the mini REVIEW: Crazy Stupid Love, Cowboys and Aliens, The HELP.

Crazy Stupid Love.

Let me tell you, after the influx (especially this year) of RomComs, chick -flicks, buddy comedies or aptly R-Rated comedies, I have never been more happy to go back to my collection of horrors and thriller movies, especially because aside from the Bridesmaids and Hangover 2’s all of it has been a little – average and below. So by the time Crazy Stupid Love had rolled around I was about ready to smack someone till next Tuesday. However seeing Steve Carrell made me think twice, then I saw Julianne Moore and Emma Stone and I was kind of hooked – Ryan Gosling appearing on-screen. Yes. Please and Thank You. I know it’s a poor excuse to watch a movie, but at least it’s an excuse.

Like its indecisive title its a mixture of comedy, romance and drama. From the team that brought us the mediocre if not a little underplayed I love You Phillp Morris, CSL is actually pretty decent. In the comedy stakes, it’s not hard to laugh with Carrell in the driving seat, and  Emma Stone brings her goof humour to the fore as well as she can and always does to her roles.  There is a lot to laugh about. As a drama there are some solid performances, again from Carrell who is very good at bringing in the dark humoured tragedy to a man lost bordering pathetic (Little Miss Sunshine, Dan in Real Life respectively) – but for obvious reasons Julianne Moore champions the dramatics and with earnest that unfortunately ends up a little lacking . The romance is probably the weakest, like most comedies of late the romance falls short of the funny stuff, however if its eye-candy and lust then this is provided all from the charismatic and utterly gorgeous Gosling from beginning to end. If anything the only ‘romance’ is perhaps a scene stolen from a very popular 80’s romantic movie, which admittedly is done well.

Cal Weaver (Carrell), is a man unaware that over the years his marriage has become stagnant. His wife Emily, (Julianne Moore) has cheated on him with one of her co-workers (Kevin Bacon) and subsequently asks for a divorce. Without contesting or fighting for her honour Cal grants her wish, but soon begins a steady path down the rebound route taking to  drowning his sorrows at a local bar where he eventually catches the eye of perpetual ladies man, Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling).

Cal professes he’s a “cuckold” who’s been “cuckolded.” It’s during this funny, tragic moment that Jacob finally decides to help – if only to stop the divorcee from killing the mood in his nightly haunt. Cut to a few makeover shots, awkward clips of Teacher and Pupil lessons on how to woo a woman – which I would like to point out at this point would only ever work if you were Ryan Gosling – and hey presto Cal is looking like a ‘new man’ with a new trajectory.

This is where it gets Love Actually confusing, and you start to wonder what the film is actually all about.  Cal’s 13-year-old son is infatuated with his 17-year-old babysitter, who is in fact attracted to Cal.  Jacob predictably  develops as the playboy with heart who is considering hanging up his player status after he meets the sassy come goofy Hannah (ever-appealing Emma Stone).  Meanwhile Emily is having second thoughts about her husband, not surprising when all that’s on offer is a very, very odd and miscast Kevin Bacon waiting in the wings.   All of this is on the peripheral, brought in to the forefront of the film sporadically and when suited, which is a shame because if it had been the core focus of the narrative it would have been a stronger and provoking theme.  Jacob’s story is also a large part of this, but it is still there to serve Cal’s central story and it seems that was frequently forgotten in favor of punch lines or needless side stories – which is where Marisa Tomei school teacher story comes in to it.

Come the final chapter it soon becomes clear why this draws comparisons with  Love Actually;  Everyone in the story is linked loosely and very intimately. I wouldn’t say the links are obvious – in fact I think they’re so washy and weak that it surprised me on that basis alone.

The performances, however, were good. Carrell turns in a solid and mature performance. Gosling also works well, bringing a certain level of charm and personality to what is essentially the bottom rank of all the films he has done since The Notebook (he’s done good).

Emma Stone is just always a pleasure to see on film, and with The Help out as her Oscar platform the producers can be forgiven for sticking her in such a poor written and underexposed role. Same goes for  Julianne Moore  who deserves much better screen time – I couldn’t stand her! that’s not nice. Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei carry their own weight in the roles given, yeah,  but  why should we care is perhaps a fitting prescription to both characters. I will say though, Josh Groban’s ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ turn as Hannah is perhaps one of the small delights I liked about this film.

