“The Help” disgustingly sanitized, culturally ignorant.

Emma Stone as crusading journalist Skeeter in "THE HELP", doting mother behind her.

Walking out of “The Help” left me with an odd grinding sensation inside my head, not unlike downing a lot of red Kool-Aid, or being in a particularly bland-smelling car for far too long. It’s afflicted with what I like to call “Blind-Side-syndrome”, which is to say, the unpleasant experience of an intimate African-American experience being filtered through a very distant, very white perspective.

“The Help” parades around for 150 minutes pretending to be what it’s furthest from — an authentic, meaningful story of an uphill racial battle. Some may find it inspiring. I find it more than a little sickening.

It’s a calculated showcase for talented people to show off how talented they are. “The Help” functions well as this. It’s an eclectic group of respected actresses, ranging from older black talent like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, to young white women like Bryce Dallas Howard, “Tree of Life”s Jessica Chastain, and one of the most charming young women on the Hollywood scene — Emma Stone.

All five of these women give director Tate Taylor’s script punch and dramatic momentum, Stone in particular serving as an appropriately perky, inquisitive lead. The poor quality of the film is not to be blamed on these women.In fact, it’s not to be blamed on the film on any sort of technical level.

Visually, it’s quite proficient, with the 1960s-era costumes and decor often times approaching “Mad Men”-level authenticity. I don’t take issue with the way in which “The Help” was made — I object to the purposes for which it was made.

Stone is Skeeter, a freshly-graduated college student who returns to her quaint Southern hometown to eek out a job at a local newspaper. While doing this, Skeeter notices the black housemaids so frequently employed by local households lack access to a basic function — they can’t use the bathrooms in their employers’ homes. This inspires Skeeter to draft up an expose on the hardships these maids, or, ‘the help’, have to face on a daily basis.

It’s a testament to “The Help”s lack of focus that it will spend time doting over the actions of Skeeter and her interviews, then jump between one of its near-endless subplots including, if not limited to” the racist, villainous housewife Hilly, the lovable if unintelligent Celia, Skeeter’s dying mother, Hilly’s dying mother, the maids Skeeter are interviewing named Aibileen and Minny, the potty training of a young girl Aibileen looks after, Skeeter’s book deal, Skeeter’s love interest, and an ongoing mystery as to why her childhood maid suddenly vanished. Yes, friends, this film is a dense one. But not dense as in actually complex, dense meaning disorganized and slipshod. Were it not based on a (highly, highly successful) novel, I’d assume it to be virtually improvised on the go.

“The Help” takes a vital issue, one still manifested widely throughout America today — intolerance — and sanitizes it for the easiest possible consumption, scrubbing out furiously any kind of thought-provoking, interesting ideas or themes. “The Help” should have felt like an bleeding, passionate project; an open letter recounting an abhorrent period in our nation’s history. Instead, it goes down like a gaudy, candy-colored flower bouquet. D


“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” atmospheric haunted-house flick.

Katie Holmes begins to see her step-daughter's suspicions of their home in "DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK".

The creatures of Troy Nixey’s feature-film debut “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” can really be quite terrifying, but that’s not what makes this haunted-house remake particularly memorable. It’s the terrifying communication-breakdown that goes down in this flick that sticks with you. The protagonist is a chubby-cheek, teary-eyed little girl named Sally. Her casting was wise.

From frame one you feel instantly protective of her, an instinct that continues on for the duration of the film. She’s up against the things that go bump in the night in an old house her architect father Alex is staying in, while renovating it with his co-worker/lover Kim. Sally’s warnings of these creatures go unheeded. As the terror mounts in the household (and audience), a disconnect grows between father and daughter.

The premise is simple and the delivery unpretentious. But “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” knows when to deploy strong set-pieces to heighten the tension — one scene in which Sally slowly crawls under her bed-sheets, searching for her intruder, will stop your heart. Director Nixey spaces these out from one another well — long enough to keep us wanting more, but consistently satisfied.

