September 3, 2011

Escape to the movies

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 7:13 pm by dinaheng

It takes years for most movies to be made, from the time a story is sold to the day it premieres on the widescreen. So producers and studio execs are constantly gambling that whatever they back will bring in the bucks at the box office down the road.

Sometimes the gamble pays off, and sometimes the bet is a loser, but it’s always interesting how the audience’s reaction reflects present day longings or anxieties.

A current box office favorite, “The Help,” is based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett that chronicles life in Jackson, Miss. during the 1960s, telling the story of three different women who join together to produce a secret writing project that will expose the way white women treat their black maids.

While praised for its inspiring message, some have criticized filmmakers for making a white female writer (played by Emma Stone) the central heroine, rather than the black maids (played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) who helped to gather their friends in secret to tell their stories, risking their lives and livelihoods in the process.

That criticism, of course, reflects the fact that many in today’s society still feel marginalized, even in the telling of their own stories. From my point of view, “The Help” could not have been told without both black and white heroines, and it accomplished that.

Racial prejudice is a painful issue that lies under much political rhetoric today, but it’s still very much alive in the fear that people hold in their hearts. If a film prods people to look at the fear within themselves and others, I think it was worth the price of admission.

Usually, the genre that speak most about racial prejudice is sci-fi. Superheroes and wizards are always ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations, battling the enemies of oppression, greed and hate. The enemies are always scary aliens or ordinary people who have turned into ugly creatures. That ugliness, of course, is the fear that exists inside each of us, shown on the outside for all to see.

Two of my favorite sci-fi films this summer were “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.”

In “Captain America,” Chris Evans plays a scrawny guy with a brave heart who is transformed into a superhero during World War II. In an economic time like ours, it’s good to be reminded that we may all feel like the little guy with no power, but we also all have greatness inside us. In a global economy, the United States’ power is waning, but we can find the solutions to our problems if we work together.

It’s easier to see the racism in Hitler’s Germany than to confront the veiled and not-so-veiled prejudice some Americans hold against our first African-American President. But if we could get past the suspicions Democrats and Republicans hold against each other, we could become the nation that inspires others on all fronts again.

For like the last adventure of “Harry Potter,” we all have to eventually grow up, or risk losing everything we were born to be. I loved following the story of Harry, Hermione and Ron in their magical world, which reflected so much of what we face today… and perhaps will face as long as human beings are, well… human.

It was amazing to watch them battle Voldemort and his minions, besting the bad guys as we all wish we could in our daily lives. It was painful to watch them lose childhood innocence, poignant to share their adolescent crushes and jealousies, and inspiring to witness their loyalty and lasting friendship.

Good movies make us feel good. Great movies become a part of our collective memory.

Then, there are those films that make you wonder why they were made in the first place. Unfortunately, “Contagion” — which stars some wonderful actors, including Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cotillard — falls into that category.

Due out in theaters Sept. 9, this movie explores what would happen to people if a global pandemic broke out with no immediate cure in sight. While the subject sounds interesting, the execution is so fast-paced and clinical, you don’t connect with any of the characters. You see many people valiantly trying to work on a cure, trying to contain panic; the isolation that can occur when you’re trying to stay safe, and the greed that can drive some people’s actions.

But at the end of the film, you’re left wondering, what was the point of the story? Touch not, if you want to avoid germs? Clearly, the real heroes in a pandemic are the ones who focus on helping others, no matter the cost to themselves. Too bad this film didn’t have a focus.

As we head into fall, you still may be able to catch “Midnight in Paris,” one of the longest running films of the summer. If you haven’t seen this Woody Allen film, it’s well worth seeing while still in the theater.

Romantics will love this sweet story about Gil, a screenwriter/novelist (Owen Wilson) who’s unable to enjoy a trip to one of the most romantic cities in the world with his fianceé and her family until one night he begins to meet the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo) in the Paris of the 1920s.

If you’ve ever wondered if you’d be happier in another world and time than the one you’re living in now, you’re probably not alone. Whenever things get rough, we all think about happier times in our lives, or fantasize about things that would make life happier today.

“Midnight in Paris” uses that fantasy as a clever device to take the audience on an imaginary trip that is romantic, funny, and thought-provoking. In particular, Kathy Bates, as the exuberant and wise Gertrude Stein, gives Gil some feedback on his work that leads to life lessons for us all.

Il est intéressant de voir, mes amis.

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