Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth

Advertisements

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super