Category: C


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Absurdist humor is not easy to pull off. For every Wet Hot American Summer or The Big Lebowski that birth surrealist brilliance, you have a million half-baked comedies that think they can replace jokes with randomness and still derive real humor. What makes those two classic films (well Lebowski is a classic, WHAS is just a really funny cult film) work despite their seeming utter absurdity is that every absurd or “random” moment is actually a brilliantly executed gag. And less absurdist comedies lose sight of the power of gags. They don’t understand that everything in a film has to have some purpose (even if that purpose is to draw attention to its own meaninglessness, read: the entire plot of The Big Lebowski). And, sadly, for its first half, Martin & Orloff doesn’t understand the power of gags and actual humor which is ultimately a disappointment because it climaxes in a manic, nearly brilliant final act.

Although, similarly to Wet Hot American Summer, 2002’s Martin & Orloff features some hilarious minor turns from comedic actors before they became stars in their own right. And, much like Wet Hot American Summer (which was a project of sketch comedy group, The State), Martin & Orloff is the product of another prestigious comedy group, the Upright Citizens’ Brigade which was home at one or time or another to many of today’s most promising comedic writers/performers. But while Wet Hot American Summer suffered from its share of hit-or-miss jokes, it seems like an astonishingly even film in comparison to the much, much, much spottier Martin & Orloff. A lot of comedy is predicated on throwing out as many jokes as possible and hoping that enough stick to score ample laughs, but for nearly the first hour of this indie comedy, the laughs simply never arrive.

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After a failed suicide attempt, Martin Flam (Ian Roberts) seeks solace and advice from his new psychotherapist, Dr. Eric Orloff (Old School‘s Matt Walsh). Martin Flam designs mascot costumes for a marketing company and after a vague incident involving an evil Chinese food company, Martin is struggling both at work and in his personal life and he hopes Dr. Orloff will help him sort things out. Unfortunately for Martin, Dr. Orloff is even crazier than he is, and all of Orloff’s friends and patients are an order of magnitude higher on the crazy train. During Martin’s first session alone, Orloff ends it minutes into the meeting to play in a softball game that he forgot about, and he drags Martin with him where Martin proceeds to get his ass kicked when he’s forced to play umpire. And over the next day or two, Martin’s life spirals even further out of control as Orloff’s unconventional therapy methods seem to cause more harm than good.

I get what they were attempting in this film. Upright Citizens’ Brigade and the State and all of these other sketch comedy groups are born-and-bred on improv theater. And, Martin & Orloff is no exception to this. The whole film feels as if it was the product of improvisation. Even if there actually was a real script (I don’t know for sure), there were many moments where it seemed like Ian Roberts was trying to figure out what his line should be (that may be because he’s not a very good actor of either the dramatic or comedic variety). And that sense of improvisation explains why so much of the film feels tacked-on and without meaning or context. Most of the first half feels like little thought was put into what should happen and the jokes fail on that score. It isn’t until the final 30-40 minutes or so where any of the jokes finally begin to have any bite or actual humor, and some of the bits by the end become almost brilliant.

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When Martin & Orloff works, it nearly reaches a sense of madcap genius. A (astonishingly early) sequence has a strip club where some of the dancers themes are Goya or the Chuck Yeager biopic The Right Stuff. A recurring gag about a minor character’s comically large penis returns as a near deus ex machina in the film’s climax. The evil leader of the Chinese food conglomerate momentarily becomes a villain straight out of a John Woo film at the end. When the jokes are focused and aimed squarely at something, they work. And sadly that isn’t always the case. I can’t heartily recommend Martin & Orloff because the film is a chore and tedious for so long. But, if you’re patient and a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, the end doesn’t necessarily make things worthwhile but it becomes a laugh riot in its own right.

Final Score: C

 

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(A quick aside before my review proper begins. This is one of the most beloved films of the 90s and the viciousness with which I’m going to examine this film will probably offend its more hardcore fans. You’ve been warned. Also, though I usually attempt to review films purely on their own standards, Forrest Gump is such a cultural icon that I will have to also look at why that is and why I find that so distressing.)

If you were to ask the average movie-goer to compose a list of their top 10 films of the 90s, I’m probably not assuming too much when I say that Forrest Gump would be one of the films to make an appearance most often (and probably rank the highest on average). It is one of the most popular films, not just of the 1990s, but of the entire modern Hollywood era. The fact that this is true says something unspeakably sad about the tastes of the average movie fan. I’m concerned that I lack the vocabulary and the writing acumen in general to describe the melodramatic drivel that is the beating core of Forrest Gump in powerful enough terms. In my two and a half year tenure running this blog, there are probably less than five films that I can name that even come close to the blatant and cheap emotional manipulation that cranks Forrest Gump‘s gears.

Only the treacly garbage known as The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wear their absurd emotional and plot contrivances as the badges of honor that Forrest Gump so shamelessly employs. Forrest Gump is sappier than a maple tree in New England come syrup season. Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing in films. Movies like Monsieur Ibrahim or Cinema Paradiso are capable of generating real, strong emotions without relying on cheap, unearned histrionics to achieve that emotional payoff. Cheap sentimentality is achieved when writers and directors exploit tragedy and suffering without adding anything new to storytelling conventions that have been abused literally for centuries now or when a film is so patently unrealistic but still set up to evoke a specific set of emotional reactions that it has no right trying to grasp. Forrest Gump commits both sins of sentimentality and it became nearly unwatchable during this particular viewing.

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If, by some miracle you haven’t seen Forrest Gump (hopefully this encourages you to not waste your time watching it), the plot is as simple as it is absolutely fucking absurd. Forrest Gump (Big‘s Tom Hanks) is a sweet and innocent man born in the 1940s in a small town Alabama. But Forrest was born with an IQ of 75 and were it not for his loving mother (Lincoln‘s Sally Field), Forrest wouldn’t have been allowed to attend normal schools. But with the help of his mother who pushes him to not let anyone put him down because of his IQ and the fact that he has to wear leg braces, Forrest learns how to get by. He’s assisted in his childhood by his friend Jenny (played as an adult by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Robin Wright Penn), a troubled girl physically and sexually abused by her father, but it’s when Forrest becomes a teenager that he sets on a world of adventures all his own.

