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Entries in Oscars (11) (325)


Review: "The Help"

The first storyteller is Aibilene (Viola Davis), a black maid raising her 17th white baby in the Jim Crow south. She can't answer the question of what it feels like to raise another woman's baby when you've left yours behind at home. It's an overwhelming opening inquiry to be sure. Though it's immediately clear Aibilene is being interviewed, we don't know why and for what purpose as The Help begins. This type of prologue is common in movies as you get a peek at what's to come before stepping back to the beginning, but the introduction is important: Abilene is the first person we meet and the narrative voice of the movie. 

Viola Davis even listens with dramatic depth!

Though mainstream Hollywood has proven time and again that they're constitutionally incapable of telling black stories without a white frame --  in this case Emma Stone's frizzy haired provocateur "Skeeter" who is secretly writing a book about the experience of maids in Jackson, Mississippi -- The Help, however subtlely (and perhaps accidentally), suggests with its Davis-centric opening and closing passages that Abilene is capable of creating frames of her own, thank you very much. In fact, she'd rather write her own story than tell it to another writer.

So she does.

Mm-hmm. It's Octavia Spencer as Minny, a surefire Oscar nominee.If Tate Taylor's adaptation or Kathryn Stockett's bestseller were confident enough in Aibilene's voice to downplay Skeeter's this would be a much more revelatory movie, and surely a more painful one, but we're dealing with the movie we've got which is essentially both of theirs.

The story, or, more accurately, stories of The Help are passed like batons throughout the movie. Deep breath now: Skeeter who wants to be writer has a starter job as a cleaning advice columnist which leads her to conversations with (baton pass); Aibilene who is dealing with personal grief and a weak-willed bad-mommy employer; Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) who is continually pushed towards racist actions by local queen bee; Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) who loves lording her power over her mother, local girls, maids and the town outcast; Celia (Jessica Chastain) who is loud and 'trashy' but really loves her maid; Minny (Octavia Spencer), the best cook in town and Aibilene's BFF, who has a sharp tongue and is at war with Hilly.

Though it's easy to take potshots at The Help  -- we might discuss those soon -- it's also somewhat ungenerous since The Help is well meaning and entertaining and best of all affords us the rare opportunity of seeing several watchable actresses chewing on a meaty multi-course feast together. Sometimes they mistake the scenery for another course (Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain may both provoke heated arguments about the line betweena "type" and a caricature) but this was bound to happen. Chief among the delights in the acting arena is watching the dependable Viola Davis (Doubt, Far From Heaven) take the reins of a movie for once instead of stealing the whole thing in one scene or two.

The interplay between the characters makes up the bulk of the entertainment value, since with its sometimes candy color glossiness and very brief detached asides to actual history (usually on television sets), it's obviously not going for a deep historical rendering of the violent racist south. The movie would have done well to jettison much of Skeeter's story, both for pacing (it's far too long) and thematic strength, but Stone is such an engaging actress that it feels strange to object to having more of her around. Her storyline does eventually return, movingly, to the subject at the heart of The Help.

In the end where The Help wins over its audience, provided that they're okay with a surface take on a deep troubling subject, is with its trio of central performances. The intertwining still relevant topics of civil rights struggles, labor and racism are so large and overwhelming that it can be hard to breathe in their vicinity. What potency The Help does achieve it gets from its entertaining actresses sharing the thick pressure cooker air: Davis inhales, Stone fumes, Spencer erupts.

One final exasperated exhale from Aibilene is just the right cathartic move to end with. The audience breathes with her. And isn't this her story after all?

Oscar Discussion With Katey 
Review Index 


Will Oscar Hire "The Help"?

Here's a quickie conversation with Katey Rich and I about Tate Taylor's The Help and its Oscarable cast. We accidentally ran into each other outside the theater (hitting different screenings on the same day) so we decided we should have a brief chat.

