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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 ANNUAL FILM ROUNDTABLE (ROUND 1: "THE HELP" AND "THE TREE OF LIFE")

Aaaaand we're back in our second annual film roundtable discussing and debating some of the best in 2011 cinema. Returning are critics Brian Dunn of Bryan's Film Review Blog, Julian Stark of Movie and Other Things, Sean Kernan of Zoiks Online and Rewind Sean and, of course, yours truly.

Without further ado, let's dive into the first round of movie talk, featuring thoughts on The Help and The Tree of Life. Take a look at part one of our lively convo below:



SEAN:

Let me begin our second annual year end movie conversation by thanking three of my favorite writers, Candice Frederick, Brian Dunn and Julian Stark, you've written some of my favorite movie articles of the year.

Now, on to the movies. Let's get this one out of the way first because I know that both Candice and Julian are ready to argue with me about The Help. I really loved The Help, though it didn't make my 10 best of the year list. Jessica Chastain stole the movie with her sad, soulful performance. Jessica Chastain nearly made me cry with her sad, vulnerable yet very funny performance. I had seen Tree of Life not long before seeing The Help and I didn't realize that was Jessica Chastain until I was researching my review. It's not just Jessica Chastain though, Viola Davis is remarkable in The Help as well. Strong and dignified yet honestly terrified of what may come from her daring and provocative choice. Emma Stone is a little overmatched in the central role but that also made her a rather perfect storytelling vessel; she wasn't as colorful or interesting as the other characters and that allowed her to reflect them rather than compete with them for the spotlight. I know Julian had a problem with the toilet scene, specifically the little boy using one of the toilets left on the lawn, and I agree that it was tacky but The Help had a lot of heavy themes and needed humor to make some of the heavier stuff bearable.

It was a year for divisive movies. The Help, Tree of Life, War Horse, among others, divided critics into love it and hate it groups. I loved The Help and Tree of Life and hated War Horse. Tree of Life is a mesmerizing movie that demonstrates the power and artistry of a director. Terence Malick is the star of Tree of Life as much or even more than Brad Pitt or Sean Penn. War Horse is also a director's movie where it seems to me that Spielberg is trying to eliminate the star and show how much of a star he is. There are many beautiful images in War Horse but what that movie needed was a star, an actor who could pull us into that story and give us something other than the horse to relate too. Granted, even Will Smith would have had a hard time livening up the tedious, sleepy Hallmark card that is War Horse.

We Bought a Zoo is another highly divisive movie that I loved. I am shocked by the amount of bitterness aimed at this sweet little family movie about a guy who bought a zoo. Matt Damon is really good here as a classically romantic Cameron Crowe hero. I loved the unusual beat that Scarlett Johansson plays in We Bought a Zoo; she's just slightly off the beaten path of your typical romantic comedy character. The oddity suited the character who is well described as someone far too dedicated to her job to realize how strange her dedication has become and how it has distanced her from everyday life. The kids in We Bought a Zoo are cute but not in a manipulative way; they're cute in a Cameron Crowe kind of way. Admittedly, you have to love Cameron Crowe to love We Bought a Zoo.



CANDICE:

Thanks guys! As always, it's great to chat with you all again. Now, let's rock and roll.

Ahh...The Help.

It's funny, every time I start thinking about The Help I really start thinking about what could have made it good, interesting. For instance, if it's called The Help, why don't isn't the movie about them? Wouldn't it have been cool if the person writing the movie was a black maid, who probably would have revealed a much more controversial look at the story from the help's point of view? Why is the most interesting thing about the help, or the most realized aspect of their stories, is that they take care of the children of their white employees, or teach them to fry chicken? I think a huge missed opportunity is that they didn't really dive into--spoiler alert--the fact that Aibeen's son died, or that Minny was getting abused by her husband. Every aspect of their lives was in direct relation to their white employers or to further develop Skeeter's role in the movie. They promote the "story" of The Help as being revelatory, but revealing that there is a community of unhappy maids/housekeepers who take care of their employers' children is anything but that. And, if the story was so controversial in the neighborhood, the employers would have done a lot worse things than have them fired....The historical part of this historical fiction piece seems....blurred.

