Help, The (US - BD)
Reviewer Jonathan takes a look at the upcoming Blu-ray release of this drama
Led by Emma Stone, Academy Award-nominated Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help is an inspirational, courageous and empowering story about very different, extraordinary women in the 1960's South who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project - one that breaks society's rules and puts them all at risk.
I have to admit, I wasn't eager to watch The Help. Usually these feel-good race relation stories are all the same. If they aren't garbling the details of the era they represent, they're often filled with cardboard characters that lack dimensionality. You could definitely argue that The Help sweeps some of the gritty details under the rug to play it safe, but I really wasn't expecting to fall in love with the characters as much as I did. If you're willing to meet the movie halfway and not view it as a detailed history lesson (which you shouldn't), there's a very moving story told with great finesse. Even at a running time of over two hours, I never felt uninvolved or bored by what was happening with the characters. I discovered through the special features just how personal this story was for director Tate Taylor, and it shows. His affection and respect for the maids comes from his own childhood, and his love for this group of women who helped raise him is infectious in his filmmaking.
The Help owes much of it's success to Viola Davis, who you can expect to see a lot of during awards season. She plays Aibileen Clark, a maid with a very rough past who is filled with contempt towards her employers. I've never seen an actress show pain in her eyes quite like Davis does in this role. Her performance alone makes the movie worth seeing at least once, but she isn't on her own. The entire cast does a wonderful job. Emma Stone is great, though I would argue against her having first billing over Viola Davis. For the second time this year, I've wanted to reach through the screen and slap Bryce Dallas Howard's character, which is a testament to her acting ability. Octavia Spencer, who is mostly known for her comedy roles, does a great job as Minny. She provides much of the comic relief in the film, but she also plays a key role in the story and does it well. Jessica Chastain, who has had an amazing year with Tree of Life and Take Shelter, continues to impress here. Allison Janney also gives a stellar supporting performance as Skeeter's mother.
Oddly enough, the main plotline involving the maids and the book they write with the help of Skeeter was the least interesting aspect of the movie for me. It's handled with competence, but the beauty of The Help lies in the small moments. I found myself far more wrapped up in the maid's interactions with the women they served, or Skeeter's history with the maid who helped raise her. There is another subplot where Jessica Chastain's character hires Minny to help her learn how to be a better wife for her husband. It's surprisingly touching, and none of the ads touch on it at all. Some aspects of the story don't work quite as well. Skeeter's friends and family constantly pressure her into finding a husband, so we see her on a couple of dates as she warms up to a young man. I won't say where this subplot goes, but the meaning behind it feels redundant and doesn't ring as true as other elements of the story. Some of the humour is surprisingly infantile and didn't click with me at all, but I'm sure certain viewers will get a kick out of it. Despite these minor complaints, The Help has nothing but good intentions and it gets all of the important things right. It's fun and it's moving without ever being too melodramatic or shoving it's inspirational message down your throat. If the story interests you and you're not automatically turned off by these sorts of dramas, chances are you'll find it well worth your time.
Touchstone brings The Help home on Blu-ray with a handsome 1080p video transfer. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt ( Closer, Batman & Robin) does stronger work than usual here, though one could argue that the beautiful photography is sometimes at odds with the bleak subject matter. Orange and brown are prevalent colours, creating a sun-baked appearance and often sharing the screen with more muted cooler shades like the blue of the maid's uniform. Outdoor scenes during daylight look especially vibrant with a warm sunny look and bright greens. Skin tones are a bit overcooked thanks to the aforementioned colour filters, but not to a distracting extent. The film was shot on 35 mm and it shows. Detail is sharp and especially noticeable in the curls of Skeeter's hair. There is a nice fine grain to much of the film that occasionally appears a bit rough in darker areas of the picture. It's possible that this was due to unbalanced black levels, but it would be difficult to notice if you weren't looking for it. Overall this is a strong transfer that fans of The Help should be pleased with.
There isn't as much to say about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for The Help. It's a quiet drama and was never meant to put your expensive surround system to work, but the track still does a terrific job where it counts. Dialogue is exceptionally crisp and easy to understand without the soundtrack muddying the mix. Aibileen's narration has some appropriate gravity and depth to it to set it apart. Directionality is scare without much more than some noticeable ambient sound effects and some off screen chatter, but I expected as much given the subject matter. The LFE channel doesn't see much activity either, aside from some music pieces and the roar of some vehicle engines. It's not a sound mix that will blow you away, but it serves its purpose adeptly.
The Help comes with a fair assortment of extra features. The Blu-ray release is accompanied by a DVD that features some of deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray, and the Mary J. Blige music video, "The Living Proof". The blu-ray includes these features, and more.
The Making of "The Help": From Friendship to Film (HD, 23:25): This starts with the author of the book sharing her personal story and explaining how she came up with the idea for the book. The actors and filmmakers talk about their relationships with each other. It seems like Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor are friends with everyone. It jumps around a bit, covering some shooting locations and techniques, but its primary focus is on the inspiration for the movie.
In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi (HD, 11:51): This is a neat little featurette where Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer return to Greenwood and talk with some of the ladies who inspired the characters in the film; one of them being Tate Taylor's maid from his childhood. There aren't any big surprises in the stories they tell, as they mostly just reminisce about their maid duties, but it's really cool to hear from people who were actually there. It's impossible not to have a lot of respect for these women.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 09:36): You can play all of them at once or select individual scenes. There are five total, and director Tate Taylor gives an introduction to each one. It seems that most of these were cut for length and pacing. The scenes themselves are actually pretty interesting and they're cleaned up nicely for an HD presentation.
"The Living Proof" Mary J. Blige Music Video (HD, 05:09): A music video set to some footage from the movie. It's not my cup of tea, but I have no complaints about the presentation.
I was pleasantly surprised by The Help. It tells the story of a courageous group of women and it does so well, thanks largely to the wonderful cast and their dedication to the material. If nothing else, see it for the amazing performance from Viola Davis. This Blu-ray offers an attractive video presentation and a suitable audio track. Special features are low in number, but there was clearly some time and attention devoted to making them worthwhile.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 6th December 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 Russian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film, In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi, Mary J. Blige's "The Living Proof" Music Video, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain
Length: 146 minutes
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