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Review – Birdman (15) [2015]

Birdman - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu – 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, The Revenant

Cast:

  • Michael Keaton – Batman, Jackie Brown, Need For Speed, Spotlight
  • Noami Watts – The Ring, 21 Grams, Eastern Promises, Diana, While We’re Young
  • Andrea Riseborough – W.E., Shadow Dancer, Oblivion, Nocturnal Animals
  • Zach Galifianakis – Into The Wild, The Hangover I-III, Due Date, Tulip Forever
  • Emma Stone – Easy AFriends With Benefits, The Help, The Amazing Spiderman I-II, La La Land
  • Edward Norton – American History X, Fight Club, The Illusionist, Sausage Party
  • Amy Ryan – Gone Baby Gone, The Wire, Escape Plan, Goosebumps
  • Lindsay Duncan – Under The Tuscan Sun, Rome, About Time, Alice In Wonderland I & II

Music Composer:

  • Antonio Sanchez

Movie trailers are designed to give viewers a feel for the film and whet one’s appetite for the film. The trailers for Gone Girl and Whiplash were mouth-watering and suggested that those movies were of the highest quality and had to be watched. In contrast, Birdman’s trailer makes the film look unappetising, strange and worth skipping. But the film has been awarded with multiple Oscar nominations. So, is Birdman better than its trailer suggests? Is it deserving of its Oscar nominations?

Zach Galifianakis (Jake) reassuring Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Leslie (Naomi Watts) that the production is going well when it's not.

Zach Galifianakis (Jake) reassuring Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Lesley (Naomi Watts) that the production is going well when it’s not.

Birdman is about Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a former super-hero actor, whose career has been going downhill for two decades. Now, Riggan is trying to rejuvenate his career by writing, directing and acting in a Broadway adaptation of John Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The problem is that the show is a shambles, which puts untold pressure on Riggan, who is also battling his own, inner demons.

Birdman is an original film and something different. It may not entertain viewers for its entire 119-minute running time and vast swathes of the movie may seem purposeless. Additionally, some of the storylines go nowhere and the final scene is incongruent with the rest of the movie.

Nevertheless, Birdman is a unique film. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu deserves his Oscar nomination for best director due to his exceptional editing and choreography. He has made Birdman appear as if the whole movie has been filmed in one, super-long shot without any cuts. That is simply an amazing feat, especially as so much happens in each scene and the camera never keeps still. (Although, for viewers the editing feels strangely like being under water for too long. Before long, one is gagging for Iñarritu to make a cut so viewers can take a breath and relax in the knowledge that a scene has ended.)

Yet, Birdman has not been Oscar nominated solely for its directing. It has also been nominated in the cinematography, best actor in a leading role (Michael Keaton), best actor in a supporting role (Edward Norton), best actress in a supporting role (Emma Stone), and best original screenplay categories.

Riggan reading criticism of the production and ignoring the attentions of his sort of girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), much to her angst.

Riggan reading criticism of the production and ignoring the attentions of his sort of girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), much to her angst.

The cinematography is simple and apt. The movie is set predominantly in the (grotty) behind-the-scenes areas of the Broadway Theatre. It all looks plausible and builds on the shambolic atmosphere of the theatre production because it adds layers of insecurity and stress onto the characters; not least Michael Keaton’s Riggan.

Keaton is outstanding as the volatile, selfish and unstable Riggan. He fully deserves his Oscar nomination. Nonetheless, is Keaton not essentially playing himself in Birdman, the same way Matt Le Blanc did in Friends and Mickey Rourke did in The Wrestler? Riggan last played the fictional superhero Birdman in 1992 and has done little else of note since. How convenient that 1992 is the same year Keaton last played Batman in Batman Returns and has done little else of note since. No, it is not convenient. Yet, because one knows Keaton’s predicament going into Birdman, one genuinely pities Riggan’s situation and hopes that he (like Keaton) does something extraordinary to revitalise his (/their) floundering career(s).

But Keaton is not the only actor who seems to be playing himself in Birdman to acclaim. Edward Norton plays an arsehole with an inflated ego, and behaves in a manner that is difficult to work with. Funny that: Norton has a reputation for being arrogant and a difficult actor to work with. All the same, Norton is great in Birdman. He justifies his Oscar nomination and reminds viewers of his talents that have been lying dormant since his last Oscar nomination back in 1999 for American History X. That Norton plays himself is beside the point.

Not all of the cast, though, play themselves in Birdman. Emma Stone doesn’t. Stone seems like a balanced person in real life. But, in Sam, Stone plays Riggan’s messed up, unstable daughter in terrific and passionate fashion. The scene (part of which can be seen in the trailer) where she vents her frustrations at Riggan earns her her Oscar nomination as audiences feel her pain, the pain she inflicts on Riggan, as well as the guilt she feels afterward for what she says. That is quite an achievement. It also helps that her character is multifaceted and Stone demonstrates this throughout the movie.