Returning to quality cinema for the first time since 2006’s “Thank You For Smoking”, Katie Holmes plays Kim, with Guy Pearce joining her as Alex. They have pretty standard, cookie-cutter “workaholic, skeptical dad” and “caring girlfriend” roles, pulling them off about as convincingly as any other movie you’d imagine. I particularly appreciated the directions Katie Holmes’ character took — instead of cold-shouldering Sally, she actively attempts to understand the child. A simple twist from formula, but a welcome one.

It’s Bailee Madison that carries the picture, and I’m amazed such a young, vulnerable girl could carry a film so built on tension and edge. Madison looks ready to burst into tears at any given moment, but never veers into whiny or annoying territory.

Guillermo del Toro, filmmaking genius and creature-feature enthusiastic, personally championed “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” to the screen, with a co-writing and producing credit to boot. It’s a re-imagining of a ’73 TV movie that, he claims, was the inspiration for his long, impressive body of work. And although, with the strong female character and the creepy undertones, one can see traces of del Toro in this, it’s not nearly distinctive enough to be worthy of his moniker.

Thus far I’ve praised the film for its modest steps away from formula, but they are, indeed, merely modest ones. “Dark” isn’t so much its own entity as it is a fairly successful entry into a long-running, long-standing genre. That’s both the slight charm and equal frustration with this one. B

“Attack the Block” socially conscious B-movie fun.

London project youths face off against alien invaders in "ATTACK THE BLOCK".

2011 has had a total glut of alien invasion cinema, worse yet, of totally inconsistent quality — from the inspired “Super 8”, to the solid “Paul”, to the truly inane — “Green Lantern”, “Battle: Los Angeles”, and enjoyable though it may be, the third “Transformers “. What all of these films have in common, however, is a massive budget. The U.K.-imported “Attack the Block” approaches this genre from an alternate perspective – it features virtually no known stars, has a comparatively shoe-string budget of $13 million, and is told from the perspective of a group of teenage hoodlums.

The film actually opens with these guys mugging a nurse by the name of Sam. Just as they’re making their getaway, however, something falls from the sky and attacks them — a creature that is, quite clearly, not of this world.

Their first immediate reaction? Kill it and bring it to the safest place in their London housing project — their weed room. But as more and more creatures descend into the area, it becomes quite clear that this teenage gang is gonna have to summon all the bravery and weaponry they can to defend the block.

“Attack the Block” is nearly inseparable from the internet hype built up around it — it’s played to sold-out crowds at nearly film festival it’s hit, has gotten rave reviews, and is produced by the film-community demigod and “Hot Fuzz” helmer Edgar Wright. It’s not every day the New Yorker is singing the praises of a profane alien-invasion flick.

But that deters from the fact that “Attack the Block” carries fairly modest ambitions; charmingly so, in fact. The majority of the film is set within the confines of the same apartment building, following the characters as they move from room to room, seeking cover from the chaos and planning their next move.

Director Joe Cornish’s script provides lots of banter for the characters to throw at one another, but it’s not banter for the sake of itself. It develops the characters’ personalities and relations with each other organically and humorously. (This said, a strong ear for south London accents is required to get what these kids are saying.)

With its efficient storytelling and stylized action, “Attack the Block” often evokes a kind of low-budget charm reminiscent of ’70s John Carpenter flicks. It’s directed with surprising confidence, especially given that this is Cornish’s first go-around as director.

But when “Attack the Block” really floored me was when it took a moment to slow things down and reflect on the social situation the characters face. “Attack the Block” doesn’t shy away from the fact that its protagonists, a group of lower-class, mostly black teens, are often regarded by society with a cautious hesitance.

The film’s best scene is where the gang leader Moses makes a speech, reasoning that the government sent the creatures down to take out blacks, because drugs and guns weren’t doing it fast enough. Is it irrational and false? Absolutely. But it unflinchingly captures the sort of social tension and unrest that lead to the recent riots in the film’s very location, London. You probably wouldn’t see a film going after issues like this made within the Hollywood system. And if a film can do that while providing breezy, energetic popcorn fun, I’m all for it. B

“Final Destination 5” mediocre, yet a step up for the franchise.

One of "Final Destination 5"s victims faces her fate on a collapsing bridge.

I gave up a while ago on trying to assess the moral implications of the continued success of ultra-bloody horror films, and what exactly their continued success says about us, their audience.

