Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Oh, Help! The Help

Tate Taylor’s The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, is well worth seeing for the acting. Most outstanding is Viola Davis as Aibeleen Clark, an African American woman who bravely agrees to reveal her stories about being a maid in a white household in the Jim Crow South. Asked how she felt taking care of a white child while her own child was at home with someone else, Aibeleen’s pain is seen in her inability to respond. Throughout the film, Davis shows worlds of pain and indignity in her eyes and facial expressions.

Also outstanding is Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, an endearing “white trash” blonde bombshell who married into wealth and who tries to get accepted by the intolerant queen bees of the bridge club. She cares little about racist etiquette, and her humorous, upstart nature is a pleasure to watch as Chastain effortlessly fills her character with believability and life. Octavia Spencer is much fun to watch as Minny Jackson, the sassy African-American maid whose rebellious nature gets her fired, and Bryce Dallas Howard, as Hilly Holbrook, the film’s resident out-and-out racist bitch, convincingly plays an out-and-out racist bitch. You can see it in her eyes and in the way she stomps around on a tirade, but the histrionics are hardly necessary to convince us of what Howard has already convincingly shown us more subtly.

At the center of the story is Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the iconoclastic daughter of a Southern land-baron family, graduate of Ole Miss, who aspires to be a journalist and has the idea of chronicling the hardships and demeaning conditions suffered by African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the first half of the 1960s. Stone is always endearing and engaging; her presence demands your attention. She employs those talents here, but her character is more vehicle than fully developed person. She is there to be so compassionate and so devoted to her project. Heaven forbid that it should be revealed that she wants to help the Civil Rights cause, but she also wants to make money and a name for herself.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rise and Fall: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes (1968) is well known for many reasons: its honorary-Oscar-winning makeup; its catchy one-liners (“Take your paws off me, you damned dirty ape); Charlton Heston, the man who played Moses, as a cynical misanthrope; Heston in the nude playing a cynical misanthrope; model Linda Harrison playing the mute but very curvy Nova. But it’s most well known for its very dramatic, shocking surprise ending, which may not have been much of a surprise to viewers coming to the movie on VHS or DVD. Back in 1968, sixteen years old, I was totally surprised. When the famous reveal came, I almost felt a palpable kick taking me from what I had totally accepted as an alien planet and jolting me back to Earth.

What seemed to contribute most to the success of that reveal was, in my opinion, the effective degree to which the film immerses you in an otherworldly world from the moment Taylor (Heston) and his crew fall out of space and crash-land to the point at which Taylor and Nova wander off in the film’s final shots. Memorably, the film employs locations in Arizona for its stark “Forbidden Zone,” and the squat, earthen dwellings of the apes resemble the suburban homes of Bedrock, but they definitely look alien placed in a little valley in Malibu Creek State Park.

In addition, a number of little details contribute to the otherworldliness: the leather smocks worn by the apes, color-coded according to caste; the slanted, grease-smeared, Impressionistic bars of the cages; the dark chapel where a funeral is underway; and the natural history museum in which stuffed humans are used in the exhibits. Finally, there’s something very unsettling about the very prejudiced, militaristic, bureaucratic society in which Taylor finds himself, a “mad house” in which, at first, he can’t utter a word in his defense and when he is able to speak, he still finds it impossible to reason with his intractable captors. This world totally took me out of myself and far away, so that when the famous reveal slammed me back to Earth, I was stunned. (Also, the sequence in which the apes make their first appearance, hunting humans in a cornfield, is a very gripping, superbly edited sequence.)

The 1968 film was also very influential. It spawned four mostly forgettable theatrical sequels, one of them being Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) (perhaps the best of the sequels), the inspiration for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), in which a chimp named Caesar leads a simian uprising against humankind. In addition, it inspired an animated television series, as well as Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of the story in 2001’s Planet of the Apes.

Forty-three years after the film that started the whole “mad house,” we return to the Planet of the Apes, which is, and always was, our good old planet Earth, in Rupert Wyatt’s “re-imagined” origin story: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

As an origin story for the apes saga, Rise of the Planet of the Apes clearly sets up the groundwork for how the whole “mad house” planet gets started. Chimpanzees develop super intelligence by means of an experimental drug, developed by Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), designed to repair the brain and cure Alzheimer’s, but the drug has an unfortunate side effect for humans that will take care of the human species and ensure simian dominance. Also, very nifty, simian subjects of the medicine pass on their attributes to their offspring genetically.