Money Monster


Clooney busts a move.

Clooney busts a move.

(2016) Thriller (Tri-Star) George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr., Grant Rosenmeyer, Jim Warden, Joseph D. Reitman, Olivia Luccardi. Directed by Jodie Foster

The American Experience

There are a lot of ways to get a person under your thumb. Economically is usually the best method and involves the least bloodshed. However, it must be said that people can only be pushed so far before bloodshed becomes inevitable.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is a financial expert who has a popular financial advice program on a cable network. It is somewhat wild and crazy like Lee himself; Lee has a tendency, much to the exasperation of his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts), to go off the reservation. So when a flustered young delivery man, carrying a couple of packages wanders onto the set, Lee is sure it’s his crew playing a practical joke on him while Patty thinks that it’s one of Lee’s improvisations.

It’s neither. It’s Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a working class schmoe who was crazy enough to follow Lee’s investment advice – except that advice turned out to be tragically wrong. IBIS, the software company that Kyle invested in, had seen $800 million of its assets vanish overnight and its charismatic CEO Walt Camby (West) is nowhere to be seen. He was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s program but instead they were sending Diane Lester (Balfe), a publicity flack (whom Camby is  apparently sleeping with).

Kyle has loaded guns which he demonstrates by firing into the ceiling, getting everyone’s attention. He slaps on a bomb vest that he hid in one of the packages onto Lee and proceeds to demand to talk to the absent CEO. Patty manages to clear the studio, but it seems only a matter of time before Kyle loses complete control of the situation. What neither Patty nor Lee count on is that they too would be swept up in Kyle’s saga and want to find out the answers for their own peace of mind as well.

Given the somewhat negative view most people have regarding the shenanigans on Wall Street over the past few years, this movie plays into those feelings pretty much perfectly – almost to the point of cliché. The villain of this piece is too easily spotted and becomes almost laughable. We don’t get a real sense of depth to that person; it’s just greed, greed, greed and a sense that people deserve to get their life savings defrauded from them because they don’t have the kind of fortune that the villain has. It’s a bit of a cop-out in my opinion.

That said, this is the kind of movie that is going to give you a good idea of why people are angry at Wall Street. The Lee Gates character – who is clearly modeled on Jim Cramer and the show clearly Mad Money on steroids – is a bit buffoonish and certainly a paean to poor investment strategies which is something Cramer is sometimes accused of peddling in real life. Clooney gives the character a bit more depth than we might have otherwise. Would the film have worked better if Lee was the kind of insensitive douchebag that he appears to be at the beginning of the movie? I don’t think so, but at least one critic accused the filmmakers of “star saving” Clooney (i.e. making him appear nicer than he appears to be in order to maintain his likability) which is not something Clooney has indulged in over the years.

Roberts is seen far less frequently onscreen than I would like, but continues to be every inch the star she’s been for the past *mumble, mumble* years – has it really been that long? She has deepened into more of a solid actress over the past decade, not needing to rely quite as much on the wattage of her amazing smile and the glow of her incandescent personality that over the years has made her the ultimate girl next door. Here, she’s a working stiff trying to labor for the unappreciative and has been a little bit beaten down by her star’s lack of empathy. Still, she prides herself on her professionalism and when the rubber hits the road, responds with calm and decisive leadership. This is one of those roles that is slightly subversive without being obvious about it; perhaps Foster, certainly one of the strongest women in Hollywood, has something to do with it as well. To my mind, Patty is the real hero of this piece but not many will get that.

O’Connell is best known for his role in Unbroken but to my mind finally really shows what he’s capable of going back to small but memorable roles in films like Harry Brown. His performance as Kyle shows a man beaten down to the bone by a system that chews up and spits out people like Kyle. With nothing else to lose, he demands answers from those who aren’t willing to give them and this leads him to an act of desperation – and yes, stupidity – that becomes the crux of the film’s emotional center.

