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Mini-Reviews: Warrior, A Dangerous Method, The Help

In an attempt to give readers my feelings on films as I plug away on a number of writing assignments, I’ll provide mini-reviews to give my succinct opinion on films and to give me time to finish my other projects.

Warrior:

Sometimes, when it comes to storytelling, reinvention of the wheel is utterly unnecessary. In terms of plot points, Warrior is as predictable and old school as it gets. In terms of execution, I was caught incredibly off guard by how emotionally invested I became in these characters. Gavin O’Connor has created a Rocky for MMA, a crowd-pleaser so effective that it’s mind-boggling that this film wasn’t a bigger hit. Its characters are simple yet memorable, its action hard-hitting, its music inspirational. There’s nothing original about Warrior, except that it dares to be a movie that doesn’t cheaply manipulate your emotions but instead earns the right to tug at your heartstrings through quality execution.

Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) comes home from church to find his youngest son Tommy (Tom Hardy) on his doorstep. Tommy left home with his mom in high school, because Paddy was once a vicious drunk with an affinity for beating his wife. Tommy finds his father sober and born again, which frustrates him. When Tommy begins training to fight MMA (he was an all-star fighter in high school), he asks his dad to train him. Tommy’s older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) stayed behind when Tommy left, because he was in love with a local girl, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), whom he married and later had kids with. Now, Brendan has fallen behind on his mortgage, and he finds himself in a situation needing to partake in MMA-style amateur fights to make ends meet. When an international competition is announced with a million-dollar purse, Tommy and Brendan both enter, with Tommy’s haunted past and Brendan’s uncertain future both at stake.

While I won’t spoil it, you probably have a good idea what is going to happen. There will be family strife. There will be training montages. There will be fights miraculously won. There will be overcoming the odds. There will be brotherly conflict. Warrior goes through the motions, but God, I loved those motions. The mortgage crisis mixed with the working-class Pittsburgh setting cloaks the film in economic concerns, giving Warrior an honest timeliness lacking in films that try hard to be timely (I’m looking at you, Tower Heist). The characters are all given moral complexity– they were all faced with tough decisions in life and faced them in different ways, making each character likable and dislikable at various moments in the narrative.

Of course, just like Rocky and all other underdog films, it’s not memorable without charismatic leads, and Warrior serves up a few of the best performances of 2011. Tom Hardy has a Brandoesque vibe as the big inarticulate lug running from himself, Joel Edgerton has just the right amount of charm to be the husband/father/science teacher that everyone is counting out, and Nick Nolte has reached national treasure status with his gravelly bass and sad eyes. Even the smaller performances stand out: Jennifer Morrison and Frank Grillo both elevate the usual doubtful wife and loyal trainer archetypes, respectively. O’Connor takes his time and lets the characters build slowly (the film is two hours and twenty minutes long), so that inevitable confrontations have a surprising amount of extra weight. The marketing deceived me on this film– I thought it looked cliched and dumb. It is somewhat cliched, but it’s far from dumb. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

A Dangerous Method:

David Cronenberg has made a movie consisting primarily of people sitting in chambers and talking, yet it’s perhaps the sexiest movie of the year. Led by a sharp script with eroticism bubbling under the surface at all times, and a cast led equally by Fassbender’s restrained turn and Keira Knightley’s notably unrestrained turn, A Dangerous Method presents psychoanalysis and humanity’s sexual urges without melodrama, flashiness, or gimmickry. By ditching the usual toolbox that directors use when making films about sex, Cronenberg succeeds in making his sex film sophisticated.

At the dawn of an age in which Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) has begun using psychoanalysis on patients, a young and ambitious doctor named Carl Jung (Fassbender) hunts for a potential patient to try to treat using this method. He finds an ideal specimen in Sabine (Keira Knightley), a young woman locked in a mental asylum for her manic fits and retching movements. During their sessions, Jung discovers Sabine derives sexual pleasure from pain and embarrassment, and before long, he finds himself more attracted to her than to his wife (Sarah Gadon). He also begins to form his own opinions about psychoanalysis, leading to a series of discussions, first in letter form and then face to face, with Freud about their differences– Freud sees Jung as the heir apparent for psychoanalysis, but Jung sees flaws in Freud’s philosophy.