And Emma Stone was horribly miscast as Skeeter. One, she should have been played by an older actress, one who was believable as someone who grew up with Bryce Dallas Howard's character and their crew. I think Stone really proved that she couldn't handle the subject matter--everyone else stole the spotlight from her and she was the lead character. It should never be that way.

I will say Allison Janey, however, was the most interesting and most developed character. She's the only one I felt for. It's like the writer put so much energy into her storyline that there was none left for the other characters. Each of the characters is a terrible caricature. They're painted flatly and with such broad strokes, seemingly written from the perspective of someone who did not live through that era or know characters like them. This is the direct opposite from what the writer claims.

I agree that Jessica Chastain was hardly recognizable in The Help (I actually thought she had Howard's role, and vice versa), but she too was a caricature to me. She, at least, was funny though. I do agree I enjoyed her in Tree of Life, but Terrence Malick was clearly trying to be the long last cast member in that movie because he took over that ship with such aggression it almost made me blind. Dinosaurs? Really? There is another way to tell the story of Tree of Life, without making it so so obvious and deliberate, with direction that nearly screamed at us as if it came from an amateur, not a respected filmmaker. The storytelling was ambushed by the extravagant imagery, which really kidnapped the audience and disrupted the entire flow of the story. The story would have been more provocative if it was free to be told and not sideswiped by pretentious imagery. That movie deserved better than that. While it was lovely to look at, the movie looked nothing more than a marvelous slideshow rather than a cohesive story.

I haven't seen We Bought a Zoo or War Horse, but I will say I'm not entirely rushing to see those. However, I have generally been a huge fan of both directors--Spielberg and Crowe.



JULIAN:

Hello, all. Thanks for having me on again, Sean! The conversation I had with you, Candice, and Brian last year was a really fun and exciting one, and I’m glad to be back.

I see that there was no time wasted in addressing The Help. Even though there’s hardly any violence, language, or sexual content in the drama about racial tension, it might be the most controversial film of the year.

Apparently it’s a bit divisive in our group as well. Given the extremely mixed reaction to the movie, I’m not assuming that my viewpoint is the only one that should be accepted or adopted. Like any other film, Person A sees it differently than Person B, and Person B’s opinion greatly differs from that of Person C. With that being said, here’s what I’ve got to say about The Help.

Based on what I’ve seen thus far, it might be my favorite movie of 2011. I think it was able to perfectly tell its powerful story without dipping into cliché and the annoying “white lady saves the day” mantra that seems far too prevalent in mainstream media dealing with race relations. The latter aspect concerning “white lady saves the day,” though, is what’s sparked tons of controversy over this film.

It’s not difficult to glance at the general plot, watch the movie, and think that Emma Stone’s character Skeeter is a magic white lady who makes everything sunshine and rainbows with her spunk and sass, but that’s not how it played for me. Rather, it was the maids that saved themselves. Stone wants to bring their stories to light, and sure, that’s what gets the action going in the first place. But without the firsthand accounts of the maids, there would have been no progress. I honestly don’t see it as a story about white people or a story about black people; to me, it plays as a story about people who come together to change their community for the better.

With that verbiage behind me, I haven’t simply turned a blind eye to the heavily mixed sentiments over this movie and how people have reacted to it. The controversy surrounding the movie has really made me – and hopefully others – think about the prevalent issues of race in film. While Viola Davis’ work gives way for my favorite film performance of 2011, it’s really a shame that black actors of immense talent like Davis are often cast in stereotypical roles and/or roles that give them little with which to work.

You wouldn’t know it from her film roles since she’s generally “de-glammed” in some fashion, but Davis is a very beautiful woman. To my knowledge, the only film where her gorgeous natural appearance wasn’t altered was Ryan Murphy’s Eat, Pray, Love, but her role in that film was measly, and, well, to be fair, it’s not exactly a great movie. Hollywood, please give Davis an awesome role that allows her to look like herself.

Now that I’ve babbled quite a bit about one movie, here’s what I’ve got to say about The Tree of Life. It plays much more like a confusing, captivating, and visceral experience than most movies are willing to do. I agree with Candice that much of the movie feels like a slideshow, but that aspect of the film, in my opinion, worked really well. It’s not so much that there’s a concrete story to follow: it’s a collection of memories and long-lost moments, a combination of concepts and mindsets instead of a linear narrative. It’s definitely not an easy watch, and I’m not sure if I’d even disagree that it’s pretentious to an extent, but I think it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve seen this year, perhaps one of the most gripping ever.

