Friday, 10 February 2012

The Help

2011, 12, Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer

America’s sleeper hit of 2011, The Help is an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel in which an innocently vivacious young white female bravely decides to write a book during the civil rights era from the perspective of ‘the help’ - black maids who are subjected to racism by the families they work for. An ensemble piece, this oddly charming film stars Emma Stone as journalist Skeeter, who witnesses the racism for the cruelty that it is. Silently making a stand, she berates the women she should be friends with. These include Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), truly villainous in a role that will have every viewer wishing they could step into the screen to give her a piece of their mind – a sign of a great performance. The equally as brave two black maids who lead the revolution as it were, are played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both emanating a sense of chemistry vital to indicate the us-and-them nature the ignorant housewives all create. Both are as good as the other, yet for contrasting reasons. Spencer’s Minnie is a naughty, bubbly, hilarious creation that is crowdpleasing on all kinds of levels. Davis provides a quiet tenderness in Aibileen Clark, respected by all who know her for who she really is. She is the heart of the film (her relationship with the daughter of the woman she works for will bring a smile to the face, and inadvertently tears to the eyes), and arguably has the most work to do emotional-lifting wise. She succeeds. Mention must also be thrown Jessica Chastain’s way, who brings humanity to Celia Foote, a neighbour ostracised by the females of the town, in what could have been flimsily performed by most others; obviously being in everything never hindered her performance here.

For all of its good nature, The Help does have flaws. Although the film has a lot going for it, there is a one-dimensional feel in what it is striving to achieve. The concept that a young aspiring journalist was the catalyst for something so huge is a nice thought, but seems contrived despite the lengthy running time. Aibileen and Minnie are independent figures, so it needed to be ensured this is what they remain throughout. The glossy sun-spilling cinematography glitzes over some scenes which could have done with darker undertones – but squabbles aside, it means the film is beautiful to look at.
All in all, no help required to watch this one. Enjoyable, if overlong.
3/5


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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Shame

2011, 18, Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie

Re-teaming with Steve McQueen, his director of Hunger, Michael Fassbender delivers a searing performance that will place him on a pedestal with the best of them. He plays New York dwelling Brandon, a regular guy to the naked eye, but suffers on the inside from an addiction to sex. Sitting on a tube, he catches the eye contact of a female passenger who notices and responds to the glance with a coy smile. Brandon resumes the gaze in the same stance throughout this unspoken interaction, fuelled by sexual desire and nothing more. As the female passenger becomes awkward, Brandon’s desire turns to need. Maybe it’s this requirement that propels him to pursue her as she flees the train at her stop – but one thing is for sure: it is not the thrill of the chase -Brandon needs sex, and it is this locked-away thought that weighs him down.

Harsher truths come to surface with the introduction of Brandon’s sister Sissy, a vivacious yet extremely conflicted lost soul who disrupts Brandon’s everyday routine. Carey Mulligan plays her, offering something different to anything she has offered before. Her character could have grated in lesser hands, much like she does on her disinterested brother, but Mulligan balances her wittier side with her more affected one in an impressive way. It could be that she is overlooked by most due to smaller screen time, trumped by Fassbender’s towering powerhouse, but without her energetic streak, Shame could have been the bleakest of black holes. The intensity of events overwhelm, especially as the film reaches its dramatic climax, much assisted by the several facets Fassbender - unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination - brings to Brandon. He’s so set in his antics that he cons himself into believing there is nothing wrong with his lifestyle – a thought that could possibly drift into the viewer’s head countless times. It is this suppression that plants this intensity, yet as the suppression lifts, the tension only grows. McQueen, from a script by himself and Abi Morgan, classily directs from afar. Sustained shots, recurring shots, visceral shots – these are all thrown the way of the audience. In a standout elongated scene where Mulligan sings New York, New York in a dimly-lit bar, the camera flits from close-ups of her face to Brandon’s, emotions he never knew had flowing from him. This showcases the talent of all involved in Shame. Here is a film that could never have taken an easy way out to get across what it wanted to say. The film, a character study with a serious focal point, needed the collaboration between McQueen, Fassbender and Mulligan to work on the level that it does. Deeply affecting filmmaking that – for a film about sex – proves quite unsexy.
4.5/5


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