It turns out that once Forrest loses his leg braces, he can run incredibly fast. And he becomes a star collegiate football player and even gets to meet President Kennedy (the first in a string of presidents and celebrities that he’ll meet) as part of the All-American Team. And after he graduates from college, Forrest is drafted to Vietnam where he meets Bubba (Justified‘s Mykelti Williamson), a shrimp-obsessed black man, and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), a death-seeking officer from a long-line of soldiers. Forrest becomes a war hero by saving most of his platoon after a Viet Cong ambush and is even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Forrest becomes a world-class Ping Pong player and is involved in more or less every major historical event from the 1950s up until the 1980s.

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There’s probably, actually a good movie in there somewhere if you were to remove all of the bits where Forrest finds himself involved in literally practically every major historical event of the decade. The idea of a mentally disabled man struggling to find his place in life all while trying to come to terms with his love for a woman that is not mentally ill… there’s a good screenplay hidden in there somewhere. But, at literally (I’m probably going to abuse that word during this review) every opportunity Forrest Gump chooses to forego authenticity in favor of outrageous coincidences and unearned emotion. Every emotional scene is underwritten, over-directed, and pompously scored. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling in a scene (which should be impossible considering the film’s overbearing theatrics), don’t worry; the constantly obvious score will simplify things for you.

And, with a handful of exceptions, the performances are also all too on-the-nose. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for this film, and ignoring for a second that this means both John Travolta and Tim Robbins couldn’t win for their roles in Pulp Fiction and Shawshank, there’s hardly anything great about Hanks’s performance. With the exception of his scene at Jenny’s grave at the end of the film (SPOILER i suppose but I don’t care), he never taps into any genuine emotion in his performance as Forrest. Maybe also when Bubba died. He plays a mentally ill person well, but great acting is synonymous with powerful emotion (even if that power is tapped into in a subtle way like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master), and Hanks’s performance is mostly bland from an emotional perspective throughout. Of course, Forrest is a bland and passive protagonist so that makes sense.

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It should be no surprise then that the only two memorable performances in the film come from the movie’s two best characters. She’s hated by most of the film’s fandom (because she is an actually flawed and broken heroine compared to the perfect but slow Forrest), but Jenny is arguably the most interesting character in the film. Coming from a broken home and making a series of endless bad choices who can only find loves in the arms of a man who may not really understand how love works (despite his famous quote), Robin Wright Penn captured all of the loneliness and desperation that would consume a woman in her shoes. And, of course, Gary Sinise is spectacular as the embittered and cynical Lieutenant Dan who rages against God and Forrest himself for not allowing him to die in the jungles of Vietnam and forcing him to spend the rest of his days as a cripple.

Of course, I can’t make the argument that Forrest Gump isn’t a well-made film from a technical perspective. From the way that Robert Zemeckis seamlessly integrated Tom Hanks into actual classic TV and news footage to the generally beautiful cinematography, Forrest Gump is a competently well-made film. In fact, the skill with which it was made is part of the reason that I suspect so many people are tricked into believing the emotion of the film. Robert Zemeckis is such a skilled director that he utilizes every cinematic trick of the trade to elicit the reactions he wants because the writing of the film sure as hell isn’t strong enough to do the job. And, obviously, the movie has an absolutely killer soundtrack of the best songs of the 60s and 70s once the movie makes its way to Vietnam.

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More than 1300 words is plenty on a film that I distinctly dislike, but because Forrest Gump is so well-loved I had to explain in as clear a language as possible why this film is, from every objective standard I can think of, a total train-wreck.It’s movie trickery that has fooled people into thinking this is some type of profound and grand film. And that’s funny because almost any time the movie espouses some bit of homespun wisdom (usually from Forrest’s mother), it’s contradicted less than ten minutes later. I apologize if you’re a lover of Forrest Gump and this review offends your adoration of this film; I used to like it myself. But, after this particular viewing and as a much more sophisticated movie watcher than I was ten years ago (when I last saw the film), there’s no possible conclusion I could come to than that Forrest Gump cheaply plays with audience’s emotion and uniformly never earns the emotional payoff it so desires.

Final Score: C

 

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2008’s Iron Man breathed new life into the cinematic Marvel universe after catastrophe after catastrophe including Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine threatened to derail all of the good will Marvel superheroes had earned from movie goers in the late 90s and early 2000s. With a fresh script, Jon Favreau’s “one of us” direction, and Robert Downey Jr.’s career-resuscitating performance, Iron Man was a hit with critics and audiences alike, and is still one of the standard bearers of great superhero storytelling alongside The Dark Knight and The Avengers. I’ve avoided watching the sequel, Iron Man 2, for nearly three years now because all of the critics said it couldn’t hold a candle to the original film. And, sadly, they are right. Not only does Iron Man 2 completely lack the character-driven sparks of its forebear, it lacks most of the smart, fun spectacle that made the first such a massive hit to begin with.

Even when films are full of mindless explosions and endless action-sequences (ala any Michael Bay film), one can at least appreciate the spectacle of big-budget bombast. The Transformer films may be intellectual hogwash, but they are rarely boring (except for the over-long second film). So, it’s astounding that Iron Man 2 is both often mind-numbingly boring and totally devoid of compelling character development or witty dialogue. That it manages to not be as stupefyingly bad as Thor is only because of the natural and omnipresent charm of Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle as well as an absolutely scene-stealing turn from Moon‘s Sam Rockwell. Summer superhero blockbusters are supposed to be fun. More than any other trait that is what needs to matter (except for, maybe, Watchmen), and at the end of the day, Iron Man 2 was as far from fun as humanly possible.

