“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.

 

“The Debt”–Did We See the Same Movie?

In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement.   The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.)  Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.

Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by  her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel,  Surgeon of Birkenau.  This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.

The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997).  Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.

It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.

The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling.  They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning.   These scenes are not for the faint of heart!

The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all).  I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending  flies in the face of reason to me.  I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”,  “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either.  “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did!  [Warning:  this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]

“The Fighter”–A Knockout

The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo).  However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”.  This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.

This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen.  And the story is a remarkable one.

There are actually two stories in one:  Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of  the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale),  who  could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of  a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.

Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”.  Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become.  Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance.   The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend.  Without Mark Wahlberg’s  understated acting, which  is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or  overreaching.

The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success.  Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.

“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels.  It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be.  It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque.  And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life.  The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.”  For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.

The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not.   Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate.  The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.