Foster has been the kind of director who makes magic even when the scripts she’s given to work with don’t necessarily have a lot of it in it. There’s a good deal that’s way too familiar here but Foster works with it well and gives us a credible film despite the predictability of the plot. There’s some sly satire here about America’s penchant for greed and making money without wanting to put in the work. It is counter to our Puritan heritage in which hard work is valued and indeed, rewarded. In this modern era, we seem to be more inclined to value cutting corners – and rewarding those who do inordinately. And maybe that’s at the center of why Main Street is so pissed off at Wall Street. Perhaps some of the captains of industry need to be reminded of those ethics that made this country great in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: Foster is a masterful director. Clooney and Roberts are always eye-catching. Dials in to the anger that a lot of people are feeling about Wall Street.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty cliché storyline. The villain of the piece is a little too obvious.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Short
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Conjuring 2

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Spotlight


Michael Keaton knows he's on a roll.

Michael Keaton knows he’s on a roll.

(2015) True Life Drama (Open RoadMark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amaroso, Billy Crudup, Jamie Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Neal Huff, Duane Murray, Brian Chamberlin, Laurie Heineman. Directed by Tom McCarthy

Reporters are sometimes referred to as ink-stained wretches, harkening back to the 19th century when that was literally true. They’ve traded quill and parchment for computers and the Internet, but what remains true today as it was then – few in the general public really have a sense of what goes in to writing and reporting the news.

Spotlight covers the Boston Globe investigative reporting team – also called Spotlight – and their game-changing  2001 investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that was being covered up by the Church. It’s an important enough story that writers McCarthy and Josh Singer felt that it needed to take precedence over the reporters who reported the story – something that journalism films rarely do. Even All the President’s Men, perhaps the most respected journalism film of all time, elevated reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to heroic proportions.

With a new managing editor now in place, Marty Baron (Schreiber) who comes to the globe by way of the Miami Herald and other papers, Baron suggests that a long-gestating story – about Fr. John Geoghan who had been convicted of multiple counts of child abuse – and the Church’s role in covering up the scandal – get coverage by the Spotlight team.

This was no small matter. Boston was and is a very Catholic town. The Church is very much entwined in a whole lot of secular matters, including politics, business and of course, the news. Baron gets an invitation early on by affable Cardinal Law (Cariou) to meet with him so that Baron is made to understand his place in how things work in Boston. Quite frankly, it’s a chilling moment.

Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Keaton) and his team of senior reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and reporter Matt Carroll (James) are turned loose on the story. The bulldog-like Rezendes goes after court documents that lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who is representing several survivors against the Church, informs him have been sealed. The softer Pfeiffer interviews survivors, often seeing them dissolve into tears of shame. Robinson works the golf courses and receives troubling and veiled threats to back off.

Eventually the team begins to realize that the cover-up involves more than one priest in Boston…and eventually more than one city around the world. As the scope of what they’ve discovered begins to unfold, the team realizes that they may be in over their heads. They also realize they can’t ignore their own connections to the Church – but can they ignore the suffering of the many victims, who begin to number in the thousands?

The story is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with as the scandal involving the Church became international news a decade ago. Fortunately for us, McCarthy chose not to make the reporters the central aspect of the story. This movie isn’t about them, although they get the most screen time and they are in many ways our own avatars. No, this is about the victims and the story, which required some often tedious work to bring to print. Many journalists who have seen this have said this is the most accurate depiction of journalism in the history of film. Despite the nature of the work which involves a lot of time on the phones and on the web, McCarthy manages to keep the movie from being boring.

Part of the reason for that is because he has a cast to die for. Keaton, so marvelous in Birdman, is on a definite roll. Not only is he turning in Oscar-worthy performances but he’s doing it in Best Picture contenders, as this will surely be. As for Ruffalo, this is his finest performance yet, playing the pugnacious Rezendes like a heavyweight champion daring his sources to take their best shots. He is passionate about his job and as the scandal deepens to global levels, his frustration with the Church he grew up with and his realization that he could never go back to it now is more than memorable; it’s unforgettable.