How might the ladies campaign? Who really owns the film? Is this an Oscar vehicle for Viola and Emma or something more like momentum for a future Oscar?

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are the title characters but we also discuss the work of Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, and an unrecognizable Jessica Chastain if The Tree of Life is all you have to go on. And that was all I had to go on going in.

The movie opens tomorrow in theaters. Have a listen.

Katey and Nathaniel on "The Help"


10 Word Reviews: Maids, Apes, Robots

A few movies we haven't yet said much about. In the interest of saying something -- more will definitely follow in the case of The Help and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes both of which I suspect we'll be talking about thru Oscar season -- here's two handfuls of words for each.

2011... the year of the put upon maid?

The Housemaid (Im Sang-Soo)
in which a nanny/maid contemplates her own Fatal Attraction
10WR: South Korea continues its Actressy roll. Classy/Trashy, expertly shaped. B+ 

The Help (Tate Taylor)
Maids in the South tell their provoactive stories to a feisty young writer
10WR: Ungainly in telling yet super compelling. Well seasoned cornpone acting.

Transformers Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay)
giant fucking robots return so that visual f/x may occur and billions may be made
10WR: Surprisingly coherent explosiveness. But debris clears immediately (i.e. totes forgettable) C+ 

Cars 2 (John Lasseter & Brad Lewis)
in which Mater the tow truck, the Jar Jar Binks of Pixar, travels the world.
10WR: Noisy unfunny lemon stuck in traffic jam of easy gags. D-

Septien (Michael Tully)
in which..., no, I don't know what happens. Something about three abused backwoods brothers.
10WR: Incomprehensible indie auteurism. Masturbatory but at least someone's getting off. D

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
a science experiment gone awry has deadly simian consequences
10WR: Overly familiar beastie, schocked back to life by superb staging. B+
10 Word Bonus Thought: As new directors go, we suspect Rupert Wyatt could "A"  

COMING SOON: I know that everyone is already talking about Andy Serkis's killer work as "Cesar" in terms of its Oscar battles to come. But I want to let the film settle before I sound off. Anyway, I already suspect this conversation will make me crazy because it'll end up being a "supporting" discussion and "Cesar" is the lead of the film. James Franco's stardom is a red herring ;) 


Two Ladies: Margaret and Catwoman


Margaret. Last night I was having a conversation with a reader and he asked me if I thought that Margaret, that long-delayed Kenneth Lonergan film about a traumatized young Manhattanite (Anna Paquin) was going to have any impact on the Oscar Race. I told him I'd been answering that question annually for the past five years. Each year the question feels weirder and weirder. If you're new to movie fanaticism, here's a good rundown of the timeline and the things that went wrong in getting the movie into theaters. 

Here's Matt Damon and Anna Paquin on set... in... wait for it... 2005. Matt was still a thirtysomething and Anna wasn't yet SOOKIIIIIIEEE

on the set of Margaret

As to the Oscar question, truthfully I care not a smidgeon. I just want to see it. It's been drifting, transparent, like a ghost in our peripheral vision for years. I don't even what to see a critic's screening. I want to buy a ticket, sit in the theater holding it, come home and frame it with the inscription:


The press release I received yesterday morning said September 30th but until the day I'm holding that ticket stub it will remain an ectoplasmic dream.

Catwoman. The Dark Knight Rises has released its second official character image (the first was of Tom Hardy's hunched back) and it's Our Miss Hathaway as Cyclops Catwoman riding a very Nolan-esque wild hog. He sure likes those dunebuggy big wheels. 

I love Hathaway. I love Catwoman. But my inner child is not okay with either of them stealing Batgirl's motorycle mojo, you know?

I had...uh... this friend... yeah, a friend... who used to pretend to be Batgirl while riding on the back of his dad's motorcycle. This...uh... friend was smart enough to not share this fantasy out loud with my dad his dad but it was a pretty regular occurence. Like, every time he hopped on the motorcycle!