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After defeating his father’s old partner at the end of the first film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has helped create an unheralded period of peace on Earth thanks to his powerful Iron Man suit. Although Tony lives the life of a rock star, it’s not all fun and games because the palladium used in the arc reactor keeping Tony alive (and that also powers his suit) is also slowly poisoning Tony’s bloodstream. To make matters worse, the United States government (in a situation that I can only say has to be a reference to Atlas Shrugged hero Hank Rearden) is calling on Tony to hand over the Iron Man tech to the military which Tony does not want to do. This also puts Tony at odds with his best friend, Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a military pilot who may be forced to act against his own best friend at his country’s orders.

The situation is compounded even further by the presence of an ambitious and greedy rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who will stop at nothing to develop his own version of Tony’s weaponry in order to secure lucrative development contracts with the government. And Tony’s life keeps getting worse when a revenge seeking Russian nuclear physicist, Ivan Vanko (Diner‘s Mickey Rourke), makes a suit of his own and terrorizes a Monaco speedrace under the moniker, Whiplash (they never actually say it in the film, but that’s who he is in the comics). As tensions grow high between Tony, Vanko, Hammer, Rhodes, and the U.S. government, Tony must choose where his loyalties lie, and he must find a cure to his Palladium poisoning before time runs out and before his increasingly reckless decision making runs his company into the ground.

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There really isn’t much to say about Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in this film. It’s par for the course from what we now expect from his portrayal of Tony Stark. No new ground was broken. And, hell, just like the rest of the film, there were times where even Downey’s performance felt phoned in. Perhaps he was just playing to how thin the script is. Don Cheadle proved an adequate replacement for Terrence Howard (who left the franchise after money disputes) although Rhodie himself didn’t have much to do in the film. The only real acting suprise/delight of the movie was Sam Rockwell’s deliciously pompous turn as the sneering and scheming Justin Hammer. It wasn’t a meaty part, but Rockwell ran with what he was given, and for the vast majority of the film, it seemed like he was the only one having any fun with his part.

And, in addition to the general predictable nature of the performances and characterizations (at least in The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale tapped into new layers of the Bruce Wayne character), the superhero spectacle of the film was virtually non-existent. During the film’s two-hour run time, which was mostly padding, there were exactly two moments where I felt the action was fun, witty, or new. The first is a fight where (SPOILERS I guess) Rhodes commandeers one of Tony’s power suits and becomes War Machine for the first time and Tony and Rhodes duke it out. It was fun and funny, and the fight furthered the story’s examination of the breakdown of their friendship. The other moment may not have had as much symbolic story impact, but a sequence where Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow infiltrates Hammer’s facility is pure, ass-kicking fun, and we don’t see enough bad-ass women in the movies these days (or ever).

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All in all, Iron Man 2 has to be one of my biggest superhero disappointments since the emo shenanigans of SpiderMan 3 (seriously, how freaking bad is that movie). Iron Man was one of the movies that helped make it okay to be a nerd at the box office again, and The Avengers would have never happened had it not been such a massive success. Thankfully, the reviews for Iron Man 3 have been much more positive than they were for this entry, and its release a couple of weeks ago was the only reason I even caved and watched Iron Man 2 in the first place. If you’re a fan of the Tony Stark character, I suppose it’s necessary to see for it’s place within the Marvel film canon, but if you’re a more casual superhero movie lover, go ahead and avoid this clunker. You aren’t missing anything.

Final Score: C

 

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Movies that garner reputations as being camp classics for being simply so bad that they become enjoyable are a serious risk for first-time viewers. For every Rocky Horror Picture Show (which seems impossible to not enjoy), you have five Napoleon Dynamite‘s whose appeal is totally lost to me. 1967’s Valley of the Dolls was one of Hollywood’s biggest critical flops of all time. It was a Gigli-level disaster and nearly destroyed Patty Duke’s career. And it’s bad. It’s really bad. This movie’s got more melodrama than a 1950’s Douglas Sirk melodrama (Imitation of Life or any of its ilk for example). The acting is absurdly over-the-top, the story and relationships are cartoonish, and the characters are prone to astounding hysterics. But, weirdly, this movie has some strange campy appeal, and although she wasn’t an exceptionally talented actress, Sharon Tate was so beautiful I could watch her all day.

Centered around three rising starlets in Hollywood in the 1960s, Valley of the Dolls is a morality play examining the price of fame and the type of implosion that ultimately destroyed Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) is a small-town ingenue that moves to New York City and finds work as a secretary at a prestigious entertainment law firm though it isn’t long before she becomes the face of a national ad campaign for hair spray. Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) is a supporting player in the Broadway show of an aging diva, and when the diva kicks Neely out of the play, Neely’s solo career as a singer and Hollywood actress take off. And Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is a talentless show-girl that marries a successful Sinatra-style singer but has to fend for herself when he’s diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. And over the course of the film, all three sink into prescription drug addiction.

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There isn’t a single good performance in this. While each of the leads have their moments, the film was so poorly directed and so “stage-y” that the movie felt funny at times that it was meant to be dramatic. Sharon Tate is stunningly beautiful. I mean, she might be one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve ever seen alongside Catherine Deneuve. She has a very sensitive face and it seemed like her performance got better as the film went along, but her diction and enunciation remained forced the entire film. Patty Duke had both the best and worst moments of the whole film. She tapped into something extreme and fierce for the role but she was also never able to really dial it down when she needed to. And Barbara Parkins was more or less boring the entire film. It would have been very interesting to see this film with a director that knew how to coax good performances out of these actresses.

I have no idea what it is, but there were at times something oddly likeable about this film despite how terrible it consistently was. Like, there was an almost innocent sincerity to everything even though they didn’t know how to turn sincerity into realistic and effective drama. And, the film had some really great photography at times. It did a wonderful job capturing on-location exteriors, and while many of the interior shots looked like a poster-child for 1960s excess, there was a weird beauty to some of those shots as well. And, she starts the film out as the most flat character of the group (emotionally cause I’m sure as hell not talking about her bust), but by the time she meets her tragic end (spoilers I guess), I found Sharon Tate’s Jennifer to easily be the most intriguing person in the film. I would have really loved to see more from her and less campy explosions from Patty Duke’s Neely.

