Because Toronto’s more movie obsessed than a Quentin Tarantino screenplay (yuk yuk), Torontoist brings you Now on Screen, a weekly roundup of new releases.
Well, we hope you guys love shitty movies. Because if you do, you’re in luck! This week sees patronizing racial drama, flat action-comedy, and ham-fisted investigation work hit theatre screens like a ton of bricks. Maybe Fi5al De5tination 5 is good. But neither Kiva Reardon nor John Semley saw it, because they were too busy watching crap, so they don’t know. If you want to know, you’ll have to read about it somewhere else. Oh, hang on. This just in: Our editor is saying to not read about it somewhere else.
|30 Minutes or Less
Throughout The Help, Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid to a white family in the South, repeats a mantra to their child, who she cares for: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Unfortunately, this endearing sentiment doesn’t apply to the film, which is self-involved, dim, and dime-a-dozen.
Set in the 1960s, Emma Stone (the Summer of Stone continues!) plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a young woman fresh out of college with dreams of being a journalist, or a novelist, or some combination of both. Back in her Southern home she finds herself surrounded by her ailing albeit overbearing mother (Allison Janney) and her old high school friends (now married and bigoted to boot) led by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). (But from the start we know Skeeter isn’t racist because she has curly hair and is single. Plus, it’s Emma Stone). Anyway, she lands a writing gig at the local paper but has aspirations beyond her cleaning column: she wants to tell the story of “the help,” the nannies and maids who raise white babies as their waspy mothers play bridge and aspire to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. Enter Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer), the two central maids who are brave enough to talk.
Now this recap makes it sound like Skeeter is the focus of the film, when really she isn’t. But then neither are the maids, or the racist housewives, or even the civil rights movement. This is the central problem with the film. Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name by director Tate Taylor, The Help can’t decide whose story it wants to tell: Skeeter’s, as she struggles to make it in journalism when everyone wants her to be a housewife; Aibileen and Minny’s personal struggles; or the civil rights movement. In terms of storytelling, this is at best confusing. But at times it feels morally questionable, as in one scene we are faced with a racially motivated killing of a young black man and in the next a rich white woman’s miscarriage. Placing the two side-by-side demands not only that they be compared emotionally, but also that they be weighted equally, a slippery slope to go down. Stretched with too many plot lines and drowning in mini script sojourns, every character feels contrived, shallow, and like something we’ve seen before on any given Lifetime Movie of the Week.
But perhaps the worst part is that ultimately it feels that the civil rights movement is used as a platform for these stories—a mechanism for the narrative—rather than being explored in its own right. The concept of the civil rights movement drifts in and out of the script, called upon when needed and easily forgotten the next moment.
While leaving the theatre, a friend, grasping for something to say, shrugged her shoulders and remarked: “Well, I cried.” Of course she did. Racism, domestic violence, and losing babies is sad, to say the least. And The Help knows it. But when the 137 minutes (let us spare you the math—that’s nearly two and a half hours) runs to a close, the film proves itself to be emotionally exploitative rather than explorative, which is why it needs help.
The Help opened Wednesday, August 10 in wide release. Click here for showtimes.
30 Minutes or Less
The problem with these comedies that try to cram in every bankable comedic star, from across the film/TV/Happy Madison Productions spectrum is that they rely so crucially on the comics’ established rhythms that they don’t even bother developing the characters. You could shuffle around 30 Minutes or Less’s four leads (Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson) and still have the same film. (Though granted, McBride’s keg-gut fills out an old Master of Puppets T-shirt better than Eisenberg’s dweeby frame.) Sometimes this works, when the comic interplay kicks up enough yuks to justify indulging a bunch of guys playing themselves. But without a steady gut-busting baseline, it just seems lazy.
Fleischer gives the whole action-comedy thing he tried with Zombieland another shot here, and he’s just as ineffective. Eisenberg plays a slacker pizza boy (is there any other kind? where’s the movie about the ruthlessly ambitious pizza boy?) who gets abducted by two half-psychotic numb-skulls (McBride and Swardson) and strapped into a bomb-vest. Ansari plays the childhood best friend, despite looking a clean decade older than the terminally babyfaced Eisenberg. The plot (admittedly half-baked) is to use the bleary-eyed pizza boy to rob a bank, then use that money to pay a hitman (Michael Peña) to kill McBride’s rich father (Fred Ward). Both Peña and Ward never really mesh with the story, instead orbiting around. Ditto Dilshad Vadsaria as Eisenberg’s love interest and, incidentally, Ansari’s twin sister.
As in Zombieland, Eisenberg seems woefully miscast as the sardonic incidental hero. His delivery is interminably flat, which works when he’s playing, say, Mark Zuckerberg, but otherwise just makes it seem like he’s acting. Or trying to act. McBride is usually hilarious, if only because he pulls off the arrogant-psychopath thing so well (see: Eastbound & Down). But even he acts like he’s phoning in a half-assed Danny McBride impression. Fleischer’s handle on his action scenes is no better, with the scattered car chases lacking any sense of speed or scale. Ansari and, more surprisingly, Swardson, put in pretty funny performances here, which is fitting for a film content to be just that: pretty funny.
30 Minutes or Less opens Friday, August 12 in wide release. Click here for showtimes.
One of the pull quotes prominently figured on the poster for this new Canadian thriller hails it as an “effective thriller,” which seems like faint praise. “Effective” really just suggests a base level of competence. Like your car can be a piece of shit but still, technically, “effective” in getting you across town. Still, it’s appropriately faint praise for The Whistleblower, which if not quite “effective” in thrilling the audience is certainly effective in its Oscar-baiting bogeyman tactics.
Rachel Weisz gets a chance to reestablish herself as a major screen presence (was she ever, though? When? The Mummy Returns?), leading this based-on-a-true-story take on the life of Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop who blew up prostitution and sex-trafficking rings while working as a UN International Police agent in Bosnia. As the new kid on the bloc, she does her job, chasing leads and doing all that police-work stuff. There’s a very American sense of just-doing-my-job duty and a very Canadian sense of moral obligation that hangs over The Whistleblower as Bolkovac begins to unravel the secrets behind a local prostitution ring and the degree to which it’s being covered up by the higher-ups.
Kondracki plays things pretty in-your-face. But it seems more exploitative than incendiary, carrying the same dull, heavy connotations of “THE REST OF THE WORLD IS FUCKED UP, MAN!!!” that define any Vice travel special. What’s more, considering how publicized Bolkovac’s real-world whistleblowing was, the film gets too caught up in the connect-the-dots investigative stuff, running roughshod over tone and motivation. It’s a fine performance by Weisz, but it has the same feel as a once-talented actress demoted to Movie of the Week territory. Very few Movies of the Week, however, exhibit such highfalutin delusions of moral consequence.
The Whistleblower opens Friday, August 12 in select theatres. Click here for showtimes.