The Help (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, had recently graduated from college but was rejected from an NYC-based newspaper she really wanted to work for, so she decided to move back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney). She figured she needed more experience as a writer so she applied and was hired at The Jackson Journal as a cleaning advice columnist. Disturbed by the racist remarks and treatment by her friends of their African-American maids, she figured she was going to write a book about their struggles, through conducting interviews done in secret, and expose the inherent ugliness of racism in 1960s America. “The Help,” based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was able to clearly communicate its big ideas for the majority of the time, like the hypocrisy in White folks trusting their Black maids to take care of their children and clean their houses yet they were deathly afraid of sharing the same bathroom, but it suffered from an inconsistent tone and subplots that belonged to a different movie. It was understandable, to a degree, that the material needed breathing room by means of comedy because the scars of racial discrimination remains a heavy and painful topic to endure. While some of them worked, for instance, the bit involving the secret ingredient in the chocolate pie baked by Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sassy maid recently fired by a contemptible woman named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) because the latter caught the former using the inside toilet designed for the family instead of the one outside designed for the help, more than a handful of them felt quite forced, like Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her dementia. I found it sad that Spacek, an actress of great range, wasn’t given much to do except to act kooky while delivering a powerful line or two during her moments of mental clarity with the aid of a tightly controlled, at times manipulative, score. Furthermore, I grew tiresome of the scenes when Skeeter was being cajoled by everyone to finally get a man. Her date with Stuart (Chris Lowell) might be considered as cute in the standard of romantic comedy given that their personalities initially clashed, but such cheesiness threatened to take away the social importance in the story that the filmmakers wanted to convey. I wanted to hear more stories from the various maids interviewed. More importantly, I wanted to see more interactions between Skeeter and Aibileen (Viola Davis), still grieving due to the death of her only son, beyond the aspiring writer just looking sad for the woman sitting in front of her. Skeeter was raised by a Black maid (Cicely Tyson) but the importance of their relationship was only occasionally placed under a magnifying glass. It was a decision that did not make sense because it was important we knew how Skeeter grew up to be such a strong woman who was able to see beyond the pigmentation of people’s skin. Based on the screenplay and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” had good elements in place but I wished it had been a stronger picture by means of eliminating the vestigial organs and delving more into subtleties of each character and convincing us why their stories, divorced from race, are worth sitting through.
★★★ / ★★★★
An unexpected trial separation between the patriarch (E.G. Marshall) and emotionally fragile matriarch (Geraldine Page) thrusted three sisters (Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith) into a territory in which they had to deal with their own lives and their parents’–something they weren’t used to because they’ve become accustomed to living a life of privilege and constantly reevaluating their careers. Joey (Hurt) was smart but never found what she was really good at. She held a grudge because she felt like she was the only one who went out of her way to take care of their mother. Renata (Keaton) was immersed with her work and craved to be left alone. She found it difficult because her husband, also an artist, took criticisms too personally. Instead of focusing her energy onto her work, she felt the need to build her husband’s confidence. Meanwhile, Flyn (Griffith) was never around because traveling was a part of being an actress. Her physical beauty was valued more than her wit, kindness, and personality. Despite the fact that the film was essentially about self-centered, white upper-class, highly irksome individuals, I found Woody Allen’s film to be admirable because he held a laser-like focus on the material’s theme. His subjects lived in big houses that felt more like museums than a comfortable home. When they spoke, their voices echoed as if they craved to be truly heard. They filled their houses with expensive material; the figurines had to complement the color of the walls and the texture of the carpet, and the insular themes that just had to work with the ambiance in a specific way. Everything had to be controlled. It showcased their intelligence, their place in society, and what they could offer to visitors who they considered to be on a lower level than them. But they weren’t emotionally equipped people. The sisters were jealous of each other and Allen wasn’t afraid to show us how ugly sibling competition could become. Arguments were abound, but since the characters didn’t know how to treat communication as a two-way street, nothing was really solved. In fact, it seemed like things turned for the worse after explosive confrontations. These people led sad existences but we didn’t pity them in the least. Allen’s script was vivid and the beauty of it was highlighted by the way the actors expressed their characters’ hypocrisies and histrionics. The picture was at its peak when the women’s father brought home Pearl (the wonderful Maureen Stapleton), a woman he wanted to marry. Pearl was supposed to personify people like you and me, someone who had a lot of energy, willing to talk about her imperfections, and wasn’t guilty about eating an extra slice of pie just because it was considered unhealthy. Allen adroitly used her character as both a hurdle and someone to aspire to for the three women in question. “Interiors” was about people who were not unlike the figurines they so deeply coveted: shining on the outside but tragically hollow on the inside. With Allen’s assured direction, the film was bleakly cerebral yet emotionally rewarding.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
★★ / ★★★★
Robert (Ezra Miller) was a sophomore in a private high school where kids were isolated from their parents so they were free to experiment with whatever they wanted. The high school made it a requirement for their students to take up sports or after school activities so Robert, having no interest in anything physical other than being intimate with another, chose to join the Video and Audio Club. While shooting at a hallway for an assignment, Robert accidentally captured two girls overdosing on cocaine. The event triggered a series of new rules as the students struggled to adapt to the death and their new environment. This film was good in some parts but it was mostly frustrating. I hated the scenes that reminded me of Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” where absolutely nothing would happen as the camera would linger at something random person or object. I think that is one of the main problems of movies adapting a style of faux-documentary or faux-realism: the filmmakers just don’t know when to cut certain scenes when the important element had been delivered. At times, nothing important would appear on screen at all. It then becomes an utter waste of time. The two main emotions I felt while watching this picture were anger and apathy. Anger because of the increasing frustration regarding dragged out scenes for no good reason. Apathy because of the subject matter. I felt like I was back in high school. One of my biggest disappointments with the film was it didn’t feature one healthy, clear-minded student with goals that go far beyond their current institution. When the two students died, honestly, I didn’t care. For me, they were just twins who happened to be addicted to drugs. Yes, they were young but that was no excuse. I was their age once but I chose not to make highly stupid decisions. It was ultimately their choice to be involved in drugs. No amount of excuse such as the classic, “My parents don’t give me enough attention” would make me feel more sympathetic toward them–dead or alive. Then my feeling turned to anger again because the very same students who called them “cokeheads” behind their backs suddenly changed their minds, claiming that they would miss the twins and “nothing would ever be the same.” Give me a break. But then I wondered whether that was the director’s purpose: to expose the drug culture of schools today and to reveal the hypocrisy of both the students and the faculties. “Afterschool,” written and directed by Antonio Campos, is a challenging film but sometimes it was just plain wooden. I wouldn’t be surprised if one decided to stop watching the movie just thirty minutes into it. However, I liked the fact that it made me curious with what would happen and to see whether my hypothesis involving the main character’s psychological state was correct. And I was.
Dark Habits (1983)
★ / ★★★★
“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.