Reviews

'The Help' Is an Elegantly Profound Crowdpleaser

Unlike movies that try to be both self-righteous and profound, The Help is characterized by a surprising sincerity in how it acknowledges its faults from the get-go.


The Help

Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney
Distributor: Sony
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2011-12-06

What director Tate Taylor does with his adaptation of The Help defies expected -- if extremely biased -- ideas of how African Americans are treated in Hollywood mainstream cinema. His film deals with civil rights, racism and segregation with such delicate command that, for all the industry has accustomed us to, it comes unscathed in its portrayal of intolerance and hate.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early '60s. The film opens and we meet Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), an African American maid whose entire life has been dedicated to raising white children. She goes from house to house performing cleaning and homekeeping duties, but she seems to think of herself as a child-raiser before just a “maid”. Her life is mostly limited to her work, after which she goes and sits alone in her small house waiting for another day to come. In a nutshell she lives in the same place where Scarlett O’Hara threw tantrums as her mammy tried to calm her; only now the mammies aren’t slaves, in strictly legal terms.

Aibileen’s presence in the house where she works, is meant to always go unnoticed. Her employer Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) expects her to cover up for any flaws in her home, look after her baby daughter and then leave. However, her presence becomes an issue, after Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) one of her employer’s friends, points out that “Negroes” carry diseases that might kill them and commands her friend to build a special bathroom for the maid. Hilly’s own maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) confides with Aibileen, about the way in which Hilly thinks of herself as a good Christian but might very well be the biggest bigot in town.

Fortunately for Aibileen -- this time in strict plot sense -- Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just moved back to Jackson, after graduating from the University of Mississippi. Skeeter is hired by the local newspaper to take over a home keeping column, but the young woman is eager to write about something more important. Then in one of those magical movie moments she realizes that she might have the subject she’s looking for standing right in front of her (or cleaning for this matter...) she will write a book about the experience of being a black maid in Mississippi, not through her eyes, but through of the maids themselves.

Considering the fact that Mississippi had become one of the most violent states in terms of hate crimes, Skeeter’s undertaking is something extremely courageous and the movie justly point this out. Detractors might think of the film’s central twist as yet another take on the “white-rich-person saves black-poor-person” genre that Hollywood loves so much (think Driving Miss Daisy, and The Blind Side), but unlike those shrill movies that try to be both self-righteous and profound, The Help is characterized by a surprising sincerity in how it acknowledges its faults from the get-go.

The key to enjoying The Help or not, lies in whether you think it observes the title women as something other than “the enablers”. Usually these kinds of films have token black characters that only serve to enable white people’s path from shallow to all around good. In the case of this film, this attention lies on Skeeter and the truth is that the movie does use her as a channel through which all the stories are told. It’s through her that we understand the apathy shown by rich white people towards their maids, but it’s also through her that we come closer to these women. She acts like a connection between both worlds and as such it is her character that most becomes an archetype (despite Stone’s joyful performance).

In order to justify this theory, we only have to look at the masterful way in which Taylor structures his movie. The film begins with Aibileen’s narration and finishes with it, as well. It’s only in the middle of the movie that we first meet Skeeter and the other white women. The plot does follow Skeeter a lot, but how could it not? She’s the one who first becomes struck by the injustice she was brought up believing was the norm.

The Help might not be an exercise in alternate storytelling, but it does more than most mainstream studio movies ever bother to do. It certainly gives us some stereotypes (Minny’s line about fried chicken curing it all is both sweet and cringe worthy) but throughout it makes sure to deliver them via both races (Jessica Chastain plays a “white trash” nouveau riche who’s as loathed as the maids). Not that one stereotype cancels the other, but then Taylor does the unexpected and makes these two characters deliver one of the film’s most humane twists.

Other than its effective use of old fashioned studio conventions with a less constrained outlook, the film excels because of its performances: including the hilarious, yet moving, Spencer, Stone’s delightful star turn and Chastain’s superb, '50s starlet, performance. Then there is Viola Davis, who turns in a performance of such dignity that you can’t help but weep in admiration of her strength and compassion. The actress has a face that commands your attention and then makes you want to look away before she breaks your heart. She’s this close to turning Aibileen into a saint but we learn that her goodness is just a compromise she’s made in order to survive.

The Help is characterized for its lush color palette and this transfer makes it more than justice. The gowns, Mississippi landscapes and crowded interior design, make it feel like it would’ve been appropriate in Technicolor. Rounding up this DVD release are a couple of deleted scenes (nothing special, just a reminder of how impressive the cast’s synergy is) and a Mary J. Blige video for a song which will probably make Oprah cry while she performs it at the Oscars. Also included are a short behind the scenes featurette and an interview with some of the real life maids who inspired the book the film is based on. Stay away from this mini-documentary though, cause it single-handedly does wrong everything the movie got right!

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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