=As this took place primarily in the fall and winter – with a notable pause to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center, for which several flights originated at Logan Airport – the screen always has a kind of cold and distant quality, ranging from autumnal rain to winter snow. There are rarely sunny days in a movie, befitting the subject. I’m sure the real reporters felt that sunny days might never come again.

This is most definitely one of the best movies of the year and a serious Oscar contender in a number of different categories. While some might recoil from the subject matter, it is handled delicately and respectfully. While some might think that this is a boring procedural, let me reassure them that it’s simply not the case. Simply put, this isn’t the easiest subject matter to tackle – but it’s done so well that you leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen something special. And it is.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performances and story. Excellent writing. Powerful and emotional. Accurate rendition of how news is reported.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a tiny bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language, adult themes and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Investigative reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. is the son of Benjamin Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein depicted in the film All the President’s Men and who was portrayed by Jason Robards in that film. Keaton used Robards’ performance as a template for his own, mixed in with his own observations of the real Walter Robinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Good Dinosaur

The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend

Bruce Almighty


Bruce Almighty

Walking on water is no big deal to these guys but STANDING on water, now that's a feat!

(2003) Drama (Universal) Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Phillip Baker Hall, Catherine Bell, Lisa Ann Walter, Steve Carell, Nora Dunn, Eddie Jemison, Paul Satterfield, Mark Kiely, Sally Kirkland, Tony Bennett. Directed by Tom Shadyac

Not being the biggest fan of Jim Carrey in the world, I came into this movie fully expecting to, at best, just tolerate my two hours in his company. Then, something funny happened on the way to my expectations; I actually found myself laughing. I was enjoying America’s favorite rubberface.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, an on-camera reporter for a Buffalo television channel who dreams of being an anchor, of being respected and admired by the community. He is known for doing the “lighter” news and for being taken less seriously, both by his colleagues and the community. Just when he thinks he’s getting somewhere, a smarmy colleague (Carell) goes behind his back and nabs the anchor job Bruce wanted. When Bruce finds out (in the middle of a live feed from Niagara Falls), he loses it and consequently, gets canned.

His long-suffering girlfriend Grace (Anniston) waits patiently for Bruce to commit, but he is way too absorbed in his own career to notice. And as things begin to go wrong, Bruce looks to God for answers. The answers that come, however, aren’t much to Bruce’s liking, and the newscaster launches into a tirade against the Almighty, blaming Him for all of Bruce’s troubles.

Of course, this being Hollywood, God hears Bruce and God responds with an invitation to visit Him in His office. And God looks uncannily like Morgan Freeman, which is pretty much how I imagined Him too … well, OK, more in a George Burns kind of way, but close enough.

Since Bruce thinks he can do a better job than the Big Guy, God invests Bruce with His powers and invites him to take over the job (which works out, since Bruce is between positions at the time). Now, Bruce happens to be a broadcast journalist, which is to say, completely self-absorbed, so naturally he uses his powers to resurrect his stalled career, utilizing a few “scoops” (conveniently “discovering” the body of Jimmy Hoffa in a police training ground, and “happening” to be around when a meteor hits. And when it comes time to answer prayers, Bruce just grants them … with devastating effect.

Of course, the consequences of these events are more far-reaching than Bruce realizes and things go from bad to worse in the world. And, as Bruce gets everything he wants, he realizes that everything he wants isn’t necessarily what is important to him. And what is really important to him is drifting away.

I like the movie for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s not an over-the-top Jim Carrey-fest, which I feared it would be. If the Ace Ventura movies were your speed, you may be disappointed with how subdued Carrey is here. Aniston is wonderful; at this point in her career she was catching up with Meg Ryan as the queen of romantic comedy, a title which has sadly eluded her since.

This is a movie that is not so much about faith as it is about values. Bruce is unhappy mainly because he confuses his own needs with his value system. The things that he is chasing with nearly obsessive focus are transitory and in the scheme of things, only self-defining at the surface. The deeper, intrinsic things that define us are the things we tend to push aside in favor of career and acclaim. Faith merely helps us see what is already there.

