The Help Does Not Seek To Shamelessly Manipulate Our Emotions

The Help” was released with some controversy back in 2011 as it was based on a 2009 best seller by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote about African American maids’ experience working in the houses of white people. Many would have preferred to have had a black man or woman write this story, but it is important to note Stockett was herself raised by a black maid who instilled her with a strong confidence which proved to be unwavering, and this was all while her mother was absent from her life. Plus, Stockett, as represented by the character of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, captured the voices of these ill-treated black women with really piercing honesty, and she made herself a vessel for their voices to be heard. From the start, she made it clear to the world that this book was about them and not her.

The movie version comes to us wrapped in a bow of beautiful colors and a very appealing movie poster. I kept think of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” which blew the opportunity to make audiences aware of who Medgar Evers was at the expense of some truly bland while characters, and neither Alec Baldwin or James Woods could not save the movie from its inescapable banality. “The Help” looked like it would make the same mistakes, but thankfully it does not. Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it is still a deeply felt motion picture which revisits a painful part of American history people have either forgotten or are sick of revisiting.

At its center is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who gets a job writing a housekeeping column for the local paper in Jackson, Mississippi. After reuniting with good friends in her hometown, she finds herself perturbed by the senseless racism which has divided the blacks and whites in an almost unspoken way. Skeeter also becomes concerned as to the whereabouts of the maid who raised her, Constantine, as she has vanished without a trace. These events compel her to start writing a book of the travails black housekeepers go through, and she is determined to capture their pride, heartache and deep-seated anger resulting from their thoughtless mistreatment.

This could easily have been a manipulative motion picture filled with cloying emotions, but the filmmakers have given us a variety of characters, black and white that are complex and who never come across as simply caricatures. Each one has their own needs and desires which conflict with those of others, and after a while it becomes clear their problems do not always have to do with race.

The black maid Skeeter leans on the most is Aibileen Clark, played in a powerhouse of a performance by Viola Davis. Just as she did in “Doubt,” Davis inhabits her character with a pride which, while wounded, remains defiantly strong. While her voice projects a kindness and understanding on top of an obedience to her employers, Clark’s face and eyes betray a huge resentment which has long since reached its boiling point.

The next black maid who contributes to Skeeter’s book is Minny Jackson, played in another great performance by Octavia Spencer. She proves to be the most outspoken of the bunch which results in her getting fired quite often, and yet she is reluctant at first to talk with Skeeter about her experiences. We later see Jackson getting her revenge in a way which somehow feels inspired by episodes of MTV’s “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Spencer gives “The Help” a great sense of humor it might have otherwise not had, and she is every bit Davis’ match.

Minny also develops a highly unusual relationship with the hopelessly naive Celia Foote. Unlike other working relationships, she gets the opportunity to be blunt with Celia and tells her what she needs to hear. I found the friendship between them to be one of “The Help’s” most welcome surprises. Jessica Chastain brilliantly portrays Celia Foote, and she has long since proven to be one of the best actresses working in movies today.

As for Emma Stone, she proved to be a revelation here, and she holds her own against a large number of acting stalwarts. Stone imbues Skeeter with a hard-won independence which never waivers. I love how even in Stone’s eyes you can see her determination in proving how strong a woman Skeeter is and of the sincere goodness in her heart. If she has not proven herself as a dramatic actress before this movie, she certainly did here, and now she has an Oscar to make this clearer to those foolish not to pay attention.

The majority of the white characters in “The Help” could have all been one-dimensional idiots, and while several of them make assumptions which are as ridiculous as they are racist, we see other sides of their personalities as well. One white character who can be seen as the movie’s chief villain is the snobby Hilly Holbrook, played in a truly gutsy performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. Her superiority against the black maids turns out to be driven more by fear than anything else, and realizing this at the film’s end gives Hilly a dimension we weren’t sure she had in the first place.

Howard has done phenomenal work over the years, and she was a good reason to actually see some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies like “The Village.” She has also given us reasons to sit through “Jurassic World” and its sequel as well as “Spider-Man 3.” While those movies failed to reach the heights of greatness, she gave you a reason to watch them in the first place.

Other great performances in “The Help” come from Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, who goes from being a stubborn mother desperate for her daughter to get a man to someone who regrets the decisions she has made in her life. Sissy Spacek is a hoot throughout as Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, who delights in her daughter’s misfortunes as her dad made the unforgivable mistake of spoiling her rotten. One underrated performance comes from Chris Lowell who plays Skeeter’s eventual boyfriend, Stuart. He starts off as an arrogant young man who thinks he has women all figured out, but he later comes to his senses thank goodness.

