The Help

Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone | PG-13 |

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DRAMA

I have friends who refuse to see The Help (or read Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller of the same name). That's a shame, because for a film born of suffering and steeped in controversy, it's highly entertaining. Some background: The story follows black maids in 1960s Mississippi who pen an anonymous tell-all about their employers, spurred by an aspiring white writer (Stone), herself a friend of the maids' bosses. What galls many of us black folks is that Stockett is also white, writing in the voices of black women.

But to miss The Help is to miss the point. That anyone wants to revisit the history of African-Americans in a respectful way is a good thing-particularly when the characters are this engaging. Davis is award-worthy as Aibileen, a maid brave beyond reason as she risks the ire of Bryce Dallas Howard's racist queen bee Hilly. In fact the film bursts with powerful performances, including Sissy Spacek as Hilly's wily mother, Octavia Spencer as brash maid Minny and the stunningly versatile Jessica Chastain as the town's naive vamp. The direction is less sure-footed. Dramatic moments whiz by in a rush to get through the packed plot, while changes from the book undercut the emotional impact. Still, it's funny when it needs to be and stays with you in the best ways. The Help turns out to be a good movie that could have been great-but for all that, it's no less important.

For more on The Help author Kathryn Stockett, see page 103.

Sean Young

A Wild Child Settles Down

Down a hallway lined with her teenage sons' skateboards, Sean Young cooks up a storm in her kitchen, chopping jalapeno peppers until she has to wipe tears from her eyes. "Oh my God," she gasps. "These are really strong."

Jalapeno fumes are one of the few things that can faze Young. The star of 1980s classics such as Blade Runner and No Way Out saw her career sputter amid a string of controversies and oddball moments-including a 1988 lawsuit by her costar James Woods alleging she harassed him (it was settled out of court) and a 1991 casting meeting for Batman Returns that she crashed wearing a homemade Catwoman costume. Now 51, the actress feels Hollywood turned on her unfairly-but she has made her peace with being an outsider. Instead she's focused on family life with Rio, 16, and Quinn, 13, her sons with ex-husband Robert Lujan. "I would love to be a really in-demand actress," she says. "But I've given up trying to convince people I'm not crazy." She also recently faced up to a longtime problem with alcohol. "I got sober for my children," says Young, who appears on the current season of VH1's Celebrity Rehab.

As roles dried up, Young says, she turned to alcohol to cope. She hit a low point when she drunkenly heckled nominee Julian Schnabel at the 2008 Directors Guild Awards. "It was subconsciously well-planned," she says. " 'You want crazy? Here's crazy!'" She checked into rehab the next day. She has since acted in independent movies and guested on The Young and the Restless, her outspoken personality still proudly untamed. "I'm honest and straightforward," she says. "I don't know if I ever could have lived life being different."

Liam Neeson's Icy Thriller

Howling winds and temps of 25 below? No problem for Neeson, who leads a band of oil workers fleeing wolves in Alaska after a plane crash in The Grey, due out Jan. 27. "I dropped him in the snow in a cable-knit sweater and very little else," says director Joe Carnahan. "He never complained."

MOVIES OF MY LIFE

MOVIE THAT MADE ME WANT TO BE A COMEDIAN

When I was a kid I used to watch Coming to America a lot. I grew up in South Carolina, where the idea of being in a movie or on a TV show was insane. It'd be like saying, "I want to go to the moon later!"

FAVORITE CHICK FLICK

Before Sunrise. Like, you can't be a dude and be really into that movie! I'm fascinated by the idea that this guy makes one decision to talk to a girl on a train and it changes his life.

MOVIE THAT MAKES ME CRY

I watched E.T. again recently. I don't really cry in movies, but I almost cried like 10 times, so that's like crying once.