Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 23

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DREAM HOUSE Between its tell-all trailer and its tell-all poster, there's not much to tell about Dream House except that it's a crushing disappointment considering all the Herculean talent on display. A bastard child of a movie that got caught in one of those ugly divorces between a studio and a filmmaker, this was wrested away from director Jim Sheridan (In America) and reshaped by Universal Pictures into the mess that's been foisted upon paying audiences. To be honest, I'm not sure that Sheridan's version would have been a rousing success — the script was written by David Loucka, whose past credits include Whoopi Goldberg's shot-in-Charlotte turkey Eddie — but I have to assume it would have been better than this cut, which doesn't even have the support of the stars who initially were excited enough about the project to sign up but have since refused to promote it. That would be Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, playing a married couple who move into a quaint house with their two young girls. Before long, they learn that the house was previously owned by a man who murdered his wife and children, and that said killer has just been released from prison. Craig and Weisz are fine (Naomi Watts is on hand as well, but she's wasted as a supportive neighbor), but this movie will prove to be obvious and illogical even to those who haven't been privy to what surely must rank as the clumsiest marketing campaign of 2011. *1/2

THE HELP Every summer witnesses the release of a handful of counter-programming efforts, titles designed to satisfy audiences who don't particularly care for superhero sagas or alien adventures or gross-out gags. Larry Crowne, which looked like a surefire bet, crashed and burned (who knew it would be so terrible?), while the clever Midnight in Paris, initially perceived as another Woody Allen bauble that would fade into the night, emerged as the biggest moneymaker of his career. And now there's The Help, which occupies the slot held by last summer's Eat Pray Love: a female-geared August release adapted from a best-selling book. Given its central plotline — in the racially divided Mississippi of the early 1960s, a white writer (Emma Stone's Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan) gives voice to the stories of her town's black maids — it would be easy to dismiss The Help as yet another "liberal guilt" movie, the sort that's invariably told through the eyes of its Caucasian lead rather than those of its African-American characters. Yet while Skeeter certainly clocks a sizable amount of screen time, it's never in doubt that the true protagonists are Aibileen and Minny, two domestics brought to vivid life through the extraordinary performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Many of the conflicts play out as expected, and Bryce Dallas Howard's racist housewife proves to be about as subtle as Cruella De Vil. But interesting subplots abound — I particularly liked the relationship between Minny and her insecure employer Celia Foote, played by The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain — and with its influx of emotionally wrenching scenes, The Help provides assistance to adults in search of some cinematic substance. ***

THE IDES OF MARCH Friends, Charlotteans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Clooney, not to praise him. It's not that I love Clooney less, but that I love good movies more. And for huge chunks at a time, The Ides of March is a good movie. What's more, director-producer-cowriter-star George Clooney is not only a fine filmmaker but also a fine American, espousing the progressive ideals that, when adopted by those in charge, help make this country great. These ideals are regurgitated in this slick motion picture (adapted from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North), with the suave leading man using his charisma to punch across the character of Governor Mike Morris, a presidential aspirant locked in a heated battle with another Democrat for the party's nomination. His press secretary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), believes in him and works hand in hand with campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to insure victory. Stephen is ambitious and intelligent, so it's no surprise that the opponent's campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) tries to lure him to their side, that a New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) turns to him for insider info, and that a cute intern (Evan Rachel Wood) climbs into bed with him. But Stephen gets blindsided by dirty politics — literally — and is further stunned to discover a secret that could derail the whole campaign. This is basically Gosling's movie, which is a good thing since Clooney's character largely just shows up to deliver speeches that reflect the actor's real-life liberal leanings. It's not that I disagree with what's being spoken, but there are more inventive ways for a film to lay out its agenda without resorting to ham-fisted proselytizing (see: Bulworth; Bob Roberts). Yet ultimately, the movie's simplistic view of the political landscape is no worse than the melodramatic turn it takes late in the game. Still, despite its faults, there's much to enjoy, starting with the superlative performances by old pros Giamatti and Hoffman and the still-rising Wood. The Ides of March is satisfying and frustrating in equal measure; just mark it down as a split ticket. **1/2


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