“The Help” is not perfect and does get a bit too cute at times, but its emotions ring true thanks to the acting and the direction by Tate Taylor who is a longtime friend of Stockett’s. It skirts the conventional narrative to give us something more authentic which is not, if you will excuse the expression, white-washed like so many other Hollywood movies. It covers a subject which we have no choice but to revisit as history repeats itself much too often, and it says a lot about the movie that it jumped from number two to number one at the box office in its second week of release.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Shape of Water’ is Another Cinematic Masterpiece from Guillermo Del Toro

The Shape of Water movie poster

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade II” and “The Devil’s Backbone” should be more than enough proof of how Guillermo Del Toro is a cinematic god among directors. If you need further proof of this, then I suggest you watch “The Shape of Water,” his romantic fantasy which is truly one of the best films of 2017. While I tend to scoff at romantic movies as I consider them cringe-inducing exercises in endurance which prove to be even more painful than running the Los Angeles Marathon. Please keep in mind, I have run this marathon seven years in a row, and soon I will be running it yet again.

“The Shape of Water” transports us back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1962 when America was stuck in the middle of the Cold War. We meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a secret laboratory who was rendered mute at a young age due to a neck injury. She follows a daily routine of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while boiling eggs on her kitchen stove, and then she goes to work where she performs her duties without complaint. Luckily, she has a pair of friends to converse with, in a matter of non-speaking, like artist and closeted homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her ever so talkative co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also takes the time to interpret Elisa’s sign language. But even with friends like these, let alone the luck she has living above a movie theater, there is clearly something missing from her life.

Things, however, quickly change for Elisa when the laboratory she works at receives a creature in a tank. This creature was captured in South America by the cold-hearted Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government officials he answers to want to dissect the creature in an effort to gain a foothold on the space race. Elisa, however, has different ideas as she develops a strong connection with the creature which will not be easily broken.

I guess this might seem like a strange love story for many to take seriously, but considering the seismic shifts in how the world views, and should view, marriage and the rights of others, “The Shape of Water” could not have been timelier. As improbable as a relationship like this one may sound, Del Toro and his cast make it one we quickly become engaged in to where we are swept up emotionally in a way few movies can.

Along with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Del Toro gives this film a look which is at once suffocating and yet wondrous. We clearly in the world of movies while watching this one, but the while this might seem like a genre picture designed to take us out of reality, it is filled with genuine emotion which is never easily earned. We can always count on Del Toro to give us a beautifully realized motion picture, but this one deserves special recognition as it had a budget of around $20 million, and yet he made it look like cost so much more. I would love to ask him how he accomplished what he did on a limited budget. In any other case, $20 million is a lot of money. But for a film like this, it seems almost too low to work with.

Sally Hawkins has wowed us as an actress in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Blue Jasmine,” but she really outdoes herself here as Elisa Esposito as this role takes her into Holly “The Piano” Hunter territory. With her character being a mute, Hawkins not only has to communicate without the use of words (vocally anyway), she has to keep her heart open in a way which we make a habit of avoiding. This actress shows little hesitation in making herself so open and vulnerable to a creature everyone else would be quick to be infinitely fearful of.

Speaking of the creature, he is played by Doug Jones, an actor who is masterful at portraying non-human characters. Whether it’s as Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even as Lieutenant Commander Saru on “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jones always succeeds in finding a humanity in these characters others would never be quick to discover or find. His performance here as the Amphibian Man is every bit as good as Andy Serkis’ in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and I put these two actors together because many believe it is the makeup or special effects which do all the acting for them, but it’s their acting which makes their characters so memorable. Jones, like Hawkins, has to communicate without the use of words, but he has an even bigger challenge as his character cannot even use sign language. His work deserves more credit than it will likely get at awards time.

“The Shape of Water” also has a terrific cast of character actors, and they are the kind who never ever let us down. Richard Jenkins is right at home as Giles, a closeted gay man who, when he tries to reach out to someone he cares about, is quickly rebuffed not just by that someone, but also by a society which thoughtlessly excluded many for all the wrong reasons. Jenkins never resorts to giving us a cliched version of a homosexual, but instead makes us see Giles as a man who is kind and considerate but still ostracized to where he is willing to break the rules to help a friend who doesn’t judge him in the slightest.

When it comes to Octavia Spencer, you can never go wrong with her, and she is a wonderful presence here as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s co-worker who is never at a loss for words. She also makes it clear how Zelda is a force to be reckoned with, and this is something the character’s husband really should have taken into account a long time ago.

There is also Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist who sees far more value in the Amphibian Man being alive as opposed to becoming a glorified science experiment worthy of dissection. This is a typical role you find in genre films, but Stuhlbarg inhabits the role to where Robert can never be dismissed as a simple stock character. Even as we learn there is more to Robert than what we initially see on the surface, Stuhlbarg makes us see this is a man who values understanding and compassion over greed. You know, the kind of person we would love to see in the White House at this moment.

