MOVIES: 'The Help,' 'The Change-Up' and 'Another Earth'
Updated 1:25 pm, Friday, August 19, 2011
Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
Adroitly adapted from Kathryn Stockett's controversial 2009 novel, "The Help" is the very personal story of three women in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s. Ambitious Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), an Ole Miss grad, wants to be an author and, while she lands a job ghostwriting a "cleaning advice" column for the local newspaper, a New York book editor (Mary Steenburgen) says she can only succeed if she writes something personal -- and timely.
Knowing little about cleaning, Skeeter seeks advice from her friend's maid Aibileen (Viola Davis), but chatting with hired help doesn't sit well with the brittle belles of the segregationist bridge club. So inquisitive Skeeter goes out, secretly, at night, to Aibileen's house and begins to question what it feels like to be a black servant, taking care of white people's babies. After all, Aibileen's raised 17 white children, often becoming their surrogate mother. Aibileen's understandably reluctant at first, but soon she's sharing her suffering, including how her only son was killed by racist negligence after a mill accident.
This kind of fraternization not only breaks Southern societal rules, but also puts them at risk of the law. But soon Aibileen's saucy, outspoken friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) decides to confide in open-minded Skeeter, as do a dozen other maids, telling their poignant tales of domestic life, particularly mistreatment by perky Southern replicas of Betty Draper in TV's "Mad Men." Like Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), a malicious racist whose spitefulness offends everyone, including her mother (Sissy Spacek); Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), who deliberately neglects her plump, toddler daughter; Skeeter's own ailing mother (Allison Janney), who inexplicably fired their beloved, longtime maid Constantine (Cicily Tyson), and hapless Celia (Jessica Chastain), a shunned newcomer who's considered "white trash."
Adapted and directed by Kathryn Stockett's observant childhood friend Tate Taylor, it resounds with sensitive emotional truth, even if it's episodic and uneven, lacking subtlety. The acting ensemble is superb, particularly Viola Davis and scene-stealing Octavia Spencer.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Help" is a provocative, powerful 9, a multi-racial, multi-generational `must see.'
Gimmicky body-switch comedies like "Freaky Friday," "All of Me" and "Big," have become a genre unto themselves. This time, the unwitting anatomy swappers are immature, idiotic, irresponsible bachelor Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) and uptight, wealthy, workaholic lawyer Dave (Jason Bateman). Dave and his wife (Leslie Mann) are the parents of three youngsters, including a set of infant twins. Living in Atlanta and improbable buddies since childhood, their lives have obviously gone in diametrically different directions.
Following a drunken spree and simultaneously muttering, "I wish I had your life," Mitch and Dave pee in a public fountain that's dominated by a stone statue of Metis, the cunning Greek goddess of counsel, advice and planning. Suddenly, there's a lightning bolt and power failure and -- presto! -- they awaken inhabiting each other's bodies, examining their "new" genitalia. Predictably, as they continue to explore their radically different lifestyles, each discovers that what he envied about his friend's existence isn't really as terrific as he'd imagined. Not surprisingly, when -- finally -- they regain their original personas, they're not only relieved but also grateful for what they have.
R-rated screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore did far better with "The Hangover," as director David Dobkin did with "The Wedding Crashers." I doubt that any of them will feature this contrived, stale comedy prominently on their resumes, particularly if anyone ever recalls the regrettable opening scene in which Dave gets hit in the mouth by a kid squirting a diaper poop projectile. Ryan Reynolds ("The Green Lantern") and Jason Bateman ("Horrible Bosses") worked together previously in "Smokin' Aces" (2006) and they perform creditably in this instance, playing against type. Comedienne Leslie Mann (a.k.a. Mrs. Judd Apatow) repeats the same long-suffering wife role she played in "Knocked Up" and "Funny People." Unfortunately, Alan Arkin's talent is totally wasted as Mitch's estranged father. But beautiful Olivia Wilde ("Cowboys & Aliens") scores as Dave's sexy legal assistant.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Change-Up" is a crass, crude, vulgar 4. It's a raunchy repeat of what's been done -- far better -- before.
If you enjoy brainy sci-fi, this winner of the Alfred P. Sloan award at Sundance this year has a haunting premise: a parallel world on which another version of you lives.
Teenage aspiring MIT astrophysicist Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) is out partying with friends one night and, driving drunk and distracted, her car careens into another, killing two of its three occupants: a mother and child. After four years in prison, Rhoda returns home and begins rebuilding her life, working as a high school janitor. Overwhelmed with guilt about the fatal accident and trying to make amends, she becomes a weekend house cleaner for John Burroughs (William Mopather), the distraught, grief-stricken husband whose family she destroyed -- without telling him who she is or what she did. Though she intends to apologize, she loses her nerve, and an uneasy friendship develops between these damaged, lonely people.
In the meantime, a mysterious phenomenon has occurred. Another Earth has appeared in the sky. It's a mirror-image sphere on which scientists speculate every human has a doppelganger. Gazing at it, day after day, night after night, Rhoda views it as some kind of redemptive second chance. So she enters a contest for a seat aboard a spacecraft that's being launched to investigate the strange planet.
Obviously filmed on a micro-budget, "Another Earth" was shot in and around New Haven, so residents will recognize many Yale landmarks and locales. While the minimalist, melancholy drama remains subdued, the individual performances are riveting.
Co-writer/actress 27 year-old Brit Marling is a Georgetown University valedictorian who decided to create her own film so she wouldn't have to play typical parts offered to young actresses. While interning at Goldman Sachs, she befriended writer/director Mike Cahill, and moved to Cuba for a year to make the documentary "Boxers and Ballerinas" about young athletes faced with the question of defecting. As for William Mopather, he's Tom Cruise's cousin with an impressive resume of his own.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Another Earth" is a stimulating 7, provoking philosophical discussion afterward.