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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Help and Other Movies

The Band Wagon  1953  112 minutes   Was Fred Astaire ever young?  A pompous director tries to turn a a script for a musical into a modern day version of Faust .  It flops, of course, the backers disappear and then it’s “Hey gang, let’s make the musical ourselves.”  It’s a hit, of course, again.  The numbers with Astaire and Cyd Charisse – Dancing in the Dark and That’s Entertainment -- are great but all too familiar.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams  2010  90 minutes   This is Werner Herzog’s documentary on the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which was discovered Dec. 18, 1994 and dates from 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.  It contains the oldest human-painted images yet to be found on earth.  What one can see of the paintings is spectacular, and critics have raved, but I found the film pretentious and not very informative.  A lot more could have been said by any art historian with a few slides in a 30 minute lecture.
The Help  2011  146 minutes    It’s 1963 when Eugenia Phelan aka Skeeter graduates from Ole Miss and comes home to Jackson to take care of her mother who seems to be dying of cancer.  She wants to be a writer and wants a job at Harpers.   To get started she gets a job at the local paper writing an advice column for domestics.  She gets interested in the lives of the black women who serve in white households – one of them raised her and then was sent away by her family for a trifle while she was at the university.  First she talks to Aibileen Clark and then one by one she convinces others to tell her their stories, which she puts into a book called The Help.  It turns the town upside down, when the readers realize they are reading about themselves.  We are accustomed to narratives about the brutality of segregation in public places, but this one takes you into homes and women’s lives both white and black and it couldn’t be more ugly.  This is the best movie I’ve seen this year.   Emma Stone and Viola Davis, who play Skeeter and Aibileen, are just plain great.
Mona Lisa Smile  2003  119 minutes   This may be Julia Roberts most successful role.  She plays Katherine Watson, a PhD candidate in art history at UCLA who is offered a one year contract to teach at Wellesley for the 1953/54 academic year.  The best and the brightest go to Wellesley, but they are measured by how well they marry and most, if not all, assume that their roles in life will be to serve their husbands and have children.  Watson has other ideas  This precedes the feminist movement, so Watson’s views about women’s roles and her efforts at guidance shake up everyone – students, faculty and alumnae.  This a very good movie that reminds us how it was and how much better it is now.
The Sunshine Boys   1995 139 minutes    This is a remake of a 1975 movie which had been based on Neil Simon’s play.   Woody Allen and Peter Falk reprise the roles played earlier by Walter Matthau and George Burns.  They had been a famous comedy team which had broken a couple of decades earlier and are now being asked to get back together to do a scene in a movie which will pay them $75,000 each.  It just couldn’t be any funnier.
Water for Elephants   2011  121 minutes    A senior citizen get left behind at the circus when the bus goes back to his nursing home.  (Maybe they should have said retirement community, because there’s nothing wrong with him except boredom).   He starts to tell the story of how he left Cornell just before starting his final exam to become a veterinarian, because he learns both of his parents have been killed in an accident.  It was 1931 and everything his parents might have left him is owned by the bank.  He hops what he thinks is a freight but it turns out to be a circus train.  He’s quickly hired as the circus veterinarian and soon falls in love with the wife of the brutal owner of the circus.  When the owner acquires an elephant named Rosie, she becomes the center of the act that saves the circus financially, but only because the vet and Rosie share a common language, Polish.  Eventually the circus roustabouts revolt against the owner and release all the animals during a performance.  In the melee, the owner,  jealous of the vet, is about to kill his wife when Rosie pulls up the spike to which she is tethered and whacks the him in the head.  The vet, the wife and Rosie live happily ever after, almost.  Rosie and the wife have died of old age, and now the vet wants to come back home to the circus.  See this one.

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