But one actor I want to point out in particular is Michael Shannon who portrays Colonel Richard Strickland, a man hellbent on putting his country before everything else, including his wife and kids. Shannon succeeds in rendering Strickland into a more complex character than you might expect. As we watch Strickland get berated by his superiors for not doing his job like they want him to, Shannon shows us a patriotic American who wants to serve his country well, but we watch as his spirit becomes as corrupted and diseased as those two fingers of his which were torn off his hand by the creature and reattached with limited success. As the movie goes on, those fingers of his become a disgusting color as they come to represent the corruption of his soul. Other actors would be intent on making you despise such a villainous character, but Shannon makes you see a man whose desperation has forever blindsided his worldview.

Whether or not you think “The Shape of Water” breaks any new ground in the world of motion pictures is irrelevant. All that matter is how it is a beautifully realized film which takes you on an incredible voyage only the best of its kind can. It also reminds you of how valuable a filmmaker Del Toro is in this day and age when distinct voices in the world of cinema are continually minimized and rendered silent for the sake of profit. Here’s hoping you get to see it on the big screen where it belongs before Donald Trump leads us into a war no one in America is prepared to be drafted into.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Fruitvale Station’ Puts a Human Face on a Tragic Shooting

Fruitvale Station movie poster

It’s a strange and cruel irony “Fruitvale Station” opened in theaters the same week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. Like Martin, Oscar Grant was a young African American male whose life was cut short under needlessly tragic circumstances. On the night of January 31, 2008, Oscar was traveling home with his girlfriend and their friends on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when a fight broke out on the train which he gets caught up in. When the train arrives at the station of the movie’s title, Oscar was pulled off it by BART police officers, and one of them, either accidentally or intentionally (depending on who you ask) shot him. He died the following day, and his death brought about protests and a call for justice.

The cases of Martin and Grant appear to illustrate that, despite strides we have made in race relations, it’s still not safe to be a young black man in America. Now “Fruitvale Station” is not a movie out to offer a solution to this continuing problem, but it does put a human face on it. After watching it, Grant will no longer seem like a mere statistic to anyone.

The movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life as he goes about his business while trying to survive in an unforgiving world. He still lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in a rundown part of the Bay Area, and this is despite the fact Sophina knows he cheated on her. But regardless his wayward ways, Oscar is clearly dedicated to taking care of them both and in doing what he can to give them a better life.

“Fruitvale Station” is the first feature film for director Ryan Coogler, and he made it because he wanted people to get to know Oscar as a human being instead of just another name in a newspaper. Having seen the film, I can honestly say he succeeded in doing so. Not once does Coogler try to sanctify Oscar or water him down for an easier movie going experience. Coogler presents Oscar warts and all, and while he is far from perfect, we come to respect him for what he’s trying to do with his life on this fateful day.

We see Oscar trying to get his supermarket job back even though his boss isn’t about to rehire him, and it’s the first time we see Oscar’s hair trigger temper come to life. His mission now and throughout this fateful day is to provide for his family. Of course, this may lead to him selling drugs to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the same thing which landed him in prison. While his desire to lead a good life is strong, the lure of the criminal life and the money it can generate for him keeps percolating below the surface.

Michael B. Jordan made a name for himself on television shows like “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” and he also appeared in the surprise hit movie “Chronicle.” His performance in “Fruitvale Station” is nothing short of sensational, and it made him one of the great breakout stars of 2013. It’s exhilarating to watch him as he takes Oscar from the joys of being a father to his frightening lows when he begs his mother not to leave him all alone. It’s a shame Jordan didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but then again 2013 was a year overflowing with great performances, many of which were bound to be left out.

Octavia Spencer gives another one of her great performances in this movie as well. As Wanda, she gives us a mother who tries to be strong for her wayward son, but who struggles with the reality she may need to keep her distance from him for his own good. This is not the typical clichéd mother character who goes through the usual motions of the parental ups and downs, but one who has stood up against the tides life has thrown at her and whose love for her son you never doubt for a second.

“Fruitvale Station” starts off with footage of the actual incident where Oscar was shot, but it cuts to black before we can see if the shooting was intentional or accidental. This gives the movie a certain tension as we know how things will end, but even as we get to that moment, there’s a still a part of us which wants this situation to have a different outcome. Even though the end of the movie is never in doubt, we desperately want him to survive the night and get home safe.

The other thing I really liked about this movie is how it showed us a part of the Bay Area many of us don’t get to see. I grew up in Northern California, and while much of it is not crime ridden, there are parts of it I dare not venture into. Like the brilliant documentary “Hoop Dreams,” it sheds a light on how African-Americans live and subsequently breaks a lot of the preconceptions many of us have about them.

There have been several other tragic incidents following what happened to Oscar Grant such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s always depressing to see how history keeps repeating itself despite our best attempts to learn from it. What makes “Fruitvale Station” so remarkable is it’s not out to give us glib answers on how to end the violence, but it instead puts a human face on a man who didn’t deserve to die. We hear about these stories in the news far too often, and they are usually shown to us with an unnecessary amount of bias. Both Coogler and Jordan have done a great service as they force us to see Oscar Grant as a person with strengths and flaws, and this makes “Fruitvale Station” one of the very best movies of 2013.

* * * * out of * * * *