The Help

The Help

***

 

It is a popular theory that young people today are very different from than their parents and grandparents.

Kids today are supposedly dumber, ruder, and lazier than their previous generations, with shorter attention spans and a higher propensity toward reckless and irresponsible behavior.

My observation is that older people always have something bad to say about “kids today.” It seems like every generation believes that society is breaking down and that things are getting worse.

I disagree. I think that people from every era have pretty much the same wants and needs and virtues and flaws. Technology certainly is advancing, but the basic rules of society don’t change all that much.

In this world of continuity and social stability, there has been one really huge change: the Civil Rights revolution of the mid to late 20th Century. It is literally hard to believe that my parents grew up in a United States that allowed – even sanctioned – the segregation and subjugation of black people.

To its credit, Hollywood embraced the civil rights cause from the beginning. Bravo to Hollywood for making movies that remind us of our country’s ugly Jim Crow past and acknowledge the debt that we owe to the brave freedom fighters who destroyed it.

But in their zeal to present the victims of racism as sympathetic and unthreatening, filmmakers erred in the other direction by creating bland, milquetoast, unrelatable black characters.

Instead of challenging white America to accept real, flawed, emotional black protagonists, Hollywood tries to make the argument for equality more convincing by only showing up stoic, saintly black characters – with superhuman patience, forgiveness, and decency.

“The Help” follows the long Hollywood tradition of white-washing black people on the silver screen.

Writer/director Tate Taylor paints of a vivid picture of a world that happily no longer exists. He takes us inside the houses of 1950s Jackson, Mississippi and shows us the strange, complicated relationship between upper middle class young women and the black maids who cleaned their houses, served their food, and effectively raised their children.

Just to make sure everyone in the audience is rooting for the underdog maids, the film’s racist villainess (Bryce Dallas Howard) is laughably diabolical, despicable, and desperate while the black women are all selfless, pious, and dignified.

Even though Taylor slavishly adheres to the rules of political correctness, he still managed to make an effective drama.

Emma Stone is more likable than usual playing Skeeter Phelan – a plucky, independent young newspaper columnist who comes up with the bold plan of interviewing some of the town’s black housemaids and compiling their stories into an eye-opening book.

By questioning and challenging the peculiar rules of southern apartheid – the separate bathrooms, separate schools, separate legal systems – Skeeter and her subjects were both breaking the law and putting themselves in danger.

But the outrageous Jim Crow establishment needed to be eradicated, so a few brave maids (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer) decided to be heroes. Generally, I think people should conform to the rules of society and avoid stirring up trouble. But the civil rights revolution was a time for heroes.

Thanks to the victory of the civil rights movement, we all live in a society where everyone is subject the same laws and we are free to socialize with people of different races and share the best things about our respective cultures with each other.

We live in a better world due to the sacrifice of the civil rights activists and “The Help” is a well-deserved tribute to them.

It’s an overly long tribute, though. There are about five different sappy happy endings that drag the film out well past two hours.

“The Help” tells a good story; an important story. But just because the civil rights cause was so utterly righteous doesn’t mean that every civil rights advocate was a saint. Hollywood needs to make a film called “The Jerks Who Junked Jim Crow” to make up for movies like this.

 

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True Grit

True Grit

***

 

Westerns are kind of like musicals.

Wait: hear me out!

I don’t mean that the movies themselves are similar. I don’t mean that John Wayne is the same as Fred Astaire. I don’t think it is a good idea for Clint Eastwood and Cher to perform a big song and dance number on the open plains.

What I mean is: westerns and musicals are both niche genres. Most people could completely live without them, and that’s why they make very few of them.

But there is a cadre of rabid fans of each genre who are eager to embrace a new musical or western and rush to the theater in droves whenever a new one comes out.

I figure that’s why a perfectly mediocre musical like “Dreamgirls” became an overrated sensation. And why an absolutely unremarkable western like “3:10 to Yuma” was a critical and commercial hit.

