Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for September 2011

There’s a virus.  It starts somewhere else, and is carried by innocent people to everywhere else.  As it spreads from Hong Kong to Minneapolis, authorities are mystified by its properties.  Meanwhile, an exponentially growing number of people are dying, including pretty people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet.  This is the stuff of Contagion: a movie that wants to produce anxiety, fear and pathos.

It fails.

If Contagion has a redeeming value, it’s that it shows – quite well – how a virus can be transmitted.  This matters because it can cause the viewer to evaluate matters of personal hygiene and unconscious habits like touching your face up to 600 times each day.  It also helps you believe that such a pandemic can happen — because it can.

But Contagion‘s disappointments are many.  Jude Law’s character is the antagonist: an appealing – though stereotypical – freelance anti-authority blogger with a huge constituency.  He points to a cure, accuses the good guys of coverup, and then turns out to be – himself – less than honest.  There’s Matt Damon who loses his wife (Paltrow) and step-son to the virus.  It’s hard to sympathize with a guy who shows so little emotion.

The cast is unusually female-heavy for a purported thriller.  There are a number of Ph.D.-types who fail to generate a fear response amidst the data.  Sure, it’s nice to see women-of-science on the big screen, but we can see them for free on small-screen shows like NCIS or Criminal Minds.  The difference is that the TV characters transmit passion for their pursuits.  These movie characters transmit scripted words.

One performance almost hits the mark.  Laurence Fishburne is an effective agency leader and cool head amidst the storm.  Only Fishburne’s and Damon’s characters have relationships in this movie, but in neither case are they given time to develop.

Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh wastes good talent and spectacular international scenery and never succeeds in causing a skipped heartbeat or even a wince from his audience.

If there is a winner in all of this, it is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which served as a consultant to the movie.  It seemed as if the CDC had been given unprecedented power in script development and execution; so much so that Contagion works best if seen as a documentary with Hollywood actors.  Overdub a small handful of profanities and you’ve got a video worthy of distribution to ninth-grade biology classes.  It’s not even long enough to induce a good desktop nap.  Sociology and psychology students might also benefit from the depiction of group behavior amidst anarchy.

I give Contagion two cranial autopsies (out of four).  It’s a good argument for discount theaters.  Yes, the screens have patches and the seats are squeaky.  But the popcorn is as good (or bad) as the high-priced cineplexes, and a Coke is a Coke.

  • In: Reviews
  • Comments Off on Movie Review: The Help

What does it mean when a bunch of older white Americans buy tickets to see a movie about racism in the deep south during the sixties?  What does it mean when this same audience remains seated while the closing credits roll, talking quietly among themselves?  Are they reflecting on their own experiences during that period?  about the acting or the scenery?  about the hard rain pounding on the theater’s roof during the third act?  Why don’t they get up and leave just as they do after any other movie?

Only once before have I experienced such a thing.  It was after the first showing of Saving Private Ryan in 1998.  Almost every seat was occupied by a World War II veteran and his spouse.  When the closing credits began to roll in silence, all I could hear was…sobbing.  Not a soul moved for at least five minutes.

The Help has the same effect.  You don’t want to move for fear that a precious feeling will pass.  You want to continue to savor the telling of a story.  You want to reflect upon the meaning of it all.  You wonder if things have changed all that much.

It’s easy to imagine Jackson, Mississippi as the setting for a story about racism in the early sixties, though I personally experienced a sameness in northern cities during that era.  The place isn’t the story; the mores of the times is the story.

The Help | Change begins with a whisper

Black women served white families as maids and, more importantly, as nannies.  They were the strong, nurturing presence for their “babies” while their mothers were busy being popular.  Every day, one nanny told her young charge: “You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.”

‘Skeeter’ Phalen (Emma Stone) was one of the children who’d been raised by “the help.”  Her nanny (Cicely Tyson) impressed upon her the knowledge that she’d grow up to accomplish something of significance, one day.   Now, as a young adult, she firmly believed in herself and in what she wanted to do: write.  Her first project of significance — a book written from the point of view of the community of nannies.

The beauty of Stone’s portrayal is that she never succumbs to a banner-waving stereotype.  Her character is empathetic, yes; loving of her subjects, yes.  But she distances her storytelling from herself as the story.  This allowed the subjects to be shown as deeply as is possible, and for this we owe director Tate Taylor a debt of gratitude.  We are given the opportunity to see a reality from a perspective other than our own.  We are given the gift of character portrayals rich in texture and emotion.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play their nanny roles in an understated way; sometimes subservient, but not often.  Away from their white families, their true personalities are allowed to emerge and we discover that they are little different from any one of us.  Given the same situations, our responses would be the same as theirs.  And this is the magic of The Help.

The script has the ring of truth throughout; there is never a false moment; there is no pandering or slant or ‘messaging.’  It is a story about the courage of the powerless against the powerful.  It is a story about a time in American history that may (or may not) have passed.  It lets you decide.  It is a story told with gripping tension relieved by moments of welcome belly-laughs.

I give The Help 3½ slices of chocolate pie (out of four).

Certain movies should be viewed for their historical value: Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Good Night and Good Luck and All the President’s Men to name but a recent few.  I would place The Help on that august shelf.  To see it is to add to the understanding of events in our lifetimes; to inform what is abstract history to many more.

As she walks away from her white family’s house at the end of the movie, Viola Davis’ character Aibileen Clark narrates: “Nobody ever asked me before what it’s like to be me.”  After watching The Help, we are privileged to know.


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