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If you have no tolerance for campy films, don’t waste your time on Valley of the Dolls. You will hate it. If it weren’t for the fact that I was reviewing it for this blog (and I’m yet over the course of the last two years to start a movie that I didn’t finish. Wait, that’s not true. I was loving Downfall but for some reason couldn’t find the time to finish watching all four hours of it), I would have stopped watching this movie about halfway through. But for fans of camp, there is something in this movie hidden pretty deeply away. It’s certainly no Rocky Horror Picture Show. This movie is simply not good despite the fact that I found bits and pieces here and there to cling to. It’s such a shame that Sharon Tate was murdered though because I feel like she could have been a decent talent in the right hands.

Final Score: C

All directors have to start somewhere. Some debuts are a little more impressive than others. When Terence Malick sprung the visual poetry and tragic love story of Badlands on the world, he was instantly marked as a man to watch (even if his output is minimal at best). I’m not sure anyone would have expected that the man behind Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) could have gone on to make something as magnificent and devastating as Schindler‘s List. Sam Raimi falls more into the Spielberg camp than Malick (not that he ever reached the heights of either). As director of the Spiderman franchise (especially Spiderman 2), Raimi proved that popcorn entertainment could have mass appeal while still touching your heart and mind. It’s a shame then that his debut picture, The Evil Dead, is more of a chance for Raimi to show off his technical prowess (which is apparent beneath the film’s many flaws) than a watchable movie in its own right.

The zombie horror genre (which The Evil Dead inhabits while simultaneously flirting with demon possession films) is rife with movies that are so bad they’re good. Because of how The Evil Dead II embraced an almost slapstick level of humor with its over-the-top gore and campy presentation, it’s enjoyable because it pokes fun at the innately awful nature of the B-movie (in much the same way as the Grindhouse films). If you took Planet Terror seriously, it would be unwatchable garbage, but because it satirizes the genre (while also being a perfectly serviceable B-movie), it works. The original The Evil Dead is more of a case of “It’s so bad, it’s meh.” The acting is a mess (and not always intentionally), the story is a convoluted bit of nonsense, and it fails to be scary whatsoever. However, an always endearing Bruce Campbell and early signs that Sam Raimi was a gifted director keep the film from being a total failure.

Five friends, led by the goofy and charming Ash (Burn Notice‘s Bruce Campbell), decide to go for a weekend away in a remote cabin in the woods .Things move around on there own even as they first arrive and one of the girls is momentarily possessed and forced to draw an eerie book in her bedroom. Yet, they still think it’s a good idea to stay here. After a mysterious force blows open a hatch leading into the basement, the group finds a book (and an audio recording) that appears to be sewn with human flesh. The audio recording reveals a scientist’s research into the occult and how a demon possessed his girlfriend after he read a specific phrase from the evil book (which is then read over the recording) which starts a frenzy of murderous supernatural rage when demons slowly but surely possess Ash’s friends and girlfriend as he has to fight tooth and nail to stay alive and to stay sane.

On virtually every front but Raimi’s camera work, the film is a disaster. There have been some retroactive claims that this was meant to be a horror comedy, but I call bull shit because this is clearly meant to be a somewhat serious horror affair, and nothing about the film is scary. It is certainly as gory as you can imagine (especially impressive considering the film’s miniscule budget), but the supernatural aspects of the film are laughable at best (even the most traumatic moment, a tree raping one of the female characters, is too campy and cheesy to make an impact). The acting is genuinely awful, and although Bruce Campbell shows at least some level of professionalism, it’s painfully obvious that the rest of the cast are just doing Sam Raimi a favor. It doesn’t help that the characters are given zero development (not even Ash), and the story is laughably thin.

Despite the film’s myriad flaws, Sam Raimi manages to pack the film (especially the early moments before he lets absurd levels of gore do the speaking) with tons of great shots. Whether it’s wide-angle lens close-ups, low shots, fast moving dolly shots, and great tracking shots, it’s obvious that Sam Raimi was an artist who was getting to play with a big box of toys he never had access to before. The use of smoke, shadows, and even lighting were well implemented despite the film’s shoestring budget. Raimi succeeds in creating a moody, eerie atmosphere, but when the zombies/possessed friends finally make their big appearance, he abandons any pretense of seriousness and goes for as much gore as humanly possible. His great camerawork draws even more attention to the film’s flaws because it reminds you what kind of film Raimi could be making.

I honestly have very fond memories of The Evil Dead II, but no matter how many times I watch this original, I can’t get over just how bad it is (and how actively grating certain sequences with a laughing zombie are). My sister watched part of the film with me and eventually had to find something else to occupy her time with because she thought the film was so bad. And it is bad. It’s almost irredeemably awful. Yet, those of you who can appreciate the technical aspects of film making will immediately mark Sam Raimi as a gifted auteur, and even if The Evil Dead doesn’t live up to the standard that the rest of his career set for him, it’s worth it to see young talent developing.

Final Score: C

I’m not an Ernest Hemingway fan. He’s one of America’s most beloved authors. I’m not trying to take that away from him. Also, I would never call his masculinity into question (though the almost absurdly macho nature of all of his heroes makes me question if he has a sexual fixation on the idealized man); he fought in WW 1, wrestled lions (how the fuck is that true?!), and covered other military conflicts as a journalist including WW II and the Spanish Civil War (the latter serving as the inspiration for the novel that the film I’m reviewing was based on). Still, his spartan prose (i.e. minimalistic not Spartan in the Greek sense) and ridiculously idealized heroes and their representation of what a “man” should be have always turned me off to his novels. They’re just far too romantic (in the strange sense of the word that I’m using in reference to Hemingway and idealism). The Old Man and the Sea as well as A Farewell to Arms were two of the most miserable reads of my entire life. I don’t understand why he’s captured the imagination of generations of American readers. Well, I do understand. It’s his mild intellectualism combined with his machismo. It’s an unattainable fantasy for many American intellectual men who wish we could be as manly and poetic as Hemingway and his characters. I don’t buy the escapist fantasy. I just watched the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls and in addition to needing a good hour of material cut from the film, it’s obvious that the source material is completely flawed and the romance at the heart of the tale is one of the weakest love stories in a so-called serious picture that I’ve seen in ages.