Don't judge.


und i'm the only man. ja ♬


On Oscar's Honorary Statues: Who Gets Them, Who Still Waits?

... mogul OPRAH WINFREY (The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award), actor JAMES EARL JONES (Honorary Oscar) and makeup artist DICK SMITH (Honorary Oscar).

I heard this in the wee hours of the AM this morning but didn't have time to ponder it whilst collapsing from a day spent swooning over Judy Garland (♥♥♥♥) and then Sufjan Stevens at "Celebrate Brooklyn". 

Several hours later after a good night's sleep the news makes much more sense to me because last night I thought they'd given Oprah a regular honorary Oscar -- most of the headlines are saying just that -- and I was pissed. For the record, though a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award looks just like an Oscar, it's actually a statue commemorating your humanitarian endeavors rather than your screen work. And few would argue that Oprah isn't deserving once you make that distinction. I think the Jean Hersholt statue shouldn't look the same as a regular Oscar so it gets confusing.

The Color OprahAnd really a regular Honorary Oscar wouldn't have surprised me. The Academy, much like the rest of the world, tends to think that celebrity = deserve. But really fame should have much less to do with who gets Honorary Oscars than that person's contribution to the cinema. And really what has Oprah ever done to warrant a regular Oscar? If you say The Color Purple I'd have to smack you upside the head with a Margaret Avery (The Color Purple) or an Anjelica Huston (Prizzi's Honor) and then if you're still trying to say "The Color Purple" a mandatory viewing of The Kiss of Spider Woman is in order. Brazil's non-nominated Sonia Braga was AMAZING thrice over (multi-part performance) in that film. Can I get an amen?

The makeup artist Dick Smith already has an Oscar for Amadeus (1984) but maybe they felt he needed an honorary since just maybe he was the one on the makeup team that put cotton balls in Marlon Brando's mouth for The Godfather and he also did fine comic work on Death Becomes Her which we love and which Oscar mostly ignored.

Though really, should a previous winner ever get an honorary? 

Here's why the repeats are problems. In the past 30 years only 4 actresses have won honoraries and one of them, Sophia Loren, already had a competitive statue. The Academy has screwed over a lot of female screen icons over the years so why double reward someone when so many greats are still denied? Oscar's contempt for women -- remember they rarely let them present Best Picture either -- seems to be getting worse. Since the glorious early 90s when Sophia Loren, Deborah Kerr and Myrna Loy won them in quick succession, only Lauren Bacall has been so honored. ONLY ONE ACTRESS SINCE 1994. In that same time span, 1994 to now, 5 actors have been so honored and one of them (Sidney Poitier) already had an Oscar. We complain about this every year but there's a long list of actressy screen icons who never won an Oscar and whose screen contributions and legacies are undeniable. Chief among them I'd argue are Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow. They'll both turn 70 soon -tick-tock, tick-tock.

One of the greatest filmographies in the business. Still challenging herself well into her 60s. Deneuve for the Honorary Gold.

But there are also other past nominees with rich Hollywood histories -- names in bold are still alive -- including (Angela LansburyDoris Day, Natalie Wood, Ava Gardner, Irene Dunne, Gena Rowlands, Eleanor Parker) and some with rich filmographies who were never so much as nominated (Maureen O'Hara, Marilyn Monroe) and there's the current working aging crop who they're obviously going to pass on competitively (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Michelle Pfeiffer ...maybe Glenn Close if it doesn't happen this year) and who are more than deserving of these "thank you for your career" prizes.

Come to think of it, if AMPAS was smart about honoraries they could stop voting for competitive prizes as cumulative honors and just reserve those 'you were never THE best of any particular year' people for the honorary statues. You know Meryl Streep is more likely to get an Honorary than any of these women and she already has two!

Congratulations to this year's recipients! Honestly, I'm not throwing shade on them. Don't misunderstand. It's just the Academy has so many blind spots with their honorary prizes we'd like them to see the eye doctor before they lose their sight entirely.