When it’s good, Crazy, Stupid, Love is actually quite enjoyable, but if drooling over Ryan Gosling is not you’re thing, then your chances of enjoying this movie will be drastically reduced.

Cowboys and Aliens

Successfully marrying a dusty western film with sci-fi adventure is a daunting if not George Lucas-ian (because im that pretentious) task. Has Jon Favreau succeeded where most mash-up genre movies fail?  Kind of. Yes…not really? huh?

There are a number of problems in Cowboys & Aliens,  one major problem being that this never really feels like a mashup – the movie consistently takes turns to flip between the two worlds and when they are thrown together it lacks any real cohesion. But when you start to breakdown the deeper nuances of such a film the title is enough to snap you back in your place and realise it’s all just one big entertaining production. After the success of the Iron Man franchise,  Jon Favreau has become a fan-favorite filmmaker among most moviegoers. Movie mash-ups is also a genre gaining traction, with the Pride & Prejudice with Zombies book in pre-production – seriously hoping it’s as charming as the text – you can forgive Favreau for his just ballsy attempt alone.

STORY (This may contain spoilers, according to you)

 Cowboys & Aliens follows out-of-town lone cowboy Jack Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing there. When Lonergan makes an enemy of the temperamental  cattle-rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde’s (Harrison Ford) son trouble brews when a warrant is put out for his arrest. Eventually captured and behind bars where he meets Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde),  aliens swoop in and steal a number of key members of the community, and the rescue mission lands on the shoulders of Dolarhyde, Swenson, and subsequently Lonergan who is still internally shrouded in mystery about his past.

Now, say what you will about Daniel Craig, the man can act. He’s actually one of the best things about this film save the title. His presence as Lonergan is in keeping with the theme of the movie as he exports a charismatic, wily McQueen-like western swagger and a modern physicality that reminds you why he was chosen to play this generations Bond.

Unfortunately for Craig, for Favreau and for the film the supporting cast, which boasts an impressive ensemble, actually provides no support worth cheering at all. It’s a messy amalgamation of  stagnant performances, tepid dialogue and shallow characters. Ford’s notorious Dolarhyde get’s in a few nice pantomime style villainous hisses, and Sam Rockwell’s (underwritten) Doc and Olivia Wilde’s sexy dame Swenson, all get scenes that could potentially reaffirm the reasons they are both two of Hollywood’s exciting and sought after actors, but in general even these moments are largely predictable – and fall short of making the characters memorable in the long run. All of the players serve a purpose in the Cowboys & Aliens story – but, outside of their role in the larger events, there’s very little to them (at least onscreen).

The pacing is especially erratic. On a couple of occasions, the narrative builds-up to a tense and potentially exciting set-piece – only to take a ten minute detour. Even worse, a number of characters are stripped of potentially heart tugging moments because the camera cuts-away to move the story forward. As an example, the end of the first act is punctuated by a horrific abduction scene – where loved ones (men, women, and children) are plucked from the Earth by aerial spacecraft. Aside from general fear and confusion, the survivors seem mostly passive even Doc sheds a tear for his missing wife but do I really care to shed some with him? no, because the camera cuts away to get the Sci-fi story rolling.

It’s a real shame since the sci-fi mystery is all together an underwhelming experience. That said, despite flat characters and a weak premise seeing the cowboy and alien worlds thrown together on the battlefield is a concept worth seeing at least once.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t the worst action-adventure sci-fi concoction of the summer (hmm Green Lantern) but it’s not the most exciting either (Transformers: Dark of the Moon).

The Help

The book is wonderful. There I said it. I am the first to abandon any fondness of source text to the adaptation – I did a dissertation on storytelling and adaptation – I understand the pros and cons.

The Help and the story of its young author Kathryn Stockett kind of reads like an adaptation of a semi-biographical Harper Lee story itself. Like the To kill a Mocking Bird author this has been a novel that has undoubtedly catapulted Stockett to heights she may never (or choose to) match , and she turned the movie rights over to her friend, Tate Taylor, an actor and fledgling director who went on to  adapt the book for the screen and directed the film.  The cast is strong with Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer leading the way and with support from stellar understated beauties such as Bryce Dallas Howard and the fantastic Allison Janney, it’s the best female ensemble since BRIDESMAIDS this year if not better.

