20 June 2015

The Help (starring Emma Stone)

It’s three years since I read the excellent and thought-provoking book ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett. It’s a story that’s stayed with me, as it was eye-opening in introducing me to the world of ‘maids’, treated often with disrespect (or worse) in the southern parts of the US, as recently as the 1960s.

So when I realised there was a film available, I quickly added it to my wishlist, and was given it for my birthday a year ago. We have quite a few DVDs in our ‘to be watched’ drawer, and it took us a while to decide to watch this. But last night we saw it with our younger son, and were captivated.

It’s perhaps a good thing that I waited three years after reading the book, as some critics claim that the film isn’t a particularly good portrayal. Whether or not that’s the case, it seemed like an excellent adaption to me. The overall message of the book was strong, the acting was superb, and the settings felt just right. Indeed, if I had not read the book, I might have missed parts of the story as the accents of some of the society ladies were very strong and difficult for me to understand, although I’m sure they were realistic for the era.

Skeeter (Emma Stone) is wonderful as the main character, and the catalyst for change. She returns to her small town after graduating from university, and is upset to find that her beloved - and elderly - maid Constantine is gone. Skeeter has several friends who try to match her with a suitable young man/ they invite her to supper parties and bridge games, but she wants something more than frivolity. As she realises how badly some of the black maids are treated, she decides to gather their stories together in a book, a move that’s potentially very dangerous in a way that's hard to grasp from the safety of the 21st century.

The other main star of the film is Aibilene (Viola Davis). She's a middle-aged maid who has raised several white children, and is currently looking after a young child whose mother cares very little about her. Aibilene continues working her hardest for the sake of the children, although she’s quite bitter after losing her own son in an accident. She is believable throughout. The thing that puzzled me most about this film (and, indeed, the book) was the irony that wealthy white women would refuse even to share a toilet with their maids, yet expected them to raise their children entirely.

For anyone wanting to know what society was like in Mississippi as recently as fifty years ago, or who wonders if people in the US can be as intolerant as they sometimes appear, or indeed anyone wanting a thoughtful and encouraging movie about how a writer can change society, I would recommend this highly. I don't know how accurate a portrayal it is - there have been many mixed opinions about this - but although I'm sure this kind of racism wasn't universally true, it felt authentic as a story.

The Help is rated 12A (PG-13 in the US) and I think that’s probably fair. There no nudity or intimacy, and the only bad language is fairly minor, other than instances of a word now considered highly offensive but commonly used in the era, There’s implied violence and one or two unpleasant scenes, though on the whole it’s tastefully done, giving impressions rather than details.

However, the subject matter is intensive and potentially disturbing, so I would suggest that this is best seen by teens and adults, rather than younger children.

It's a long film - two and a quarter hours - and we found it totally absorbing, if a bit draining at times. It's neither relaxing nor fluffy, and not one I'd like to see too often - nonetheless, very highly recommended indeed.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

04 June 2015

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (starring Emma Thompson)

It’s some years since I watched ‘Nanny McPhee’, starring Emma Thompson as the nanny who appears when she’s not wanted, and leaves when she’s not needed. We thought it amusing, and it’s been seen several times by visiting children.

So when we saw the sequel on offer, inexpensively, it seemed like a good idea to buy it although it’s taken a while to decide to see it. We were prepared for disappointment - sequels are sometimes poor imitiations of the original - but were pleasantly surprised.

Having said that, the overall plot isn’t too different from the first. It’s set in the 1940s and features a family with three wild children whose father is away in the war. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the part of Isabel, the stressed mother who is trying to keep the family farm together. The family are expecting two cousins to come and stay, as evacuees from London. They turn out to be spoiled and snooty, and sparks fly… until Nanny McPhee arrives and treats the children to her rather coercive style of ‘teaching’.

The whole thing is caricatured and rather silly in places, with slapstick humour and a predictable (if satisfactory) ending. Isabel’s brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) makes an over-the-top villain who wants to force her into selling the farm so he can repay his debts. And there’s a delightful cameo role by Maggie Smith as Mrs Docherty, the elderly and scatty Mrs Docherty.

The star, of course, is listed as Emma Thompson, but her role is little different from that in the first DVD. We thought that the children were excellent, with good rapport and almost believable relationships that vary from antagonistic to caring. There are some quite poignant moments too, and the importance of family life and growing friendships was what pulled this movie above the average.

There are nods to some other films, not just the obvious Mary Poppins; there’s a flying scene depicted on the front of some editions of the DVD that could have been out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Mr Docherty, the air raid warden, had a marked similarity to Mr Hodges in Dad’s Army. These (and more) are not particularly forced, and probably add to the appeal for adults although I doubt if most children would notice them.

The action was well-paced, the dialogue good, and some quite tense scenes (at least from an adult perspective) played out nicely. The CGI isn't particularly impressive, but still amusing in places.

The UK rating is U, presumably because there’s nothing specific that would trigger a higher rating, but I’d see this more as a PG, as it's rated in the US: there are a few scenes that could scare a sensitive child.

Overall, though, we thought this a pretty good sequel. Recommended.

Note that 'Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang' may be marketed as 'Nanny McPhee Returns' in the US.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews