of its contemporaries has tried to capture. Hopefully British audiences haven’t tired of this kind of story yet, as Made In Dagenham proves that there’s still plenty of interesting avenues to explore in the story of the plucky Brit.

Why see it at the cinema: The Sixties design, shown off at its best on the London escapades, shines through the struggles and will capture you visually, but this is a feel good entertainment – you’ll feel better in the company of lots of others.

The Score: 8/10