'Secret Life of Bees' is sweet like honey

"Secret Lives of Bees" is a film suffused in sepia tones, awash in hues of golden sunlight and beautifully photographed. Perhaps it's a bit too idyllic, capturing an island of unwavering decency and humanity surrounded by a world of deep racial divide. But no matter. It is nicely rendered and wonderfully acted with Dakota Fanning, a gifted actress, approaching young womanhood before our eyes.

At its center is a gently told tale of a broken girl, Lilly Owens (Fanning), living with an abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), her only lifeline to even a modicum of love and stability the family housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Lilly was 4 years old when her mother was killed in a tragic accident, one Lilly believes was caused by her, however inadvertently. She has carried her almost unbearable grief and guilt for more than a decade and it has been damaging in the extreme.

One warm day in early summer, Lilly walks with Rosaleen into town. Rosaleen has decided, after watching Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act, that she will register to vote. On their way, Rosaleen, defiant, unwilling to be deterred, is brutally attacked by several white men. This is the South and Jim Crow ruled. Bigotry was endemic.

Injured, Rosaleen is arrested and put in the hospital where she is watched by a deputy sheriff. Lilly decides that the time has come for both of them to make their escape. Their destination is Tiburon, S.C., a place where she is convinced her mother lived for a time.

With their arrival in this small southern town, the film begins in earnest. It is in Tiburon that Lilly finds the home of three black women — August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters, June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). They live by raising bees and selling what is considered the best honey in that part of South Carolina. And so Lilly and Rosaleen find themselves embraced by a family of loving women who ask little of them other than to work for their keep. Rosaleen helps out in the kitchen and Lilly spends her days with August tending the bee hives. And so the life of bees, their intense community, their gift of honey created from their labors, becomes a wonderful metaphor for this beautifully told film.

Rachel Getting Married

"Rachel Getting Married," a film by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, might be considered a must-see by some movie buffs. Demme has, after all, been responsible for some exceptional movies over the last two decades — "Silence of the Lambs" likely being his signature work.

However, with "Rachel" he takes a decidedly strange turn, as if he had decided that he would abandon all attempts to tell a coherent story and instead create a film which has all of the characteristics of a documentary. Essentially, he's borrowed the look and feel of reality television, "Real World" specifically, while insisting that by using jerky camera movements, casual framing, and endless, seemingly unrehearsed dialogue the audience will find all of it interesting. Verisimilitude alone does not a story make.

The film takes place over one weekend. Friends and family have gathered at the large Connecticut home of Rachel's parents where preparations are under way for her Sunday wedding. Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel's younger sister, returns from a lengthy stay in rehab for alcohol and drug addiction wanting to join in the celebration. She is welcomed by guests and family, but with breath held; everyone is aware that she is unpredictable and capable of imploding with dire consequences.

The camera, in true wedding videographer style, follows various family members upstairs and downstairs, recording their long and often inane interactions. The rehearsal dinner, at a local restaurant, is a series of endless toasts and speeches, all wishing Rachel and her fiance' much luck and love. Absent a narrative, the evening proves to be is simply a long innocuous meal, its purpose important to family and friends but not to the audience.

Spliced between the nuptials are countless confrontations between Kym, Rachel and their parents (the parents are divorced, so these are blended arguments). There's a sense of being trapped in high-ceilinged, heavily furnished rooms with these dysfunctional people as they try and deal with more unopened baggage than exists in a hotel lobby. The family has endured a tragedy, one from which Kym will never fully recover. But nothing occurs during these two days which even hints at redemption. It's mainly wounded feelings being rubbed raw, much discussion, no closure, and then more confrontation, all crystallized by the necessity of being under one roof while attending to wedding planning or coping with Kym's attempts to undermine her sisters day. Hence the film has a hothouse, claustrophobic feel that is relentless.

It's not story telling, which is ultimately what movies are about, but instead voyeurism. These are encounters that are predictable, never compelling, and feel like protracted moments that everyone would just as soon skip. Including the audience. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote in his play, "No Exit," that "hell is other people." It's an observation that Demme seems intent on reinforcing.

One reason for the alienating dissonance, captured in scene after scene, is that there are no developed characters in the film with which the audience can identify, or at least care about, with the very thin exception of Rachel. And that's a push.

There has been some buzz that Hathaway's performance represents a breakthrough, after so many roles that have lacked substance, so to speak. And yes, there is meat on the bones of her part as Kym. But not enough to carry this film beyond the barely tolerable. Her character is self-indulgent and narcissistic (perhaps a solid survival strategy in rehab but not transferable to a wedding weekend). She mistakes a wedding toast to her sister for an opportunity to purge her insecurities, and is, in general, a brat. A brat who dominates most scenes in this two-hour, familial Rorschach. Essentially, the audience joins the wedding party without an avenue of relief or escape (no exit), other than getting up and walking out of the theater. It's a wonder that some members of the wedding party didn't hit the road long before rings were exchanged.

No doubt, if you assembled any large family and friends in a house for a weekend, add the pressures of a wedding, you would get very similar scenes. What family doesn't have issues? Film all of it and what? Does anyone want to watch these home movies after the fact? Not likely. And that is what Demme has created: an overly long home movie, hoping we would find something between all the throwaway conversation and family angst that is compelling. No cigar.

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