I mean, pause for a minute. Consider that, when buying tickets to, say, a “Saw” film, or what I’m reviewing, the fifth “Final Destination” installment, you are plopping down $10 to laugh at the demise of average, ordinary people, not unlike yourself. Doesn’t that send a chill down your spine just a bit? (I, of course, ignore that these supposed “ordinary” people are unconvincingly portrayed by mostly terrible young actors.)

But I am not here as moral crusader, I am here as film critic. And I’m here to tell you what I’m sure comes as a surprise to none — “Final Destination 5” is pretty damn awful. Mind you, it is the successor to a film among the least watchable of the last 10 years — 2009’s “The Final Destination”. Isn’t it funny how that works? Warner Bros. aren’t even trying to hide that they’re dipping their hand into your pocket. It’s the rough equivalent of a spouse proclaiming they’re forever done, packing their bags and leaving, then showing up in the kitchen the following night, demanding their steak.

Of course, this isn’t new to horror cinema — many franchises have proclaimed their end only to come around a few years later.

Just as people flock to “Saw” films for the elaborate traps and romantic comedies for the happy ending and attractive actors, people come to “Final Destination” films to see the ways in which average household objects can conspire to kill people that have supposedly “escaped” Death’s clutches in the past.

You see, every film in this franchise begins with the protagonist having a premonition of an upcoming disaster, telling his friends to leave with him, and saving them all from the disaster, which, incidentally comes true. But Death intended to take these people, and over the course of the movies, Death certainly does, in ways that, hypothetically, should have gotten progressively gorier as the franchise ticked on. (a common complaint with “The Final Destination” were the unimaginative fatalities)

“Final Destination 5” finds a guy saving his company from a sudden bridge collapse, the aftermath being that Death claims them one-by-one in, admittedly, very cleverly realized sequences. The young cast as a whole didn’t leave much of an impression on me. One particular actor (whose name I lack the effort to Google) seems to be attempting to channel “Top Gun”-era Tom Cruise, an effort that fails spectacularly.

Some of the film’s deaths involve laser-eye-surgery, an acupuncture-therapy session, a wrench to the face and (my personal favorite) a sabotaged gymnastic stunt. And the bridge collapse sequence in the beginning is surprisingly convincing.

The franchise’s skill has always been in the prolonged build-up and unexpected-payoff of the various death sequences, which is no different here. I concede that these are very well-done scenes. That said, had Steven Quale (who in the past has worked on films like “Avatar” and “Titanic”) given even a fifth of the attention paid to the gore over to the characters, there would be something to invest in.

Unfortunately, there isn’t, giving “Final Destination 5” a very observational feel. We’re watching these people die horrifically, but don’t particularly mind one way or the other. C-

(Note: The 3-D here is actually worth it, if the impalement of attractive young women popping off the screen is your sort of thing.)

“30 Minutes or Less” character-driven but only mildly funny

Aziz Ansari and Jesse Eisenberg as the bewildered, bank-robbing best friends in "30 MINUTES OR LESS".

Very few directors have a distinctive style and technique developed by their first film. But when Ruben Fleischer arrived on the Hollywood scene in 2009 with the tautly-constructed, surprisingly clever “Zombieland”, it was clear that he was one such rarity.

In the new film “30 Minutes or Less”, Fleischer re-teams with that film’s star Jesse Eisenberg, whose profile has since been raised considerably with his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Social Network”. Fleischer brings back many winning qualities that “Zombieland” possessed — a raunchy, loose swagger coupled with a taut running time (both films run under 85 minutes).

But the unique thing about Fleischer — he genuinely is interested in developing characters for us to identify with, root for and in some cases, root against. Here, he has two sets of best friends — one considered “good”, one considered “bad”, but both given equal attention in the film and equal measure of development by the actors.

The “good” guys are Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari as Nick and Chet. Nick is a stoner pizza-boy and Chet is becoming a successful teacher; the disconnect between the duo’s success being the source of some tension. But when Nick delivers a pizza one fateful night the “bad” guys come into play.