American expatriate Robert Jordan (High Noon‘s Gary Cooper) is a member of the Spanish resistance during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. After successfully bombing a train, he’s assigned to the likely suicide mission of blowing up an important bridge on the eve of a Republican assault against Nationalist forces. With the help of his elderly guide Anselmo, a peace-loving man who has taken up the gun with great reservation, Robert arrives at the camp of Republican forces who are almost nothing better than bandits. Nominally led by the cowardly Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), though actually led by his more charismatic and courageous wife Pilar (Oscar winner Katina Paxinou), the soldiers are a ragtag group of horse thieves hiding out in the mountains to commit the occasional raid against the Nationalist forces. Although Pablo doesn’t want to get his men involved in this obvious suicide mission, Pilar rallies the morale of the men and gets them to follow Robert’s (and the Republican army’s) orders. Still, when a freak May snow storm ruins their ability to acquire enough horses for everyone to make a clean escape after the bridge is blown, the specter of death looms over everyone and everything, including the fledgling romance between Robert and a local girl who’s joined the resistance (Casablanca‘s Ingrid Bergman).

This movie’s a mess in so many different departments that I don’t really know where to begin. First off, the acting is almost uniformly over-wrought. Gary Cooper is the only exception to that rule but he was so stoically masculine and reserved that there was little room for me to believe him as a man with enough charm to lead a group of distrustful foreigners fighting their own Civil War. If his goal was to represent the Hemingway ideal, then he succeeded (which to be fair, likely was his goal). If his goal was to have a complex and nuanced performance, he failed. Ingrid Bergman… Jesus. This movie might have ruined Casablanca a little bit for me. Was Maria supposed to be slow or suffering from some sort of mental deficiency? Because that’s the gist I got from her. She is obviously a grown woman but she acted like a small child (except when she was willing to kill people or to kill herself/Robert in case they were captured). Bergman played her as far too much of an innocent especially considering all of the terrible things that happened to her before the film began (like seeing her father and mother murdered by Nationalist soldiers and then being raped by said soldiers). I don’t even want to talk about her inability to mask her natural Swedish accent as she tried to adopt a Spanish accent. Akim Tamiroff was also a bit of a ham in the role of Pablo which is a shame because Pablo seems to be the only sharply realized character in the whole film. His moral ambiguities and cowardice were the most intriguing parts of the script. I’m not really sure why Katina Paxinou won an Oscar. There wasn’t really anything awful about her performance (though she emoted quite a bit), but there was nothing stellar either.

The film runs for nearly three hours but I felt like a good hour (if not more) of material could have been excised. I actually fell asleep forty minutes through the first time I tried to watch it, and before the first intermission (oh yeah, the movie has an intermission, Gone With the Wind style), I must have asked out loud “Does anything ever happen in this film” like twenty times. I enjoy slower, deliberately paced films. Synecdoche, New York could be incredibly slow at times but I gave it my rare score of “A+“. There just wasn’t anything happening in this film. It was a lot of talking without anyone saying anything interesting, and the characters were as broadly drawn as humanly possible. What do I know about why Robert Jordan was willing to risk his life in Spain to fight for foreigners? What do I know about why Maria seemed to fall in love with Robert so quickly? Why did Pablo go from a heroic leader of the revolution to a coward? I don’t have a definitive (or even partial) answer to any of these questions. The film picked up in the second half but that was because of the abundance of action sequences which at least helped to hammer home the film’s message which is that war is Hell and at times fruitless. Unfortunately, even those moments were bagged down by the romance between Maria and Robert which has to be the least believable screen romance I’ve seen in ages. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman had absolutely zero chemistry together.

I’ve started a bit of flame war on Facebook with people who usually agree with me 95% of the times on film, literature, and music because of my dislike for Hemingway, so I understand just how much in the minority I am in this department. And honestly, maybe the book could be good. There were aspects of the story that seemed really interesting, but they obviously didn’t translate to the big screen well, and the film’s director obviously didn’t know the first thing about editing. If there’s one good thing I can say about the film, it’s that it had wonderful color cinematography for the time (when color was still sort of a novelty). For Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman fans, I can recommend the movie. I love Gary Cooper even if this wasn’t his best role, and it was very surreal seeing him in color instead of black and white (same with Ingrid Bergman). Still, this film reinforces my belief that Hemingway is incredibly over-rated, and I hope that it’s a while before any other films based on his novels crop up on this list. I didn’t see any on my current Netflix queue so that’s as good a sign as any.

Final Score: C

I get far too metatextual in my reviews but without explicit posted explanations of the way that I operate sometimes I feel the need to explain things. For example, I don’t have a strictly posted and enforced editorial policy about what my grades for movies/books/TV shows/etc mean. “A+” is pretty obvious. It means that I think the film is practically perfect and one of the best films I’ve ever seen. “A” films are also phenomenal but might have one or two smaller flaws keeping them from perfection (or there’s nothing about it that is “A+” caliber). “A-” are great films with a more significant flaw. “B+” are films that are good on the verge of being great but not quite there. “B” films are simply enjoyable films but there’s not necessarily anything fantastic about them. “B-” movies are good but with serious problems although at the end of the day, I think their good qualities outweigh their bad ones. “C+” and below are a little more amorphous. Generally, this is reserved for films I didn’t enjoy and each step down from “C+” is a comment on how few redeeming factors the film had. However, this doesn’t really mean they’re genuinely bad films. Sometimes, they’re just so mediocre that they leave absolutely zero emotional impact on me. That’s what happened with the 1980s showbiz dramedy, Irreconcilable Differences, which was neither bad nor good (although the acting was pretty awful). It was just completely forgettable.