Now for some of the other films that have arisen in this year’s film conversation. I’ve yet to see War Horse, but I have seen We Bought a Zoo, and let’s just say that I can’t recommend it in good conscience. It was trying to be way too many things at once, not having much of an identity when all was said and done. John Michael Higgins’ two-scene performance as a zoo inspector was probably my personal highlight of Zoo, and while he’s always a dependable actor, that just goes to show how little I think of the movie.



BRIAN:

I hope Donovan, Sean and Candice that you three had a great holiday. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in our end of the year film discussion again this year. This year, because of a new job, I haven't been able to see or write about films as much as I would have liked, and I haven't updated my blog since July, so I'm really looking forward to posting this discussion on my blog and hopefully getting back into the groove of writing more often about the subject I love the most--movies.

Though I've only seen 27 2011 releases as of right now, I have seen the two films that have been discussed so far in the discussion--The Help and The Tree of Life. I'm really glad that Sean and Donovan liked The Help so much. It was definitely trying to be an important and powerful movie, but I'm with Candice. I found the movie condescending, saccharine and mawkish. Its characterizations in general were much too broad for my taste, and the film's insistence of self-importance suffocated any genuine attachment on my part. In general, I think the film was very well acted. Viola Davis gave a tremendous performance, and if more of the film had been about her, then maybe it might have worked for me. Instead, it's about so many other things and so many other characters, many of whom were so broad that they felt almost cartoonish. The scene with the boy on the toilet in the front lawn didn't feel out of place for me at all since that level of cheap humor permeated the whole movie. I kept getting the feeling that the subject matter of racism is too important to be treated so slapdash, and yes, I do think The Help is guilty of Hollywood's insistence that the story of a black person can't be told unless it's through the eyes of a white person--see also The Blind Side and Driving Miss Daisy.

The Tree of Life, on the other hand, is definitely going on my top ten of the year, even after I see the other films I want to see. Well, actually, I shouldn't say that. There might be enough better films to kick it off the top ten, but I sincerely doubt it. I only gave The Tree of Life four and a half stars out of five, and I stand by that, but it's easily the best four and a half star movie that I've ever seen. The only part that didn't work for me was the ending with Sean Penn and everything that happens (I don't want to spoil anything). That felt silly and it reminded me too much of the ending of Titanic. In general, the whole Sean Penn storyline didn't feel as complete as everything else. I would have preferred that they got rid of Penn completely, or at least used a less recognizable actor. Sean Penn was given nothing to do, which is quite of waste of his talent.

Otherwise, The Tree of Life was mesmerizing and gorgeous. The only Malick film I haven't seen is The New World. The Tree of Life fell perfectly within the rest of Malick's canon. It was deliberately paced and focused on themes that go far beyond the simple narrative at hand. It's a movie about God and the thought that there's a plan to His creation, and yet, it's more philosophical than spiritual or religious which allows it to sidestep accusations of being preachy or pushy. The 20 or so minute montage of the creation of the world and the dinosaurs was ambitious beyond belief, but it worked for me when considering it within the whole arc of the narrative. Had Malick not gone as far as he did, I think I would have accused the film of hedging its bets and ducking the weightier philosophical implications. Finally, the way the story about the family and the boys was told was absolutely breathtaking. The performances by everyone involved were spectacular. I'm not a Brad Pitt fan, but his performances in Tree of Life and Moneyball are by far the best two performances I've seen him give. Though I don't think it's going to happen, I think young Hunter McCracken deserves a supporting actor Oscar nomination for playing young Jack. His is one of the best child performances I've ever seen in film.

I'm off to the movies today to catch up on some of the films I haven't seen. I'm hoping to see at least 10 more 2011 releases over my vacation. So far, my favorite film of 2011 is Certified Copy, and it will take a pretty spectacular film to knock it off that number one spot. If any of you haven't seen it yet (or anyone reading this), please check it out. It's unforgettable.

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