Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 21

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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. ***

HORRIBLE BOSSES Two-thirds of a very funny movie, Horrible Bosses takes its irresistible premise an admirable distance before pulling a Wrong Way Corrigan and heading in an alternate direction, away from true comic inspiration and toward convention and compromise. Still, there are plenty of laughs to be mined, and in the genre of ribald male-bonding flicks, it won't cause a hangover like The Hangover Part II. Even folks living in caves have seen the omnipresent trailer, which cleanly explains the situation: Three regular joes (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) are sick of the abuse heaped on them by their evil employers (respectively, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell) and decide to murder them. They hire an ex-con named Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) to do their dirty work, but he informs them that he'll only serve as a consultant and that they'll have to do the actual killing. His suggestion: Emulate Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (or, as one character amusingly notes, Danny DeVito's Throw Momma from the Train) by having each fellow bump off another's boss, thereby reducing the risk of getting caught. Despite a few clunkers, the jokes are generally tight, and the five actors, especially Spacey and Farrell, are perfect for their roles; only Aniston's slutty dentist fails to convince, less a fault of the actress than the three screenwriters who don't know how to write this character so that she makes sense. At any rate, the film works up until the point when the bosses are linked up (no fair revealing how), but instead of using this sequence to expand with the intricate plotting, the writers reveal their limitations by allowing the picture to collapse like a house of cards, serving up a perfunctory final half-hour that's no match for the bright hour that preceded it. Horrible Bosses easily earns a commendation, but a bit of overtime on the part of its creative team might have resulted in higher praise. **1/2

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