And on the rare occasion that they make a musical or western that is genuinely good, the world stops to worship it.

“Chicago” was actually decent, so naturally it swept the 2002 Oscars. “Unforgiven” is the only brilliant western that I’ve ever seen. So it is only natural that cable TV plays it ad nauseam, giving guys like me an opportunity to enjoy it for the twentieth time.

Personally, I do not like musicals. It would take an army of drag queens to drag me to see “Burlesque.”

I do like westerns, though, for some reason. So it was inevitable that I was going to see “True Grit.”

Though I gladly pay my $8 every time a new western comes out, I do not mistake them for great films.

“True Grit” is a perfectly respectable, reasonably entertaining western. It isn’t anything special, though, and it doesn’t deserve to be in the Oscar race.

“True Grit” tells the ultra-violent story of Mattie Ross: a smart, plucky young woman who is on a mission to avenge her father’s murder.

Mattie intrepidly follows a drunken lawman (Jeff Bridges) and a shady Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) on a mission into the wilderness to track down and kill the man responsible.

I didn’t like “True Grit” as much as I was hoping to. Mostly because I didn’t like Jeff Bridges’s Rooster Cochran as much as I was expecting to.

I think Jeff Bridges is a terrific actor. I was happy when he won Best Actor last year for the wonderful little film “Crazy Heart.”

Rooster Cochran is very similar to Bad Blake – the character Bridges played in “Crazy Heart.” Only he’s not as interesting. Rooster exhibits all of the drunkenness and undependability of Bad Blake, but none of the complexity and pathos.

Overall, “True Grit” is perfectly watchable but nothing special. Fans of westerns will enjoy it but I don’t recommend it to anyone else.

Twilight

Twilight

***1/2

 

Last weekend, 15 million teenage girls and I saw “Twilight.” Uh, not together, of course.

The vampire romance, based on the beloved 2005 bestseller by Stephenie Meyer, grossed $70 million in its opening weekend – besting James Bond and shattering industry expectations.

Like “Sex and the City” before it, “Twilight” proves that there is a huge underserved market for quality cinema made by women for women. The sooner that Hollywood recognizes that American females are smart enough not to mistake movies with Matthew McConnaughey and Kate Hudson for quality cinema, the happier we all will be.

Kristen Stewart stars as Bella, a normal teenager from Arizona who decides to move to a small town in Washington State to live with her single father.

To Bella’s surprise, the hottest boy in school, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), seems to have a crush on her. The shy young man usually keeps to himself. But when Edward miraculously saves Bella from a car accident, he reveals both his feelings for her and a superhuman strength.

One moment Edward is sweet and charming, making it clear that he likes Bella. The next moment, he is cold and elusive, making it clear that he has tortured secrets to hide. In other words: he is mysterious, alluring, and perfect.

There are a few subtle but important aspects to “Twilight” that make it much better than you’d expect a movie like this to be.

The first is that the leading lady, Bella, is not a victim in any way. She isn’t an outcaste at school. Her parents aren’t perfect, but they are decent people who care about her. She isn’t angry or miserable or suffering from any disorder that they might make an after school special about.

Meyer understands that the biggest problems that most American teenagers have are the confusing and passionate fears and desires swirling around their own heads.

Bella’s world is not inhabited by good guys and bad guys, like in most stories like this. “Twilight” features mostly decent, likable people (and vampires). Disagreements are not good versus evil struggles. They are due to genuine cultural differences and prejudices that families have trouble letting go of.

And again to her credit, Meyer isn’t really making a statement about prejudice or urging us to ignore our differences. She is just telling it like it is to make her story more realistic.

While most of the audience was probably too busy drooling over Robert Pattinson to notice, newcomer Kristen Stewart is amazing in her first starring role.

She perfectly captures the existential angst and longing that comes with being a teenage girl, as well as the pure thrill and fearlessness of finding your first love. It is an unassuming, unpretentious performance that carries the picture without demanding any attention.