The sight gags and effects are pretty nifty, and there’s a really awesome sequence wherein Bruce sabotages the backstabbing anchor using his powers to – well, make him speak in tongues.

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. There is a certain sweetness to it, and the leads are well-cast and lovable, and the message is a bit deeper than the average summer comedy. Any movie that can make me cry and laugh in the same two hours is doing something right.

WHY RENT THIS: Carrey is at his most appealing and Aniston shows why she is one of the best comediennes today. Appealing, warm-hearted and doesn’t beat you in the face with a message of faith. Freeman makes an awesome God!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more schtick than there needed to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the humor is a little crude, and there is a bit of foul language and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The riot scene was filmed in the Universal backlot set made famous as the town square of Hill Valley. The clock tower can clearly be seen.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are some outtakes and bloopers, but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $484.6M on an $84M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Contagion

The Help


The Help

Viola Davis is tired of Emma Stone asking what it's like to be nominated for an Oscar.

(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.

Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.

Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.

Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.

Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.

Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.

It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.

This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.

It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.

Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.

Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.

HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: GasLand

What Goes Up


What Goes Up

Steve Coogan prays for more roles like this one.

(2009) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, Hilary Duff, Olivia Thirlby, Josh Peck, Molly Shannon, Molly Price, Max Hoffman, Sarah Lind, Laura Carswell, Ingrid Nelson, Andrea Brooks, Andrew Wheeler, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Jonathan Glatzer

Some movies are easy reviews. They stay with you or they are of such quality (or lack thereof) that the reviews almost write themselves. Others, like this one, are much harder to find the right words for.

Campbell Babbitt (Coogan) is a journalist doing a backstory on teacher Christa McAuliffe, who is about to go up in the Space Shuttle Challenger, at her high school in New Hampshire. As it so happens, an old college buddy of his also teaches there but before Babbitt can hook up with him, he commits suicide.

He is left to talk to the surviving students, such as Lucy Diamond (Duff), a somewhat self-centered sort who thinks that every guy who lays eyes on her is automatically her conquest; there’s also Tess Sullivan (Thirlby), a pregnant teen who is as manipulative as she is expectant and Jim Lement (Peck) who plays things close to the chest.

As a matter of fact, the whole town seems to be a bit on the eccentric side (as towns in New England often are in the movies) with Penelope Little (Shannon) putting on a somewhat avant garde musical production honoring the Challenger and its famous local astronaut. In the meantime, Campbell is going to get a close look at himself and his own ethics.

This is the kind of movie that drives me crazy. There’s a good deal of promise here, both in the subject matter and in some of the casting – I like Steve Coogan and this is the kind of role he doesn’t tackle often, something with a little meat to it. Coogan has the ability to tackle roles both comedic and dramatic and this one shows off his talents in both fields.

Duff is cast against type as something of a slut, and to be honest with you I can’t say as she looks comfortable in the role. Shannon is wacky as ever and this is the kind of part she has played many a time, both on SNL and in movies. She’s a little more sympathetic than usual here but that’s all.

Using the Challenger disaster as a framing device wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, but there doesn’t really seem to be much of a point here. The point is, I suppose, that the students are teaching Campbell something about life and maybe there’s some merit to that, but they seem to be more cliche indie film eccentrics more than real characters.

Some of the moments are really touching, and there are some moments that are charming but sadly, they are not as plentiful as they might be. Some of the cinematography is marvelous – there are some beautiful shots of the bleak winter, but that’s not enough to carry the movie. It’s sort of a noble failure; there are enough things that work to make it worth my while to review, but there are not enough of them to provoke me to recommend it, as much as I wish I could.

WHY RENT THIS: A definite change of pace for Coogan. Some really affecting moments. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is inconsistent in places; sometimes thought-provoking, other times not so much. Casting seems a little haphazard.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s teen sex, language and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in New England, the movie was filmed in British Columbia to help better establish the winter setting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beastly

The Soloist


The Soloist

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx try to get away with some loot from the Disney Theater.

