The Films of Tate Taylor
Pretty Ugly People (March 22/16)
Written and directed by Tate Taylor, Pretty Ugly People follows Missi Pyle's Lucy as she decides to unveil her dramatic weight loss to a group of college friends during a wilderness getaway - with the movie detailing the long-buried secrets and resentments between the characters that are inevitably revealed. It's ultimately rather shocking just how little within Pretty Ugly People actually works, as first-time filmmaker Taylor offers up a uniformly unlikable assortment of characters and expects their plotless antics to carry the movie through an often punishing 99 minute running time. There's little doubt, then, that a surprisingly talented cast is left floundering with material that couldn't possibly be weaker and more superficial, with folks like Melissa McCarthy, Josh Hopkins, Jack Noseworthy, and Octavia Spencer trapped within the confines of one-dimensional figures that uniformly undergo eye-rollingly obvious character arcs (eg Spencer's put-upon wife leaves her stick-in-the-mud husband, McCarthy's put-upon wife stands up to her stick-in-the-mud husband, etc, etc). The simplistic vibe ensures that the viewer has absolutely nothing invested in the fates and happiness of these people, and it is, as such, not a shock to discover that the movie grows more and more interminable as it limps towards its ludicrously upbeat finale - which effectively cements Pretty Ugly People's place as an uncommonly horrible debut from a filmmaker who's obviously gone onto bigger and better things.
Based on the book by Kathryn Stockett, The Help follows aspiring author Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) as she sets out to write a book about the hardships faced by black maids in 1960s Mississippi. There are certainly plenty of elements contained within The Help worth admiring and enjoying - the movie is, for example, quite well acted from top to bottom - and yet one's efforts at wholeheartedly embracing the narrative are thwarted on a regular basis by an excessively deliberate pace and a preponderance of needless subplots. (In terms of the latter, it's difficult to work up much interest in or enthusiasm for, for example, the ongoing exploits of Jessica Chastain's bubbly Celia Foote.) Filmmaker Tate Taylor has certainly infused the proceedings with a strong sense of place and atmosphere, and although the writer/director offers up a handful of engaging sequences (eg Octavia Spencer's Minny explains her revenge against a thoughtless former employer), The Help suffers from a repetitive vibe that grows increasingly problematic as time (slowly) progresses (ie Taylor hammers home the incredible racism of several periphery figures over and over again). Taylor's palpably meandering sensibilities are exacerbated by an almost comically overlong running time (146 minutes!), with the pervasive lack of momentum dulling the impact of the crowd-pleasing and tear-jerking moments that crop up during the movie's second half. The end result is a watchable yet erratic Oscar-bait drama that could (and should) have been so much better, with the movie's relative failure especially disappointing given the caliber of the various performances (ie the various actresses, particularly Viola Davis, are often much, much better than the material they've been given).
Get On Up
The Girl on the Train (November 22/16)
A vast improvement over Paula Hawkins' plodding novel, The Girl on the Train follows Emily Blunt's Rachel Watson as she becomes convinced that something terrible has happened to a beautiful neighbor (Haley Bennett's Megan) - with the film also exploring the apparent crime from the perspective of such periphery character's as Rachel's ex-husband (Justin Theroux's Tom, Megan's boyfriend (Luke Evans' Scott), and Tom's new wife (Rebecca Ferguson's Anna). The film, much like the book, boasts a time-shifting narrative that's admittedly handled quite well by scripter Erin Cressida Wilson, and there's little doubt that the momentum issues that plagued Hawkins' work have mostly been eliminated here - although it's hard to deny that certain sections of the movie's midsection drag to a fairly palpable extent. (It's ultimately clear that The Girl on the Train's 112 minute running time, which is rife with flashbacks and subplots, should've been pared down to a more streamlined hour-and-a-half.) Blunt's effective turn as the tortured central character is matched by an unusually strong supporting cast, to be sure, with, especially, Allison Janney's engrossing performance as a skeptical yet dogged detective standing as a consistent highlight within the proceedings. The problems contained within The Girl on the Train's second act are ultimately rendered moot by a tremendously entertaining and suspenseful final portion, with the impact of this stretch heightened by filmmaker Tate Taylor's refreshingly R-rated approach to the material - which, in turn, confirms the movie's place as an adult-oriented thriller that works far more often than it doesn't.