Nominally centered on the divorce case (though more accurately the “emancipation of a minor” case) between 10 year old Casey Brotsky (Drew Barrymore) and her self-absorbed Hollywood parents Albert (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy (Cheers‘ Shelley Long) who have long since abandoned any pretense of actually caring about their daughter, Irreconcilable Differences is actually more of the story of the blooming romance between Albert and Lucy and the Hollywood excess and greed that drives them to their current situation. A film history professor at UCLA, Albert met Lucy while hitchhiking across the country to start his new job, and although she was engaged at the time, they fell in love on the trip and were soon married. After being invited to screen a Hollywood producer’s movie, Albert’s encyclopedic insight into cinema lands him a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood and before long, he’s writing and directing (with the help of Lucy) a long-gestating film that becomes a smash hit. However, when it comes time to make their second film, Albert falls in love with the movie’s young starlet (Sharon Stone in her debut role) and leaves Lucy. While Albert becomes incredibly wealthy, Lucy’s life begins to fall apart and neither parents gives any attention to their young daughter Casey who becomes just another fixture in their lives and a pawn in their battles with each other.

Drew Barrymore is not a good actress. I’m sorry but it’s true. She has the emotional range of a professional wrestler. Actually, they can at least fake anger and machismo. All she can do is cloying adorableness. That’s all she has going for her. And that’s grown-up Drew Barrymore I’m talking about. She was ten years old in this film and just a complete wreck to watch. I don’t know how she’s had a thirty year career in Hollywood. It defies the laws of the logic. We’re supposed to sympathize with her plight, but because Barrymore’s acting was so rigid and dull, I just didn’t give a shit. Ryan O’Neal wasn’t much better. His Hollywood royalty status aside, he shamelessly mugged for the camera, and the number of scenes where he was hammishly overacting were innumerable. If he flashed that awful, fake smile  one more time directly at the camera, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the film. Shelley Long was better but not by much. Lucy isn’t nearly as interesting a character as say Diane Chambers from Cheers, and Lucy just tended to swing from neurotic to hysterical. At least Shelley Long was able to nail those emotions.

Surprisingly, the beginning of the film was actually fairly enjoyable. Watching Albert and Lucy fall in love on the road and experience their entry in the world of Hollywood had some freshness. It’s obvious that the film’s screenwriter is a movie lover, and there are a plethora of little tidbits about Hollywood lore and moviemaking scattered throughout the film. And, I definitely bought the fledgling romance of Albert and Lucy as he was hitchhiking. Then, once you got to the actual dramatic moments of the film where the characters were supposed to change for the worse, much of it felt artificial and forced. I could not buy the drastic change in character these individuals experienced. It seemed incredibly unrealistic. Also, the film is obviously meant to be satirical of Hollywood egos and excess and what not. The film’s not funny… at all. I don’t think I even chuckled once the entire film. The only moments in the entire film to make any sort of emotional response were the romance scenes between Lucy and Albert and once that was abandoned the film became more cliched and trite almost magically. Also, no judge in his right mind would actually grant the emancipation case requested in this film. The lack of legal realism was pretty absurd.

I don’t know what sort of crack the Golden Globes were smoking when they gave Drew Barrymore a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this film (or even Shelley Long for Best Actress in a Comedy) but obviously, they weren’t thinking straight. I honestly can’t think of anyone in 2012 who could really find a film like this especially enjoyable, but I also thought Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a completely joke and others fawned over it so what do I know. Maybe if you’re a really big Drew Barrymore fan (but at this point, you’ve stopped reading my review because of my complete lack of respect for her acting abilities) you should see the film. That’s about the only group I can recommend this movie to. I don’t think there are still big Ryan O’Neal or Shelley Long fans anymore. If there are, they probably aren’t big internet users or reading this blog. Everybody else can pass Irreconcilable Differences over and watch something more worthy of your valuable times.

Final Score: C

I’ve got a page on this blog dedicated just to requests that people can make for movies/TV shows they want me to review. It doesn’t get used very often, and half of the requests have actually been made via my Facebook page instead of my actual blog. But because it happens so rarely, I do always make the effort to review the movies that have been requested (Cinema Paradiso, Moon, The Court Jester, Road to Rio, and The Place Promised In Our Early Days). For the last two months, one of the requested movies has been sitting in my living room in its Netflix envelope as I went an extended period without reviewing a single film from Netflix. Generally speaking, the quality of the films I’ve reviewed that others have told me to watch has been good (except for Road to Rio). However, the 1972 musical 1776 recounting the battle over America declaring its independence from Great Britain jumped back and forth over the line of being an unmitigated disaster or being simply unremarkable. It may have had its moments (that almost all seemed to involve Howard de Silva’s Ben Franklin), but I can’t recommend this film to even the most ardent history buffs.

In May of 1776, John Adams (William Daniels akaBoy Meets World’s Mr. Feeney aka the man whose voice will make me listen to everything he says like it’s the most important lesson in the world) is mourning the fact that no one in the Continental Congress will listen to his pleas to officially declare Independence from England. As Ben Franklin is fond of reminding him, he’s obnoxious and unliked, and generally no one gives a shit as to what he says. Honestly, any description of the plot of this film is going to devolve into me giving a history lesson that everybody else knows (f you paid any attention in school whatsoever). The entire Southern delegation is loyal to the crown because it’s more economically advantageous for them to remain friendly with England, and most of the middle states (especially Pennsylvania) don’t wish to rock the boat and commit treason (thereby opening themselves up to the very real risk of execution by the British if their revolution fails). When Franklin convinces Adams to let another delegate introduce the measure, the Continental Congress finally agrees to debate the measure and the film follows the blow-by-blow of 18th century legislative hearings with a never-ending stream of musical numbers.