(DreamWorks) Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Nelsan Ellis, Rachael Harris, Stephen Root. Directed by Joe Wright

Friendships can sometimes be formed in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of people. These are the sorts of friendships that can be life-altering for both of the parties involved.

Steve Lopez (Downey) is a successful columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While his marriage is on the rocks (to his editor Mary (Keener) no less) and he has been injured in a bicycle accident, his career is at least doing well.

One afternoon he hears music coming from Pershing Square near the Times building and discovers a homeless man sawing away on a two-stringed cello and making astonishing music. This is Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and as Lopez later discovers, he was once a prodigy who studied at Julliard before his schizophrenia forced him to drop out of school and essentially from life.

Intrigued, Lopez writes a column about Ayers. A reader, touched by the story, sends a new cello for Ayers which Lopez delivers. This touches off a friendship between the two as Lopez acts as something of a guardian angel for the highly erratic and sometimes explosive Ayers. Lopez follows Ayers to a shelter in downtown L.A. (filming took place on Skid Row where the shelter is located and actual homeless people were used as extras) and inspired, writes a series of articles on the homeless situation in the City of Angels.

This leads to awards and acclaim for Lopez but he feels conflicted about this – like he’s profiting on the plight of his friend. He tries to help him, sets up recitals and an apartment for the former prodigy but Ayers’ mental illness is once again getting in the way. Will the demons in Ayers nature prevent him from leaving the mean streets of L.A.?

Like real life, the movie doesn’t answer this question because this true story is continuing. The real Nathaniel Ayers still lives in Skid Row and while his fame has allowed him to leave the streets, he still grapples with his mental illness.

Director Wright (who previously directed Atonement) has a good eye for detail and uses his L.A. locations to make a gritty, grimy portrayal of the streets which exist in a truly tragic juxtaposition within blocks of the glamour of the Walt Disney Theater in downtown L.A. Oscar-nominated (for Erin Brockovich) screenwriter Susannah Grant has the thankless job of trying to capture Ayers’ madness without compromising the story’s realism and for the most part, she succeeds although she does wander into maudlin territory from time to time though not enough to torpedo the movie.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Ayers and Lopez; if the actors can’t capture that then the film is a disaster. Fortunately, Wright cast two of the better actors working today in Downey and Foxx to tackle the roles and they both do stellar jobs. Downey has the more nuanced role in Lopez; he’s flippant and cynical but with a soft heart. He’s not the stereotypical driven and ambitious journalist; he’s more of an observer than a reporter.

Jamie Foxx resists the urge to over-dramatize the mental illness of Nathaniel Ayers but still manages to effectively portray the demons that torment him. This performance required a master’s hand to pull off and fortunately it got one. I don’t know if this is Foxx’s second Oscar-winning performance (it’s unlikely – the movie was postponed from its original November 2008 release date and relegated to the relatively barren April, when few films get any Oscar consideration) but it certainly merits a look.

Wright and Grant set out to make the movie as real and believable as possible and except for a few hiccups were successful. I like that the movie ended without tying things up in a neat package. I also admire the performances of the lead actors which are so compelling that some fine character actors also cast here are almost shuffled off to the wayside not through any fault of their own.

This movie, possibly because its release date was mishandled, didn’t get the kind of box office love it should have gotten (and might have gotten if the studio had stuck to a fall release date). Still, if you didn’t see it in theaters (and you probably didn’t), this is worth seeking out on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: Both Downey and Foxx turn in outstanding performances. The relationship at the heart of the movie is believable. The resolution of the movie is not really a resolution but ties the events together nicely while ringing true to the realism of the story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story occasionally meanders into the maudlin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of crude language, some drug use and the overall theme of mental illness and homelessness might be a bit much for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the final concert scene in the movie, the real Nathaniel Ayers Jr. can be seen in the front row of the concert hall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers Jr. in which the interplay that the actors modeled the relationship on is clearly visible. There is also a feature and an animated short on the situation with homelessness in Los Angeles which has one of the largest homeless populations in the world.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Astronaut Farmer