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How 'The Help' solidifies a new summer tradition

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — For all the cliches about chick flicks, the form has actually taken some interesting turns in recent years. This weekend it took the latest, with the Viola Davis-starring "The Help" telling a story about friendship and loyalty against the backdrop of racism in the 1960s-era South.

Over the past few years, it's become practically a ritual that a star-driven movie about female-friendship and -empowerment come out every summer, usually in August, and usually based on a book-club favorite. Last year it was "Eat, Pray, Love;" the summer before it was "Julie & Julia." "The Devil Wears Prada" (which was released over the July 4 weekend) served the genre in 2006.

Whatever these movies' differences in tone and subject matter, they have several important things in common. They all traffic in themes about female identity. And they're all solidly, sometimes even wildly, successful.

There are a lot of reasons why these movies have performed as well as they have, and Taylor Tate's "The Help," which has taken in a resounding $35.4 million since opening last Wednesday, is no different. The beloved book title gave it a running start, and critics then fanned that enthusiasm with strong reviews. "The Help's" ability to tackle serious themes about changing the status quo in a familiar cinematic context about friendship and comedy provided that holy grail: slick entertainment that's also a little good for you (much like "Prada's look at post-college identity in the glittery fashion world).

But there's another factor that may be playing into the success of all these releases. When the movie summer started getting more action-oriented and muscular, first in 1996 with "Independence Day" and more recently and robustly, with "Transformers" and a hail of superhero movies, it also blasted open a space on the other side.

After all, the people who like seeing movies about something other than explosions were still around, and they had the desire, possibly even more than ever, to see a movie aimed at them. Hollywood calls it counterprogramming, but really that's just a jargony way of saying that if there's too much of one thing, it reminds a whole group of people that they want the other.

The subject of women at the box office has been a hot one this summer, what with "Bridesmaids" and "Bad Teacher" putting women front-and-center in a potty-mouthed comedy. With those films, pundits said that Hollywood was serving or even creating a new audience: women who wanted their movies as bawdy and escapist as men. But with the release of a film that was comedic in a far gentler way, the most recent weekend proved that the old audience hasn't really gone anywhere.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


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It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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