Since the movie is a musical and it can’t go more than 15 minutes without a massive Stephen Sondheim-esque number (though without any of Sondheim’s inspiration), it’s only fair to judge the film heavily on the quality of its musical performances. Unfortunately, in that regard, it’s a total dud. Imagine all of the worst excess of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta without any of their wit, and you’ve got the never-ending songs from this film. I can’t remember a single melody from the songs nor the words to any song. They were all completely forgettable and outright boring. I don’t blame the performers. The movie’s cast was culled almost entirely from the original Broadway production and all of the tenors, baritones, and altos all sound great in that classical musical style, but the music and lyrics they’ve been given are terribly mediocre at best and simply terrible at worst. However, there was one moment during one of the film’s musical numbers where I began to laugh uncontrollably so there was one bright spot. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and others are singing about who should write the Declaration of Independence and at one point there’s a chorus of Ben Franklin (and two other historical figures) singing the phrase “sexual combustibility” referring to how Jefferson hadn’t been intimate with his wife in six months. That was pretty great.

Not only were the musical numbers almost all unbearable, they would kill the momentum of the historical and political drama on display. I’m a history buff, and while I’ve seen plenty of the scenes in this film played out in documentaries or in text books, there were honestly moments when I found myself engrossed in the intellectual and philosophical debates that our heroes were engaged in. The film captured just how tedious and absurd the ratification process for the Declaration was (which ultimately hurt the film’s pacing on occasion), and for people who enjoy history, those moments were intriguing. But, when people are having an honest ethical debate about whether we as a nation could afford to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to pass the Declaration of Independence only to burst out into a song, it ruins the whole moment. The film runs for nearly three hours, and there was honestly at least 45 minutes of material that could have been cut out of the film that would have resulted in it being a much more enjoyable experience. Rather it became a test of wills to see how many dull songs you could sit through and how many filler scenes of flat comedy you could endure before you got a intriguing moment about the birth of our nation.

The film’s redeeming qualities (its ability to poke fun at the fallibility of our founders even when they’re presented in a heroic light [i.e. Franklin’s womanizing], its display of the philosophical debates that framed our founding, great performances from William Daniels, Howard de Silva, and Ken Howard) could not even come close to redeeming its mountain of problems. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to do a lavish Broadway revue of the Founding (and maybe in better hands, it could have been done well), but under Peter Stone’s source material (which somehow managed to win a Pulitzer Prize as a play), 1776 can only be recommended to the most die-hard musical fans simply because of its status as a classic of the American canon. Everyone else should stick to their text books.

Final Score: C

Ok, The Walking Dead. I’m giving you the same warning that I gave True Blood at the end of its horrendous Season 4. You have these last two episodes of the season (it’s weird and disappointingly refreshing that the season is so close to being done) to get things right, to find your way, before I decide to give up on you. Something tells me that you don’t have it in you because after what was possibly one of the worst episodes in the entire series, Sunday’s “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” I just can’t take the trainwreck that you’ve become much longer. The only reason that I’ll be returning to True Blood after it’s fuck-up of a fourth season was the death of series load Tara and the potential return of Denis O’Hare as Russell Edginton (by far one of the best characters in the series run). Not even the promised introduction of David Morrissey as The Governor for Season 3 of The Walking Dead is becoming enough to pique my interest about keeping around when your storytelling is both simultaneously so ham-fisted and so dull. Even killing off one of the few remaining likeable people in this increasingly detestable cast (and not in that good The Sopranos or Oz kind of way) wasn’t enough to save this terribly boring lap on the way to the end of Season 2.

After last week’s strong episode and the complete mess that was Shane and Rick trying to take Randall to a secure location to get him away from the camp, Rick (and the rest of the camp) are now faced with the tough decision on what to do with Randall since they aren’t able to just let him go (because he knows about the location of the farm). After Daryl tortures Randall into confessing that he was with a group of around 30 men and women (though I felt at times that he was just telling Daryl what he wanted to hear), Rick and the rest of the group decide to execute Randall with Dale being the sole voice of reason against murdering a man who has committed no crimes (other than trying to defend his own life during the shoot out in the town). The rest of the episode (and this is no fucking exaggeration) is spent with Dale trying to convince the rest of the survivors to let Randall live and to find some way of keeping him on the farm and within their sight that doesn’t involve a cold-blooded execution. Dale fails. The only other real scenes of the episode are what seem at first to be innocuous scenes with Carl rebelling agains his parents and the other adults and then going out in the woods where he pesters a Walker that’s stuck in the mud with sticks and a gun until suddenly it’s not stuck anymore, and Carl manages to get away. During the execution itself, Carl walks in on Rick and cheers him on at which point Rick realizes the error of his ways. As Andrea rushes off to tell Dale (she had actually come to his side at the very last moment), we see Dale trekking through the farm’s fields upset when he is attacked by the same Walker that Carl caused to become free and he’s eaten. Daryl is forced to put him out of his misery.

On a series with halfway competent writers (unlike The Walking Dead), this could have made for one of the most compelling and thought-provoking episodes of the season. While the obvious answer is that you don’t kill someone who’s committed a crime even if he may be a potential threat down the road (although obvious is the wrong word since my dad and I had a small debate on the issue where he sided with the rest of the camp), a good show could have really milked this for all its dramatic worth by having more than just the moralizing old man be the voice of reason. Jeffrey DeMunn gave his best performance of the series as Dale in this episode, but we were so obviously supposed to side with him that it was a little on the heavy-handed side. However, not only did the show beat you over the head with this, it ruined almost every other character (except for Andrea) because of how quickly they all decided to let this man die. Glenn is supposed to be the moral and emotional center of the group but he was as quick to let someone else kill this man as Shane was (though perhaps without Shane’s enthusiasm). You can make your characters do unlikeable things and make bad decisions. Lost was all about watching these characters work through their problems only to make new ones that they’d have to work through later (unless they died first). The Walking Dead doesn’t write its characters 1/4 as well as lost. NIkki and Paolo are two of the worst TV characters ever but they’re still better than T-Dogg and Carol. The Walking Dead has done almost nothing to make me want to emotionally invest in anyone in this group and now that the only good guy left is gone, why do I even want to see if these assholes live or die?