Forget vampires. Forget the hype. “Twilight” is simply an intelligent, well-written, well-acted romance. I recommend it.

 

Unknown

Unknown

*1/2

 

Based on that nifty theater-marquee Max’s View logo, I am supposed to be writing a column about movies.

Lately I have been writing about plenty of other topics: Egypt, cell phones, David Bowie – pretty much anything BUT movies.

I really enjoy the relaxing experience of sitting in the front row of my local theater with a box of chocolate cookie dough bites and watching a new movie.

However, this time of year it becomes a bit of a chore because the new films are awful. Oscar season is over, summer is months away, and Hollywood is taking the opportunity to dump its very worst pictures.

The big question for me is: when will the drought end? When will Hollywood throw us a bone and release a new film that isn’t complete garbage?

The answer: Unknown.

“Unknown” was the #1 movie in America in its opening weekend. That can only be due to a lack of competition because it really stinks.

“Unknown” is nothing but a half-baked rip-off of “The Bourne Identity.” It insulted my intelligence and tested my patience.

Liam Neeson – who has become a popular action hero somehow – stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a mild-mannered American scientist.

As the story begins, Martin and his lovely wife (played by “Mad Men”’s January Jones) have just arrived in Berlin (the one with the wall, not the mall) for a conference.

Martin accidentally misplaces his briefcase and has to take a taxi back to the airport to retrieve it. The cab crashes and Martin wakes up in the hospital days later, frantic and confused.

When he gets back to the hotel and greets his wife, she does not recognize him. Even worse, she has her husband by her side. HIS name is Dr. Martin Harris, and he has the credentials to prove it.

I admit it. I was hooked. I wanted to discover who stole Liam Neeson’s life, and why.

Unfortunately, the answer is completely ridiculous. [Spoiler Alert! If you are actually going to see this dud, please read no further].

It turns out that there is no Martin Harris. Liam Neeson and January Jones were never husband and wife: they are highly trained killers for hire. Their latest job was to go deep under cover in the science community in order to murder an important botanist.

Neeson’s scrambled mind was thinking things that were not real – he was remembering his character’s back-story. When Neeson’s character was incapacitated, a back-up killer took his place to complete the job.

The film’s big revelation is a terrible letdown. The truth is not intriguing. It is not believable. It is just stupid.

And even if the audience is willing to be charitable and accept the notion that Neeson’s character is so confused that he forgets everything about his real life, that still doesn’t explain how his entire personality changes. Neeson goes to sleep as a cold-blooded killer and wakes up as a Boy Scout.

Ridiculous. “Unknown” is nothing but a bad “Bourne Identity” rip-off. Please don’t see it.

Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman

***

Michael Moore has ushered in the golden age of the muckraking documentary film.

Interestingly, no one has made a major documentary about our country’s ineffective, inefficient public education system until now. Perhaps that is because the situation can’t be blamed on politicians and big corporations, the root of every problem according to people like Michael Moore.

“Waiting for Superman” is a surprisingly honest, appropriately depressing film about why our public school system delivers mediocre education for an outrageously high price.

To his credit, director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) pulls no punches when it comes to blaming teachers unions first and foremost.

Union rules not only make it impossible to fire a bad teacher, they make it impossible to adequately reward a good teacher. This awful system absolutely ensures that the teacher workforce is less competent than it could be and less motivated than it should be.

This is why private schools are consistently able to provide better education for less money; they don’t have to deal with the unions.

I disagree with Guggenheim’s argument that federalism and lack of standardization is part of the problem.

During the past few decades, standardized curriculum and testing has become a major part of the experience of most American school children. This is a terrible trend.

I understand the appeal of mandating that every American student be exposed to certain vital information. But standardization is a disaster for good teachers and their students.

Transforming teenagers into educated adults is not really the job of a high school teacher. Anyone who has the expectation that an 18 year old is going to graduate as a truly educated person is either living in a fantasy world or has a more lenient definition of “educated” than I do.

The greatest gift that a teacher can give her students is to instill a passion for learning. Mandating a uniform lesson plan robs a teacher of her ability to inspire.

