Monthly Archives: February 2012

New Reviews!

I recently started contributing to a local online publication called Vancouver Weekly! So far, I have reviewed two films for them: Jess + Moss (dir. Clay Jeter), a beautiful and surprisingly unpretentious art film, and You All Are Captains(dir. Oliver Laxe), a mostly failed attempt at self-reflexive cinema.

Both of these films start playing at The Pacific Cinematheque here in Vancouver. You can catch Jess + Moss March 2-3, 8 and 12, and You All Are Captains March 5, 7 and 8.

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The Help

The Help has certainly received a lot of Oscar buzz, more than I think it deserves honestly. While this film is entertaining, and does feature some strong performances, it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Although well meaning, The Help is of course tailored to a Hollywood, predominately white audience, and as such, ignores many key factors in racial oppression, and seems to act as an exoneration of viewers’ collective “white guilt”.

The story is framed against the growing civil rights movement of the 1960’s and focuses on both Aibileen (Viola Davis), a black maid, and Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississipi. Skeeter is aggravated by how her former friends treat their hired help and decides to write a book that would tell the maids’ perspective of the racism they experience on the job. Although she receives quite a lot of resistance to the idea initially, Aibileen agrees and allows Skeeter to interview her about her work and what it is like rising white children who inevitably grow into women who are just as bigoted as their mothers. As the film progresses we are witness to some of the indignities faced by the hired help at the hands of their employers. This film is quite lengthy, and attempts to cover an extended period of time, from Skeeter’s book’s conception to its publication. Although the story has its moments, the pacing is not always the best and skips over what I thought were important relationship developments.

The standout performance in The Help is from Viola Davis, who is powerful as Aibileen and equips the character with an emotional intensity that boils below the surface of her quiet and well mannered appearance. Octavia Spencer is also quite good as Minny, Aibileen’s bold friend and fellow maid. While both of these women have received Oscar nominations, it is unfortunate that the roles they are being honoured for are stereotypical Mammy characters. Although they bring life to these characters, the writing in The Help does little to add much depth to these roles outside of their usual cinematic portrayal. Speaking of Oscar nominations, Jessica Chastain also managed to get one for her role as Celia Foote, and while Chastain is absolutely adorable in this film, it is hardly a substantial role. It is interesting that with the volume of strong perfomances she has turned in this year (ie. The Tree of Life, Take Shelter), it is interesting that this one would be highlighted.

As I have mentioned above, although the film is entertaining and very audience friendly, it has some major flaws that I found troublesome. The film’s cast is nearly all female and I found the lack of a male presence to be curious. Racism is displayed as an expression of mean spirited attitudes and actions housewives enacted against their hired help, effectively ignoring the threat of rape and abuse male employers represented. I believe that it is telling that we see Minnie suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her black male partner, while the maids generally are shown to have little to no contact with white male homeowners. Furthermore, The Help, like oh so many Hollywood features about race relations, gives its white protagonist nearly all the power and portrays her as a saviour.  Audiences are convinced that without Skeeter’s actions, the maids situation never would have improved. The film strips away any notion that these characters had the ability and strength to emancipate themselves using their own resources.

The Help makes for some enjoyable light entertainment, but it should be viewed with a grain of salt.

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Hugo

I saw Martin Scorsese’s Hugo a few weeks ago and was struck by its touching story and beautiful visuals. Hugo is one of those rare family friendly movies that successfully avoids dumbing down its concept and the sadness and joy that exist at its core. That being said, while it is family friendly, its subject matter may not be something all children will appreciate. Hugo is an homage to the early days of cinema. It worships the work of film pioneers long forgotten and overlooked. Hugo itself references the iconic scenes of several classic films such as Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. While some of these references will pass viewers by, they are entertaining additions to an engaging story.

The film is about an orphan boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who runs the clocks in a Parisian train station. Hugo is a clever child with a flair for understanding machinery, and works to repair an automaton his father (Jude Law) discovered tucked away in a museum in the hopes it will give him one last message from his lost parent. While working in the station, Hugo finds a friend and ally in Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose Uncle Georges (Ben Kingsley), a sad toy shop owner, is more than he appears to be.

Hugo is made all the stronger by the lovely performances from its talented cast. The patrons and shopkeepers, played be the likes of Francis de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee, bring life to the station, and show us that Hugo’s adventures do not occur in a bubble. There is a whole world of activity buzzing around him; each character is a cog in the machine of station life. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfect as the Station Inspector who has a penchant for nabbing vulnerable children and shipping them off to the orphanage. His presence constantly keeps Hugo on his toes and though he is seemingly cold, he is still a sympathetic character. The stand out performances however are from Butterfield and Moretz. Both are charming and play some of the most thoughtful, emotive and intelligent children I’ve seen on film in quite some time.

As a film lover, the theme of this movie is what really got me. Scorsese displays his love of cinema and masterfully shows us the past with the technology of the future. His use of 3D is astounding, and its usage here highlights the topic of technical innovations in early cinema and the ability to do ‘magic’ in the eyes of audiences. This is one of the few films to actually use 3D technology effectively in a way which amplifys the images and improves our experience of the film. Like Avatar (the only other film I have seen use 3D this well), the effect enhances the film’s visual depth, adding texture and realism to shots, and made me feel like I was actually moving through a physical world. This creates a magical atmosphere in a film that looks simulataneously dreamy and hyper real. It is truly beautiful.

I highly recommend Hugo. It is without a doubt one of the year’s best films in regards to visual splendour, enthralling performances and a meaningful and heartfelt story. Do not miss out.

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