You’ve got two chances to get things right. That’s all I’m giving you. Otherwise, we’re going our separate ways and I’m not looking back. There is literally only one thing that this show could do right now that would make me keep watching if the writing doesn’t improve dramatically and that would be introducing Michonne to the TV series and I really just don’t see that happening. I feel like I would have heard about that on the internet somewhere like I heard about the Governor. But if she came back, her bad-ass nature might be enough to make me stick around. Otherwise, I’m ready to leave this once ragtag but now almost criminally apathetic group of survivors to their fate, because I just don’t care about any of them anymore. I watch TV shows, good or bad, because I want to come back week after week and be emotionally invested in the arcs and developments of a steady group of characters. I value character above almost everything else on TV, and I can’t think of a more widely watched program than The Walking Dead with such flat, boring, and one-dimensional characters. And I’m tired of trying to justify that flaw in my head anymore.

Final Score: C

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Oscar nominations came out a week or so ago, and much like last year, I’m beginning my attempts to watch every single film that was nominated for Best Picture. All of the films that received Oscar nominations in these categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film) along with similar awards from the BAFTA’s, Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards have been placed in the master list for my blog which has been randomized again to take into account this new slew of films. However, the films nominated for Best Picture are so culturally relevant that I try to watch all of them as soon as I get the chance so they take precedence over everything else on my blog. I did the same thing last year and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of films nominated for Best Picture (even when I thought about half of the fim’s nominated for Best Picture were better than The King’s Speech, particularly The Social Network and Winter’s Bone) since the lowest score was a B (The Fighter) and every other of the 9 films scored a B+ or higher. Well, 2011’s crops of film isn’t off to as good a start as The Help is the worst film I’ve watched nominated for Best Picture since The Blind Side, and the only reason it isn’t a completely racist (I’ll explain what I mean there in a second) failure is the strength of its many exceptional performances.

The Help, based off the 2009 fictional (I can’t begin to express how frustrated I was when I found out this wasn’t real) novel of the same name, is the story of aspiring author Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Superbad‘s Emma Stone), who has just finished college and moved back to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to write for the local newspaper during the 1960s. Assigned to the housekeeping column, Skeeter seeks cleaning advice from the maid, Aibileen Clark (a phenomenal Viola Davis), of a family friend. Witnessing the shame and injustice that these maids are regularly forced to endure (the last straw being her former friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) trying to push through a law requiring separate bathrooms for black housekeepers in everyone’s home), Skeeter decides to write a book from the point of view of the help. The first nanny she’s able to convince to come to her side is the stoic Aibileen, but when local maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) is fired for using Hilly’s mother’s bathroom (rather than go outside during a fierce thunderstorm that claimed over a dozen lives) and accused of thievery so she can’t gain any future employment, it leads to a revolution of local help agreeing to help Skeeter write her book and shed light on the racial injustices occurring in this town.

I’m shortly about to tear this film a whole new asshole, but before I begin ruthlessly eviscerating it, I do want to talk about the one shining light of the film which was its absurdly good ensemble cast. I mostly think of Emma Stone as a comic actress, but she handled dramatic material like an old pro and she was what held the film together. Despite the title of the film, Skeeter was the main character, not “the help,” and Emma aptly carried the weight of this story on her shoulders. Viola Davis has had some smaller parts (Doubt), but this will be the film that likely wins her an Oscar (even if I’d rather see it go to Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and shoots her to widestream attention. She deserves it. She imbued Aibileen with such nuanced anger and pain in an intensely quiet role that would have been far too easy to overplay. She showed the perfect amount of restraint. Jessica Chastain has been everywhere this year, and she was a scene-stealer as local white-trash Celia Foote who was the only person to hire Minnie after Hilly fired her. There was just an innocence and naivete in her very natural performance. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as the fiery and sardonic Minnie. Playing the villain of the film, Bryce Dallas Howard proved that her career is more than nepotism and she was the perfect embodiment of southern belle racism.

Let’s start off with the film’s biggest problem. Much like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, this film is an incredibly offensive, condescending, and exploitative bit of revisionist history made to make modern bourgeois liberals feel better about themselves. This is not a film about African-Americans overcoming injustice and hardships. It’s about a white woman who helped bring the plight of black maids to the public eye. Except, it isn’t even a true story. It’s completely made up. None of this really happened (except the details of being a maid which the author allegedly stole from someone and never compensated them for). Modern audiences are meant to watch this and congratulate themselves on how far we’ve come since segregation. I think it was Stanley Kubrick who said that Schindler’s List wasn’t a film about the Holocaust (i.e. genocide and the attempted extermination of the Jewish race). It was a film about a thousand Jews that didn’t die and the man who tried to help them. This film doesn’t deal with race relations in any relevant way (unlike say a good Spike Lee or John Singleton film). Instead, it tries to create a white hero that modern audiences can go back and cheer for when in reality, nothing like what Skeeter was doing happened, and the realities of being a maid during these days was much worse (sexual assault was a large problem) than this film portrayed. If this film were a true story or had it come out during the 60’s, maybe it would have been more relevant. Instead, it simply contributes to the list of films that want to paint our nation’s unforgivable past in a more acceptable light so that we can feel better about what epic assholes we used to be as a nation.

It doesn’t help the film’s cause that it was also yawn-inducingly boring and that most of the “emotional” moments simply didn’t ring true (Aibileen’s scenes the notable exception thanks solely to Davis’s acting). People can be forgiven for enjoying this film if they think it’s a true story (which you would have to think because the film really wants you to feel that it’s real), but if you know that none of this really happened, it should be impossible to move past how simply condescending and unintentionally racist this film turned out. This does not shed a good light on the crop of films that I’ll be reviewing from 2011 for the upcoming Oscars. The next one that I’ll view is a new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris! So that should hopefully get us back on the right track. Don’t just accept this film at face level because you’ll allow yourself to fall for the image it wants to project. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see just how flawed The Help truly is.

Final Score: C