When a teacher is not completely knowledgeable about the lesson she is presenting and not all that excited to teach it, her students will notice. And the notion that learning is boring and lame will be solidified.

If a history teacher is an absolute expert about Reformation Europe and finds it fascinating, she should be allowed to spend half the year teaching about nothing but Martin Luther and John Calvin and Henry VIII and Thomas More. The passion and the fun that the teacher has will be evident and will rub off on some of the kids.

Ultimately, “Waiting for Superman” spends too much screen time telling the stories of individual children who are being wronged by the current education system. This makes the movie longer than necessary.

It also prevents Guggenheim from placing the proper amount of responsibility on the shoulders of America’s parents. If parents raise their child to view a high school diploma is a necessity of life rather than a choice, no amount of bad teachers will make that child drop out.

I don’t agree with everything “Waiting for Superman” has to say, but it made me think about an important topic. And that’s what a good documentary is all about.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

**1/2

 

You can hardly turn on the television these days without being reminded that the economy is bad.

And though I’m certainly not going to argue that everything is going great, it is worth noting that we have come a long way since the crash of 2008.

2008 was pretty scary. The mortgage bubble burst. Stock prices plummeted. Major financial institutions were going bankrupt and closing their doors forever.

Panic was in the air. Was it 1929? Was it Rome, 476?

Happily, it wasn’t the end of the world after all. But ’08 WAS pretty awful. And based on the current 10% unemployment rate, the economy hasn’t completely recovered.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is Oliver Stone’s ambitious attempt to explain what caused the crash of 2008 and who is to blame.

Generally, reasonable people are willing to accept simple explanation for why things happen.

People chose to buy houses for a half million dollars and banks were willing to lend them the money to do it. But when those houses were suddenly shown to be worth $300,000 and the buyers couldn’t afford to keep up with the mortgage payments, it became a big problem. And, rather than letting the entire banking system collapse, we the American taxpayer ended up picking up the tab.

But Oliver Stone is not a reasonable man. Simple explanations do not interest him. Stone is inspired to dig deep for the root causes of a problem – the more complex the better.

In “Money Never Sleeps,” Stone tells the story of how a few greedy, unaccountable Manhattan fatcats almost brought down the world financial system with their irresponsible behavior.

Stone’s tale of derivatives and hedge funds and speculation is frankly difficult to follow. But it’s also fascinating. This is a pretty entertaining movie.

Too bad the characters aren’t nearly as interesting as the plot.

The star of the movie is Shia LaBeouf, who is a successful actor despite the fact that he doesn’t have an ounce of charisma.

The villain is a brokerage baron played by Josh Brolin. We know that he is a bad guy because he is always chomping on a big expensive cigar. Brolin does his best, but the character is just too preposterously evil to believe.

Michael Douglas is great as always playing the ambitious egomaniac Gordon Gekko. Unfortunately, his role isn’t big enough. Despite what the previews would have you believe, it’s little more than a glorified cameo.

As a history lesson of a dark time in our recent past, “Money Never Sleeps” is a success. As a dramatic film, it’s a cold, unengaging failure.

 

 

Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir

***

We in the United States are powerful and isolated enough to avoid warfare when we want to. Most of the conflicts of the past 50 years were due to the Military Industrial Complex’s desire to flex its muscles as opposed to actual national security crises.

Israel’s situation is very different. Due to its miniscule size and close proximity to more populous enemy states, warfare is perpetual and inevitable.

In this cauldron of constant conflict, “Waltz With Bashir” was formed.

Writer/director/producer Ari Folman plays himself: an Israeli filmmaker who fought in the 1982 Lebanon invasion and evidently witnessed a massacre of Palestinian civilians. However, Folman cannot remember the event. He can hardly remember anything about his war experience.

So the filmmaker decides to track down the guys he served with to see if their war stories can jog his damaged memory.