Sam (Emma Stone) exploding at her father, Riggan, for being a useless dad. But is this true?

Sam (Emma Stone) exploding at her father, Riggan, for being a useless dad. But is this true?

Alas, the other two main female characters, played by Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, are not as properly fleshed out. It is a shame as both actresses are talented. Moreover, they are not assisted by their storylines being as messy as their changing rooms, which is strange considering how well Birdman is written and choreographed. Yet, if this is Birdman’s major glitch (after the ending), it should be somewhat overlooked. The film deserves its Oscar nomination for best original screenplay as its script is, in the main, highly impressive.

All-in-all, Birdman is a quirky film. It is not the most enamouring of movies and some of the plots go unfulfilled. However, Iñarritu’s style of editing is distinctive and innovative. This, in addition to the exceptional cinematography, acting and script illustrate that Birdman’s trailer is, to some extent, misleadingly unappetising and that the film is worthy of its Oscar nominations.

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Review – Coriolanus (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4/5

<<guest review by KJF>>

William Shakespeare and the filmed medium have an uneasy relationship. Over the years many film-makers have attempted to bring his plays to the silver screen but not all have been successful, with some versions feeling staid and flat. For all the glories of Laurence Olivier’s trilogy of adaptations, in more recent years there have been Kenneth Branagh’s Love Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You like it (2006), which were both poorly received. Ralph’s Fiennes’ Coriolanus bucks the trend, providing an inventive, violent and gripping take on one of the Bard’s later tragedies.

Coriolanus, blood-soaked, in the heat of battle.

The original play is set in the ancient world, during one of the Roman Republic’s endless wars against a neighbouring tribe. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List, Harry Potter VII(ii), Wrath of the Titans), is Rome’s greatest general. Having just scored a bloody victory against the rebellious Volscians, he returns to his home city and is given the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’, in recognition of his battle prowess at the Volscian city of Corioles. At Rome the populace are starving due to a grain shortage. He tends to hold the people in contempt, and when his election to the consulship collapses, and he gets exiled, the disgruntled general defects to the Volcians and plots his revenge.

Here the story is updated to a modern Balkan setting which is very effective, recalling the wars in the 1990s following the collapse of Yugoslavia. The battles between Romans and Volscians are fought on bomb blasted streets, strewn with the wrecks of cars and buildings with terrified civilians being caught in the crossfire-scenes so reminiscent of modern urban warfare. The bleak, withered, Balkan landscape is a particularly effective back-drop to the bleakness of Coriolanus’ fate in the latter part of the film.

Fiennes in directing mode with Gerard Butler, playing Tullus Aufidius

All the events of the story are told through the prism of rolling news footage, with newscasters and pundits (naturally) spinning everything. (Even Jon Snow gets a look in!) When the grain protests in Rome are depicted, this allows for some fortuitous contemporary resonance as we cannot but think of the Arab Uprisings, particularly all the protesters massing on Tahrir Square. That all the political debating on show is done in the glare of television cameras instantly broadcasting into countless households feels particularly right. In Republican Rome, many political debates were held in public in the Forum.

Fiennes is following in the grand tradition of both Olivier and Branagh as both actor-director, and this is very much his film. The camera likes to linger on his battle-scarred, shaven, bullet-shaped head, which in the heat of battle gets spattered in blood. One needs no convincing that this is a serious warrior. When faced with dealing the people of Rome he so despises, his icy contempt for them is tangible. Fiennes is supported by a fine cast. Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots, Letters to Juliet, Song For Marion) as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ formidable mother, is truly magnificent. She is a civilian but her martial bearing and control she exudes over her son is emphasised by the military dress she mostly wears. The seemingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (The Help, Take Shelter, Zero Dark Thirty) acquits herself admirably as the other woman in Coriolanus’ life, his doting wife, Virgilia. Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You, London Has Fallen) plays a brooding Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians and nemesis of Coriolanus. There is, perhaps inescapably a touch of Leonidas about his performance but he very much proves the match and the mirror to the Roman general. The Roman politicos here are a conniving bunch, all decked out in slick, expensive suits and Brian Cox (Troy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dog Fight) brings much style to his portrayal of the loquacious, fawning senator Menenius Agrippa, supporter of Coriolanus’ family.

Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) pleading with Coriolanus not to go back to war.