I can’t speak for the accuracy in the film’s depictions, knowing very little about these figures or their work, but I will say the debates are engaging despite being wordy and philosophical. On occasion, the film jumps forward in time the same way a play does (the film was adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, The Talking Cure), which causes for some momentary confusion, but the characters’ evolving stances are kept clear. Unlike in Shame, where he is forced to grimace and spaz out melodramatically, Fassbender gets to give here a subtle and gripping performance about his sexual compulsions, and Mortensen is surprisingly funny as Freud. The real revelation, however, is Knightley, who grabs at her crotch and juts out her jaw in bold fashion for the first half of the film. She appears on the verge of orgasm constantly, and in one terrific scene when Fassbender uses his cane to beat dirt off of her jacket, she’s thrown into sexual convulsions. It sounds hammy, and it may put some off since it’s so big in comparison to Fassbender’s subtlety, but I was captivated– this girl from the Pirates of the Caribbean films can really act. She is raw, sexy, and fearless. The film will be talky to some and perhaps confusing to others, but A Dangerous Method is simple storytelling done right. At bare minimum, you’ll never look at beating dirt off of a jacket the same way again.

The Help:

I was avoiding seeing The Help. The trailer made me uneasy due to the old cliche of the mystical black woman helping the white woman discover something magical about herself. The fact that the original story is written by a white person made me even more uneasy. I avoiding seeing it up until it became an absolute inevitability that it will be nominated for several Oscars and maybe even win a major award or two. After finally seeing The Help, I found it to be utterly harmless albeit a film with nothing real to say. Only the ending of the film manages to be patronizing and of legitimate concern– the rest is a well-acted piece of “racism-is-bad” fluff designed to feature talented actresses in a story that is admittedly refreshingly femalecentric for a studio film.

Aibileen (Viola Davis) is a black maid in the Jim Crow south who specializes in taking care of the children that wealthy young white mothers find themselves too busy to raise. She notes via some thick voiceover that the only white girl different from the rest is Skeeter (Emma Stone, who the costume designers do their damndest to try to make look “plain”). Skeeter is an aspiring journalist, desperate to make it as a serious writer. She finds the idea of writing about black maids desirable, especially when her own maid (Cicely Tyson) was fired by her vicious mom (Allison Janney, who has cornered the market on vicious mom roles). Aibileen is the first to step up and tell her story to Skeeter; soon, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), wronged one too many times by her employer Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), spills the beans as well. It is destined to become a phenomenon… but how will the local Mississippians take it?

Not much to write about, since the film is militantly middle-of-the-road in every category. Viola Davis is a terrific lead; one just wishes she was given more depth instead of a single Oscar monologue that allowed her to show off her trademark snot. With the exception of Cicely Tyson, who steals the whole film in two scenes, Jessica Chastain is the standout, showing a sense of comic timing we haven’t seen in her other roles. The script plods along from lesson to lesson– I actually was worried after the first twenty minutes, filled with nothing but “all white women are sneering bitches!” and “all black women are sassy schemers!” scenes, that the film would be tedious to watch, but it finds a relatively inoffensive groove. Until the end, that is. Spoiler warning for the two readers who haven’t seen it yet, but Skeeter escapes to New York after her book is a hit, while Aibilene and Minny are left in Jim Crow Mississippi having just exposed all of the white people in town and pissed them off, and Aibilene walks into the sunset as a happy song plays. This begs the question, “Whaaaaaa?” Desperate for a happy ending, The Help takes a quick turn towards patronizing and shallow in its ending moments. Overall, it’s merely a notable acting showcase for its talented cast– no more, no less.

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~ by russellhainline on February 1, 2012.

4 Responses to “Mini-Reviews: Warrior, A Dangerous Method, The Help”

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