“Waltz With Bashir” is definitely different than your average war movie. Folman is not so much interested in war itself, but rather the tricks that it plays on the human mind. And, more importantly, the tricks that the brain plays on itself in order to get through traumatic experiences.

“Waltz With Bashir” also stands out because it is animated. I imagine that the decision to produce the film as a cartoon was probably a practical one. It would have been challenging both emotionally and financially to shoot all of the destructive and chaotic battle sequences with live actors.

But Folman takes full advantage of the medium. “Waltz With Bashir” features a distinctive animation style that I have never seen before.

The characters are animated with extreme detail and realism, especially in their faces and eyes, in order to reveal a maximum amount of emotion. In contrast, the outside world is like a massive grey maze, which makes the battle scenes feel like confusing dream sequences.

“Waltz With Bashir” is a difficult film, both because the content is so violent and depressing and because Folman largely refuses to clarify which events in the picture actually happened or how he truly feels about them.

About the only thing Folman tells us for sure is that the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Lebanese militiamen was an abominable act of genocide and that the Israeli military should have acted faster to stop it.

It’s a disappointing ending. For starters, it doesn’t take a lot of insight or guts to condemn genocide.

Plus, Folman spends almost the entire movie showing us that the frailty of human memory ensures that no one really knows how things happen in wartime or who is to blame. To conclude the story by definitively blaming people for an event (particularly people who neither pulled the trigger nor even ordered it) is really odd.

“Waltz With Bashir” is ambitious and engrossing. It is dazzling to look at and it has a cool soundtrack. However, the film doesn’t really come together intellectually so I can’t recommend it too strongly.

Watchmen

Watchmen

***1/2

 

Have you noticed that the entire film industry is trying to convince us to love and respect superhero movies?

Whenever Hollywood manages to produce a superhero picture that isn’t complete laughable garbage, it is lauded as a classic. 2008’s “Iron Man” is a reasonably watchable little action flick with no substance whatsoever. But somehow the Tinseltown hype machine turned it into a massive hit that received uniformly great reviews.

“The Dark Knight” actually was a solid, interesting drama with something to say about humanity. Unsurprisingly, many columnists took it a foolish step further and argued that the Batman flick was the best movie of the year.

Granted, “The Dark Knight” is every bit as good as “Slumdog Millionaire” and definitely better than “The Reader.” But a comic book movie with a half hour of mindless car chases and gun fights should not be seriously considered for Best Picture (for the record: “Gran Torino” was the actual best movie of 2008, with “The Wrestler” a distant second).

By now all moviegoers have been burned by over-hyped, overrated action flicks. Still, when a film like “Watchmen” comes along that is billed as the most ambitious superhero epic of all time, America lines up to see what the buzz is about.

“Watchmen” tells the complex, sometimes convoluted story of the masked vigilantes who protected – and threatened – the United States in 1985.

But this is a strange, alternative version of 1985, where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as president and America is on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets. There is a brilliant opening sequence where we get caught up on the major events of the past 50 years in a montage set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’.

To its credit, “Watchmen” really is different than other superhero movies – and not just because its R-rating allows for many more F-bombs than Spiderman will ever use.

Most superhero movies exist in a wholesome, comic book universe where caped characters have simple, justifiable flaws – like a desire to be too hard on the criminals they catch. The watchmen are real people with real – adult – issues.

The big revelation is that the watchmen are not heroes at all. They are lustful, arrogant, and often delusional human beings who happen to don silly costumes sometimes.

Also to its credit, the film never gets boring. Most 90 minute movies have me checking the clock on my cell phone and hoping for the closing credits. “Watchmen” fully justifies its 2 ½ hour running time with plenty of plot development and a large cast of characters.

My major criticism is that we are introduced to so many watchmen that we really never get to know any of them too well or delve deeply enough into their conflicted psyches. In terms of intellectual substance, the film doesn’t quite measure up.

That said: I definitely recommend “Watchmen.” It is an enormously ambitious and engrossing movie that kept me fully entertained for an entire afternoon.