The faults with the film reflect back to the play itself. Coriolanus is the most unsympathetic of Shakespearean ‘heroes.’ He is no Hamlet or King Lear to draw much pathos. We rarely see behind his front of arrogance and hauteur and his loathing of people power, to what makes him a human being. The play itself can be heavy-going at points, punctuated with very long-winded speeches. Thankfully here, Fiennes in collaboration with his screenwriter, John Logan, has done some merciful pruning, to make everything more palatable.

Thus, Fiennes should be commended for bringing a less popular and less well-known Shakespearean play to a much wider audience. Indeed the vigour and imagination on display makes the film a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

KJF

Review – The Help (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

John F. Kennedy (JFK), President of America (1960-63), proclaimed in 1963 that “moral courage is a more rare commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.” He was referring to the civil rights movement in America, when African-Americans, particularly in the south (now known as the ‘Bible-belt’), were discriminated against and did not have the right to vote. The Help magnificently brings to light the inequality that African-Americans suffered in Mississippi in the early-1960s, and that there were some people with the moral courage to put an end to it.

Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) out for a meal with friends, looking fabulous.

The Help is based on the book with the same title, written by Kathryn Stockett. It is not a true story. The film revolves round the aspiring young author, Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone – Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Friends With Benefits, Birdman). At a time when the civil rights movement is picking speed in America, Skeeter has become uneasy by the way her friends treat their African-American maids, and so decides to write a book about it. She decides to write her book from the angle of the help in order to highlight Caucasian maltreatment to them in the home.

Skeeter approaches Abileen (Viola Davis – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Eat, Pray, Love, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), the maid of her friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard – The Village, Spiderman 3, 50/50), for her opinion and experiences. Abileen is a middle-aged woman who has spent her entire life raising Caucasian children, almost from birth, only to see them turn into their parents. Despite being initially reluctant to speak out, due to the fear of violent reprisals, Abileen lets Skeeter interview her. Soon, Minny (Octavia Spencer – The Soloist, Herpes Boy, Girls! Girls! Girls!), another African-American maid, tells her stories too. Then, many more do the same to give Skeeter an all-round picture of what life is like for African-American maids in Caucasian homes.

The Help may be a very slow and far-from-intense film; yet, it is powerful and emotive. The movie may not be factual, but it is based on much truth and reflects the period accurately. In the same way that the works of Charles Dickens and Theodore Dostoyevsky are seen to be more representative of their respective eras than historical narratives, so too can The Help be seen in the same vein. Despite a few minor historical inaccuracies, such as segregation, one could probably learn more about the innate levels of Caucasian racism towards African-Americans in the Bible-belt in the 1960s from this film, and the variety of ways it manifested itself, than from most factual history books.

Abileen (Viola Davis) eavesgropping on a conversation wherein she hears a torrent of racism towards African-Americans.

But for a film about racism, The Help is surprisingly honest. It shows all sides to be human, meaning that all the characters, whether Caucasian or African-American, have decent and defective qualities. This should be applauded since it would have been easier for the director, Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People), to have made one side inherently ‘good’, the other side inherently ‘bad’, and one or two instances of crossovers as a cheap façade. That Taylor doesn’t do this makes The Help plausible.

The realism of the film, however, would not be possible without the actors putting in exceptional performances. Indeed, the entire cast, and their accents, are flawless. The pretty Emma Stone demonstrates that she can play intelligent roles with vigour, enabling her to grow more beautiful and appealing in the process. Viola Davis performs so well, viewers can empathise with Abileen’s predicament and cry because of her awful experiences.

Octavia Spencer may not make audiences weep like Davis does; nevertheless, she too plays marvellously as the feisty, loud-mouth and funny Minny. Furthermore, one can even appreciate the performances of the horrible, racist women, portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard, Ahna O’Reilly (Herpes Boy, House Under Siege, Girls! Girls! Girls!), Allison Janney (The West Wing, Pretty Ugly People, A Thousand Words), and the other ladies, or the silly, naive Celia, played by Jessica Chastain (Jolene, The Debt, Take Shelter), as they are all performed with brilliant consistency.

A first day at work for Minny (Octavia Spencer) at the house of the over-excited Celia (Jessica Chastain).

Like the quality of the acting, The Help has been put together superbly. At 146 minutes, the film might feel drawn out, but the choreography has been stitched together smoothly and the cinematography is apt for the locations of the movie. What’s more, the music has been chosen well to enhance the scenes, particularly the heart-rending ones.

All-in-all, The Help might drag, but it is an excellent, touching film. The acting is remarkable and the movie epitomises well the attitudes of people, whether Caucasian or African-American, living in the deep-south of America in the early-1960s. In 1963, JFK proclaimed that the struggle for civil rights “will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetimes on this planet. But let us begin.” The Help, therefore, enables us to measure how far we have come in almost fifty years because of people like JFK and Skeeter who had the moral courage to start changing people’s attitudes towards African-Americans.

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