Danny McBride and Nick Swardson are Dwayne and Travis. Dwayne has a considerable inheritance to gain from his father, but first, the guy has to kick the bucket. Dwayne wants to hire an assassin to take care of that, but to get the money, straps a bomb to Nick. Nick has nine hours to somehow come up with 100 grand or else the bomb on his chest will explode, and he enlists Chet to help him out.

All of this sounds very serious and grave, and I do have the feeling that had a dramatic approach been taken, a really gripping thriller could have been carved out of the material. Instead, a very comedic approach is taken to it, which both helps and hurts “30 Minutes” in the long run.

If there’s a fault to be had, it’s not with the cast. These four principal actors are, at least, very talented comedians, and in Eisenberg’s case, an exceptional dramatic actor. It’s truly the dialogue between these two duos, and the care that the film takes to making them seem like realistic friends (if not realistic human beings) goes a long way.

But for an 83-minute film, there’s quite a lot of unrewarding and random gags. It’s simply too inconsistent. For example, there’s one set-sequence mid-way through the film — to come up with the cash, Nick and Chet opt to rob a local bank. It’s built up deliberately (if not slowly), and hits fantastic comedic beats throughout. It’s slow-burn comedy, and it’s great.

Contrast this, however, with McBride and Swardson’s brand of comedy — shouting mostly hilarious, profane non-sequiturs. The two don’t really mesh together cohesively, resulting in a movie that feels oddly disconnected with itself.

“30 Minutes or Less” is a film not quite as taut as it should be, and given the talent involved, not quite as funny. It hits a lot of great beats, mostly with the ways that it builds up the four primary characters. So often in modern American comedies, the filmmakers spend attention on the gags to the extent that the characters are over-looked. “30 Minutes or Less” is curious in that it has the inverse dilemma. B-

The Michaels Canon: “Nashville” (1975)

The Michaels Canon is a new column in which I construct something of a personal film canon. Although recognized, widespread classics will be given their due, I hope to shed some light on perhaps quirkier, more obscure, but equally strong films. 

If I were to picture traditional cinematic conventions as a wall, I’d envision director Robert Altman as a vivacious, rebellious youth throwing firecrackers at that wall. In his 35-year career (he worked up until his death in 2006), he was many things — revolutionary, obnoxious, profound, and on more than a few cases, failure.

But it’s the burning passion that he clearly holds for characters, and unique eye for the ways in which they play off one another, that separates him from other directors.

The pinnacle of his career, and I argue, one of the pinnacles of American cinema, is the 1975 film “Nashville”. Set in the titular city, the 160-minute film is set over the course of five days. What’s the story, you ask? Well, there isn’t a story. And at the same time, there is one, 24 different ones in fact.

See, it follows 24 different individuals, ranging from an exhausted country singer, to a coping widower, to a sleazy campaign-organizer, to Elliot Gould and Julie Christie, playing themselves. My personal favorite is a young, pre-“Big Chill” Jeff Goldblum as a perpetually high biker who is in almost every frame of the film, yet never utters a word.

What ties these people together is that they all have a role to play in a political rally-cum-concert, which serves as the film’s conclusion. Yet another unique thing to “Nashville”s credit — it has about an hour of wholly original (and quite good, if I do say so) country music written and performed by the actors.

Throughout “Nashville”, you grow to adore or, at the very least, take interest in, all 24 of these people. And why shouldn’t you? They’re funny, recognizable guys, brought to life by an outstanding ensemble cast. None are trying to one-up the other or have their “grand moment”. They simply, exist, some with more attention paid to them than others. And given that most of the dialogue is improvised, you feel the actors literally giving themselves into their parts.

I’ve heard “Nashville” praised as a film that fills one with hope for humanity, for society, and our eventual ability to all co-exist. I respectfully disagree. “Nashville” is a film that wants to capture the essential human experience, for all of its love and all of its heartbreak, all of its quirkiness and all of its rigidity. And just as life leaves one a little confused and a little hurt, “Nashville” leaves one confused, hurt, even angry.

Consider the final scene. One of the more beloved characters is gunned down on-stage, in a random, unprovoked act of violence. It’s shocking, unpredictable, and seemingly pointless. But then a meek, fragile woman takes her place on-stage. She’s been waiting all her life, for her moment to prove her talent to everyone. This is it. She, growing in confidence and stature, delivers a rousing rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me”. The crowd is united, the torch is passed, life goes on.

