Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Review | The Help

Mississippi Groaning

by Thomas Delapa

If any summer movie badly needs help, both dramatically and historically, it is, yes’m, The Help, which serves up a big slice of white-bread liberal fantasy about black life in the Jim Crow South.

Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help tells of the crusading “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a frizzy-haired, fair-skinned graduate of Old Miss who has a dream to help, if not free, the city of Jackson’s segregated black maids in the early 1960s. As improbably played by Stone, Skeeter seems less like a female Atticus Finch than a slumming cheerleader from High School Musical.

The daughter of wealthy bigots and friend to a coven of racist socialites, Skeeter nevertheless has a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son prominently displayed in her room. But Skeeter’s enlightenment towards blacks really brightens when she’s shocked to discover that her friends’ African-American maids are forbidden to use the bathrooms in the homes where they work. (Um, do you suppose Donald Trump’s help is allowed to use his master bathroom?) Led by the vicious Hilly (lily-white Bryce Dallas Howard), these tinny magnolias decide that their maids should have their own outhouses, in-house.

As a theme (and odious punch lines), feces circulate throughout this revisionist sitcom drama, shot in glossy, overcooked colors and acted with an accent on melodramatic, Tyler Perry-flavor anguish. Director Tate Taylor, who wrote the script with Stockett, drops in period TV footage to remind us we’re in the tumultuous real world of the Medgar Evers and JFK assassinations, instead of Skeeter in Wonderland.

Taylor and Stockett also toss a cinder or two of Mississippi Burning into their hot pot. Skeeter reads from the appalling Jim Crow laws regarding the separation of the races, while the two central maids, the downtrodden Aibileen (Viola Davis) and the sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer), suffer constant indignities under the feet of their high-heeled, tight-skirted masters.

One could argue that the movie is faithful to the “spirit” of the times, but is it? A budding writer, Skeeter buzzes around town secretly gathering the oral histories of the maids, getting a tentative go-ahead for a book from a slick publisher in New York City. The film gives the fictional impression that Skeeter/Stockett courageously sought out the interviews and hammered out the exposé in the pivotal sixties. Perhaps Taylor needs a helpful reminder that Stockett’s novel was only published two years ago, while the author herself was barely out of diapers in the early 1970s.

If Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was the last great literary whitewash about the Civil War, plantation South, The Help goes to the other side of the fence, painting the whites as lazy, ignorant racists (excepting the pre-feminist Skeeter), while the black maids are canonized as saint-like figures who nevertheless adore the neglected white children of their loveless bosses.

Fiddle-dee-dee. As a liberal Hollywood fantasy dripping in white guilt, crudely mythologizing mammies into martyrs, The Help belongs right on the syrupy shelf next to The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Film Review | Super Size Me (2004)

My Big Fat American Meal
by Thomas Delapa

We’re talking fat, not phat.

When Morgan Spurlock decided to embark on a month-long "McDiet," little did he know he would gain 25 pounds, suffer liver damage and, in general, feel like hurling each and every McDay.

For 30 days straight, the New York filmmaker was his own guinea pig (emphasis on the pig), eating only McDonald’s meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With camera in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, Spurlock documented his dieting debacle. The result is Super Size Me, which might even give Ronald McDonald indigestion.

By now, most of us have heard the gross facts about fat America. Two out of three of us are overweight or obese. Poor diets and sedentary suburban lifestyles are the biggest culprits. In Manhattan alone, McDonald’s has 83 outlets. Not only do Americans eat too much, but restaurant portions are taking on monster proportions. The 7-11 Double Big Gulp contains 64 ounces of soda--a whole half-gallon. An order of McD’s super-sized fries has a whopping 600 calories.

On the eve of his experiment, Spurlock sees a battery of doctors, who all give him a bill of good health. After 30 days of Quarter Pounders, fries, Cokes and Egg McMuffins, Spurlock balloons from 185 pounds to 210 and his body fat rises from 11% to 18%. Before the month is up, his doctors tell him that his liver is showing signs of toxicity.

Now, you say, nobody eats nonstop fast food for 30 days. True, but millions of people eat fast food several times a week, and have done so for 30 years or more. Even McDonald’s’ "healthy" salads, when slathered in dressing, have equivalent calories to their burgers.

Despite the weighty subject, Spurlock’s style isn’t always delectable. His capacity for calories exceeds his ability as a stand-up comic. And he could have thinned down all those repeated shots of pot-bellied passersby.

But Super Size Me comes with an order of extra-large social comment. Spurlock’s tour of a Wisconsin grade-school cafeteria appallingly reveals kids regularly lunching on snacks, sweets and other junk foods.

If you want the skinny on America’s flabby diets, start with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and top it off with Spurlock’s fast-paced, low-carb documentary. Together, they may wipe the smile right off your Happy Meal.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 5/20/04
Winner of Denver Press Club award, 2005

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Film Review | Cowboys & Aliens

The Only Good Alien...

by Thomas Delapa

Cowboys & Aliens opens tomorrow. I wonder what that’s about?”
--David Letterman

If the classic western has gone south, and science fiction is plumb tired, what’s a desperate Hollywood to do? Well, if you’re director Jon Favreau, the answer is easy, pardner: Take both genres, mix them up, add a stampede of special effects, and point and shoot.

With such producing honchos as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard riding herd, you might figure Cowboys & Aliens would gallop off into the sunset as a sure-fire winner. But once you look beyond the bizarre blend of gunslingers, sagebrush, barroom brawls and evil E.T.s, Favreau’s mixed-up mélange is a close encounter of the worst kind.

Basing their script on a 2006 graphic novel, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci steal from western classics (like The Searchers) for their template, hogtied to a malodorous plot about alien abduction. Our amnesiac, Bourne-again hero is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), who wakes up on the prairie to find a weird, space-age shackle on his wrist. When three grubby outlaws try to rob him, Jake shows us what a tough hombre he is.

Just to make sure we know we’ve landed in a western (as opposed to the real West), Favreau loads in clichéd dialogue (“Palms to heaven, friend”) to go along with the iconic, widescreen landscapes. From this well-trod fictional universe, we are transported into an empty, politically correct no man’s land where evil, bloodthirsty aliens take over the role that used to be played by Indians.

In the corrupt town of Absolution, the good guys (and a tribe of nice Indians) are forced to team up with the bad guys to fight the monstrously ugly invaders. Though Favreau pays lip service to the classic western, this travesty only comes to life during the alien attack on the town. From their marauding spaceships, the creatures brutally lasso the humans with hooks, dragging them back to their desert lair for unearthly experiments.

Away from the dramatic attacks, Favreau’s dialogue is as flat as Death Valley. As the laconic Jake, Craig rides short in the saddle, glaring his vacant blue eyes and looking as comfortable on a horse as James Bond in a leisure suit. As the town’s leathery cattle baron with a trigger-happy son (Paul Dano), Harrison Ford scowls and spits out his lines, a Han Solo gone to seed.

With the double-barrel star casting, you might reckon it means that Ford is passing his rusty action-hero badge on to Craig. Whatever the aim, the gesture is nothing but a bum steer.