STORY (spoilers i think…)

Set against the backdrop of 1960s fictional town of Jackson, Mississippi, Emma Stone plays the privileged and newly graduated Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. Not uncommon to most, she returns home feeling and looking different to all the homemaker wives and friends she grew up with, realising that their priorities differ greatly with her own. Her best friend, Hilly Holbrook (Howard) is, in her own right, a woman of importance and prosperity, holding down the top position in the Junior League and making steps to cementing her status as the Queen Bee of the society set. However Hilly’s ambitions and abhorrence to treat the ‘help’ with any intimate interaction other than to scold or tell them where to shit adds only to Skeeter’s disdain of the segregated world she lives in. Frustrated and increasingly burdened by the communities expectancy to mould her in to what she believes to be a version of her mother, as is the situation with all her Jackson ladies, Skeeter’s aspirations to leave the small town for the big smoke becomes a primary focus. With the absence of her own much-loved maid playing on her mind,  she sets herself on a mission to bring together a collection of accounts from the point of view of other under-appreciated maids, concluding that this will help her help them have a chance to speak out and also help herself get a little closer to becoming a published writer and leaving Jackson for good.

This is a film that follows three very different women, two of them maids. Aibileen (a fantastic Viola Davis) a compliant, humble and dedicated woman has been raising offspring of white employers throughout her life. The kids genuinely love her and she loves them, however they grow up and the girls end up turning in to their mothers. Reluctant to share, having suffered personal tragedy and not looking for an excuse to have anymore, Aibileen reassess her decision when a friend and fellow maid is arrested and sees an opportunity to express years of pent-up frustrations. Coaxing her confrontational, sassy friend and fellow maid in to the secret conference Minny is an abrasive  loudmouth with little or not time for niceties, but she also has the best reputation for her culinary skills. She also works for Hilly until a domestic incident soon gets her fired, but when Minny retaliates with the ultimate revenge her reputation is vindictively sabotaged  leaving the maid working for a white-trash monroe-esque ‘blonde’ on the outskirts of town. It’s only a matter of time before more maids become inclined to speak out and contribute their experiences to Skeeter’s book. But the ultimate trial comes in seeing if the book gets published and if so waiting for the white households of Jackson to recognise that the anonymously shared stories are in fact their own…

I can’t deny that with such fantastic material to work from it was always going to be a good film. A well casted film and beautiful cinematography makes this film Oscar worthy – but I  can’t also help being disappointed. Whatever Tate Taylor adapted from his bestie’s novel, it wasn’t the exciting narrative between the three main protagonists. It wasn’t the raging contempt that we were meant to feel for Hilly Holbrook when she fires Minny, or when she campaigns for all households to provide outdoor bathrooms for their Help.  It wasn’t the exceeding jubilation when Minny gets back with the “Terrible Awful”. It wasn’t the distress and compassion communicated between Aibileen and  her employer’s toddler Mae Mobley when her own mother chooses to shun responsibilities in favour of keeping up appearances. Taylor also failed to display the heartbreak and endearment that is meant to resonate with the Minny’s new employer and ditsy social outcast Celia Foote, who deals with her own personal tragedies and is desperate to win Hilly’s favor. Most of all there certainly wasn’t any feeling of retribution and resolution for the women who shared their stories to the satisfying effect brought in by the book.

I understand that the stories were condensed immensely for the purpose of a 2 hour film however those two hours were fluff. Instead of really exploring a turbulent subject, this film took the time to present the issue but essentially chose to dump it in favour of churning out a moralistic tale with a ‘happy’ ending.  Roger Ebert said it best:

[The Help] A story that deals with pain but doesn’t care to be that painful.

I got the feeling that as his debut feature, Taylor stroke it lucky having a bestselling author as a childhood friend and an audience ready and waiting to see a beloved text come to life, everything and nothing was really left in his hands. Boasting a fortunate cast list  who all give brilliant performances its got OSCAR written all over it. At least it has for Emma Stone*, who is truly brilliant. It’s also for this reason I believe it’s just another one of those exploitative films that only serves to dazzle the audience with ensembles such as this one helping to sugarcoat an issue that was a serious and in relatively recent history a problem in 1960s US southern states.

 Overall, the film is good, offering if nothing else a little heart and humor and that madmen style that trending film and tv these days.

*although something tells me Elle Fanning or Rooney Mara will be in the running next year


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