2011: Best Of, Mid-Way Through

2011 in film, thus far, has been a year in which expectations have been defied and then spat on. Approaching the 2011 spring and summer season, five films stand out from most others in terms of either prestige or potential fun factor: “Battle: Los Angeles”, “Green Lantern”, “Cowboys and Aliens”, “Your Highness”, and “Sucker Punch”. I then watched as all five of those films colossally misfired, having only faint memories of anticipating what could have been to counter the disappointment.

But then, look at some of the best films of the year: Who would have thought a Nickelodeon-produced animated film about a chameleon would turn out to be one of the ballsiest, trippiest, and ultimately coolest films in years? No one did, which is what gave “Rango” an under-dog status that better carry it to Best Animated Film, come Oscar season.

Even though it delivered on perhaps the lowest possible intellectual level, “Fast Five” claimed an odd feat — the most number of installments it took for a franchise to actually become good. Now that all of the big tent-poles of the summer have come and gone, I find that the pinnacle of no-brains, fast-paced summer spectacle was in fact at the very beginning — “Fast Five” opened the season on April 29.

Though I never reviewed it, major props to Korean director Kim Ji-Woon’s revenge epic “I Saw the Devil”. In it, a detective’s wife is brutally murdered and the killer quickly traced. But rather than kill him, the detective opts to slowly draw out his death through a series of catch-and-release encounters. In the process, he loses himself and in some ways, descends lower than the killer himself. Near-unbearable to watch at points, but not because of the gore or blood, a la “Saw” or some other torture porn. No, because Ji-Woon’s direction and presentation of his characters makes you feel every punch, every bullet. This thing is readily available on Netflix Instant, as is the hysterical exploitation-film-tribute “Hobo With A Shotgun”. And yes, it’s 86 minutes of exactly what the title suggest.

Next time you spot an 8:45 showing of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, be sure to waltz in right around 10: Numbing and cloying as the first hour may be, the last 75 minutes of the presumably final installment are a wonder to behold. It’s rare to see as masterfully — and at a quarter-billion budget, expensively — choreographed chaos as this movie. May Chicago rest in peace.

Frequenters of the State Theater were sure to have caught “Beginners”, a dramedy in which Ewan McGregor’s father, after decades of marriage to his now-deceased mother, comes out as gay. “Beginners”, with its laid-back, jazzy score, poignant love story, and talking dog, was a melancholy reflection on the pain of memory and need for companionship. I’m not kidding about the dog, by the way.

Woody Allen’s fantasy-comedy “Midnight in Paris” somehow reeled me in and back again four times. It’s positively wondrous, a 100-minute salute to the golden age of the City of Light. It stars Owen Wilson in a career-saving performance as a writer who, through an odd twist of fate, gets to spend drunken nights amongst his literary idols. With some of Allen’s sharpest dialogue ever, this movie’s a delightful little treat that’s guaranteed a spot amongst my favorites by year’s end.

One wonders if there’s really much point in me telling you that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is a perfect conclusion to one of the all-time great pop culture phenomena. But in case you were unaware then well, there you are.

Though it swept Cannes, “Tree of Life” was received somewhat indifferently state-side. Damn shame, as it’s some of the most emotionally powerful 140 minutes I’ve seen on celluloid in quite some years. Terrence Malick’s opus juxtaposing 1950’s Americana with the creation & origin of life sports a 20-minute sequence I consider one of the best in cinema, an interlude in which the cosmos swirl, forces converge and our planet is born. Totally unforgettable.

But the best film 2011 has yet offered us, one that has stuck through my mind for months and literally haunted my dreams — “Hanna”. Guided by Saorise Ronan’s assured, agile performance as a teenage assassin, director Joe Wright strikes an odd hybrid between fairy tale, spy thriller, and Shakespearean family drama. “Hanna”, more than any film of 2011 thus far, is brimming with ideas, energy, and pure mastery of form.

That’s all for now. I’ll offer a more conclusive list once the year is over with, as always.