THE HELP – Blu-ray review

You may already have heard three things about “The Help,” which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today:

–The film has Oscar written all over it. It does. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination and one for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with Best Supporting Actress nominations for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer–possibly even Allison Janney or Jessica Chastain. All four are superb, though in fairness the top-billed star, Emma Stone, also does a commendable job playing Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white woman raised by a black nanny who is now sensitive to Civil Rights changes sweeping the country, and a big supporter. The drama is neat and tidy, with no messy violence or repercussions to spoil what essentially is a combined feel-good and make-you-aware story.

–The Association of Black Women Historians ripped the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, a young white woman, for allegedly distorting, ignoring, and trivializing the experiences of black domestic workers. But don’t feel too bad for Stockett, because when Alice Walker’s The Color Purple came out and was made into a film, it was also soundly criticized . . . for its depiction of African-American males. Yes, there’s no subplot involving the sexual harassment that was widespread among domestic workers, but that’s another story and a writer or director shouldn’t be penalized for not giving their subject a broader treatment. Besides, the tagline is “Change begins with a whisper.” One of the bonus features on the Blu-ray is a round-up of black women who worked as domestics in white households during the time period of the film (the ‘60s), and what they have to say seems to uphold the story depicted in the book and film.

–With a cast of mostly women, “The Help” is a chick flick: “Steel Magnolias” with a Civil Rights twist. Okay, so all the main characters are female. So what? You can say the same thing of “A League of Their Own,” and I don’t know of anyone who’d consider that a chick flick. “The Help” is just a solid, well-written, well-acted, and well-directed drama that has plenty of light moments to broaden the appeal and lighten the load. The perspective here is race, not gender.

However socially conscious the movie may be, it’s still first and foremost entertainment. And it’s extremely well done. “The Help” already received People’s Choice Award nominations for Favorite Book Adaptation, Favorite Drama Movie, and Favorite Movie, and won Ensemble of the Year at the 2011 Hollywood Film Festival. It’s only a matter of time before more awards start to accumulate. Voters like films that have cultural or political significance, but they also go for films that have warmth and characters as memorable as their messages. “The Help” is that kind of motion picture. Every scene feels wise and wonderful, with characters and situations that are familiar yet somehow unique. For that, credit strong writing and direction from Tate Taylor (“Pretty Ugly People”) and that incredible ensemble cast, which also includes Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, and Bryce Dallas Howard.

“The Help” does a nice job of capturing the ‘60s and creating a believable account of black-white relations between domestic workers and the families they serve. The entire story revolves around southern tradition as it comes in conflict with the Civil Rights Movement in the background and Skeeter’s own campaign to embrace change. She wants to be a writer, and she gets her start writing a homemaker’s column for the local newspaper. But she has ambitions to do something bigger, and gets the idea to write a book from the African-American maid’s point of view to show what their lives are like.

“I’d like to write something from the point of view of the help. These colored women raise white children and in 20 years these children become the boss. We love them and they love us, but they can’t even use the toilets in our houses.”

Like the subject itself, the book is larger than any one person. Soon, more people are involved, and the film does a nice job of suggesting the undercurrent of tension experienced by people who believe in integration. And to keep the film from becoming too didactic or single-focused, Taylor deftly integrates side plots involving sick family members, cliques, and expectations for Skeeter to find a man, which find imperfect parallels in the lives of the black maids and nannies she finds more genuine than the socialites she’s supposed to join. But, of course, the main tension comes from the clandestine book that Skeeter is writing, and the trouble it could spark for all of them.

Filmed in Clarksdale, Greenwood, and Jackson, Mississippi, “The Help” may not tell the whole story of black domestic workers, but it offers a more personal spin on the Civil Rights Movement than most of us have seen. “The Help,” rated PG-13 for “thematic material” and some strong language, clocks in at 146 minutes, but amazingly in doesn’t feel long at all. In fact, you almost wish you could spend more time with these people.

“The Help” has a soft look to it, which I suspect is a deliberate attempt to “age” the film. Like “Pleasantville,” the color seems manipulated to best capture the Camelot years with some slightly desaturated and others brighter and richer.

There’s a slight and consistent layer of film grain throughout, but that grain turns to noise in some exterior sky backgrounds and gravel in the middle distance, while attempts to control the noise sometimes result in a loss of detail around the edges of some figures–evidence of DNR. That said, because the film is period and because so much of the visual presentation seems deliberate, whatever noise or corrective measures pop up seem inconsequential. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc is good one, with only the tiniest touch of aliasing visible in only a few spots. “The Help” is presented in 1.85 widescreen, the original theatrical aspect ratio.

“The Help” may be a dynamic film, but you can’t say the same about the soundtrack. It’s a dialogue-driven film that probably should have incorporated more ambient sounds in the rear channels than it did. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) that does what it’s supposed to do, but really doesn’t impress beyond the level of functionality. But the dialogue is clean and free of distortion, with a pleasant timbre that seems compatible with the era the filmmakers are trying to recreate.

Studios are starting to load up the Blu-rays with bonus features so that they reward purchasers. There are only two features on the DVD included in this combo pack: a Mary J. Blige music video (“The Living Proof”) and deleted scenes.

On the Blu-ray, though, there’s a better-than-average making-of feature, “”Making of The Help: From Friendship to Film,” which reveals that the author and director are childhood friends who grew up in the same town that was used for one of the film’s locations. Turns out Octavia Spencer was also a friend, and Steven Spielberg was the catalyst who made the film happen. Good stuff. Then there’s “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi,” in which women who worked as domestics during the film’s time period talk about their experiences. Also included are a few more deleted scenes, none of which are really much of a revelation.

The big bonus feature for many people will be the DVD copy of the film. A three-disc edition containing a Digital Copy is also available.

Bottom Line:
“The Help” is a movie-with-a-message, but the characters are so dynamic and interesting that it never feels preachy. It’s a quiet but powerful film that really does have Oscar written all over it.