Coming to My Senses


This is the look of a man who lives life on his own terms.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Aaron Baker, Laquita Dian, Arielle Baker, Taylor Kevin Isaacs, Dan Baker, Katie Devine, Igor Fineman, Adam Rice, Adam Zerbe, Pat McMahon, Dominic Gill, Rick Bobbington, Hollyn Thompson. Directed by Dominic Gill

Aaron Baker had his whole life ahead of him. He was one of the up-and-coming stars on the motocross circuit and the sky was the limit.Then in 1999 he suffered a horrific injury during a race, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

The prognosis was grim. Doctors told him that he had a one in a million shot of feeding himself ever again. Walking was just about out of the question. Plenty of people who have the kind of injuries Baker had suffered essentially sit back and wait to die but Aaron Baker wasn’t that kind of person.

He took the negativity as a challenge and swore to himself that he would walk again someday. Through physical therapy and an innovative concept – his sister painted each of his toenails a different color and he visualized his muscles moving to each colored toe. He began to show signs of movement.

Then the rug was literally pulled out from under him; his insurance company refused to continue to pay for physical therapy, essentially telling him that they weren’t willing to throw money into a situation that was medically hopeless. Aaron grew depressed and even his mother Laquita sank into alcoholism to cope with her son’s pain.

But the funny thing was that this only shored up Aaron’s determination. His mother, infected by that determination, found a kinesiologist that not only Aaron could afford but who proposed a radical program of exercise. Soon he indeed was able to walk again but that wasn’t enough for Aaron. An athlete his entire life, he decided to take up bike riding, riding a tandem bike across country and then later a specially built three wheel bicycle. Recently, he decided to walk 19.6 miles from Death Valley to Baker, California to call attention to the hope that all good things are possible even to those with the direst of injuries.

Gill and maybe Baker as well have an affinity with the desert; it seems to be the landscape in nearly every shot. Some of the cinematography (which Gill also provided) is breathtaking but not as much as the story is. You can’t help but admire Aaron Baker’s determination. He is living proof that doctors aren’t always right and that the human spirit can be more powerful even than modern medicine. These are not lessons we should ignore.

At times this feels a bit heavy on the bro-ness. Maybe extreme sports bring out that reaction in me but the guys and gals who practice these types of sports have a surfeit of testosterone running through their veins. Maybe it’s because they drink far more Mountain Dew than human beings should be allowed to but I found it off-putting in places

That aside, the inter-cutting of Baker’s desert journey with his rehabilitation is mostly effective although there isn’t always a lot of context provided; things like this cost money and while sponsors are vaguely alluded to, we don’t really get a sense of how fundraising was accomplished. There’s also almost no comments from any of Aaron’s peers in motocross or among the paraplegic community. We really see this almost entirely out of Aaron’s and Gill’s eyes and that gives the movie a bit of a hagiographic feel that it would have done better without.

REASONS TO GO: This is an inspiring journey, literally and figuratively.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the movie feels a bit heavy on the “bro.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing there are more than 1.46 million Americans afflicted with spinal cord injuries of varying degrees.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

Stronger


Love makes us stronger.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patricia O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Katherine Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati, Sean McGuirk, Karen Scalia, Judith McIntyre, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, Cassandra Cato Louis, Rena Maliszewski. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

In the aftermath of tragedy, it is perhaps the glory of humanity that we rise up and overcome. Even the most horrific of circumstances can bring out our resilience to an almost miraculous degree. It is in these situations that we as a species ten to show the most grace.

Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a working class guy from Chelmsford who lives and breathes Boston sports, carves roast chicken at a local Costco and hangs out with his friends after work. There is the matter of a girl, Erin Hurley (Maslany) whom Jeff is absolutely crazy about but he always seems to find a way to mess it up. She justifiably complains that he never shows up; he promises that this time, he will.

This time is at the Boston Marathon in which she is running; he promises to show up, awaiting her at the finish line with a goofy sign. Well, this time he shows up and happens to be standing right next to one of the homemade bombs that went off at the 2013 Marathon. Both his legs are blown off by the blast. When he wakes up in the hospital and is informed about the extent of his injuries, he cracks a joke about being Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.

He is unprepared for the public adulation that comes from being a survivor. An iconic photo of him being cared for by an unknown man in a cowboy hat (Sanz) has made him a celebrity. His blowzy mom (Richardson) is all about using his new-found fame to his advantage. Erin, overwhelmed by guilt, reconnects with him and becomes nurse and lover.

But Jeff is not the most mature of men to begin with and he self-medicates as the pressures of fame and the pain of physical therapy begin to become unbearable. He has become a symbol but he doesn’t want to be one; he is not interested in offering hope to the people of Boston and his old habits that tore him and Erin apart initially begin to resurface.

David Gordon Green is one of those directors who seem to have a loyal hardcore following but rarely gets the recognition he deserves. This is probably his most commercial film yet (which considering that one of his movies is The Pineapple Express is saying something) and certainly his most accessible.

He pushes all the right buttons here but admirably doesn’t make the film as cliché-ridden as it might be. He keeps things low-key and realistic. Bauman is far from heroic for most of this although by the end of the movie he seems to be accepting his role and begins to use it in a positive way.

Gyllenhaal is at the center of the film. He has become a regular contender for Oscar gold and this performance might very well put him in the mix again this year. He makes Jeff very human, very vulnerable and very flawed and yet charming enough with just enough heart o’ gold kinda stuff that we root for him even as his drunken antics and commitment phobia make us clench our collective teeth. One must also point out that the CGI that renders Gyllenhaal as legless is some of the most seamless and well done I’ve seen.

Maslany has been acclaimed for her performances in Orphan Black, shows that she has the chops to become a serious movie actress. She is much more low-key than Gyllenhaal here but she is really the heart and soul of the film. She is wracked by guilt, knowing if not for her that Jeff wouldn’t have been in harm’s way that Patriot’s Day. She recognizes that deep down Jeff has a good soul but he is also weak and this kind of burden doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of a relationship but as long as he is trying, she knows she must hang in there for him.

The supporting cast is pretty strong as well, with particular kudos to British actress Richardson as Jeff’s overbearing mom and veteran character actor Clancy Brown as his estranged Dad. They are a bit New England Working Class typecast, but not knowing Bauman’s family at all I have to think that there is at least a germ of truth in there at least.

This isn’t always an easy film to watch. The movie doesn’t really dwell on the crime so much as the recovery and that’s a good thing – you can always watch Patriots Day if you are more interested in the hunt for the bombers. Still, the filmmakers pull no punches. We don’t get treated to endless scenes of agonizing physical therapy but more Bauman’s reaction to it. He becomes depressed and frightened of the staggering unwanted responsibilities he is forced to face. And he turns away from it, until he finally agrees – reluctantly I might add – to meet the angel of mercy who helped him on the worst day of his life.

Bauman doesn’t change overnight although it’s pretty close. There is certainly a turning point and it seems that Bauman makes a decision to live and be the kind of man he always had the potential to be. While I might question the night and day presentation of Bauman’s change of heart, there’s no doubt judged by his activities of late that there was one – a determination to become better. That’s what true strength is.

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal could have an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. The CGI is absolutely perfect. The film is emotionally gritty and cathartic. The portrayal of Jeff Bauman pulls no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is occasionally guilty of being a bit manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity, some disturbing images of carnage, violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The release date for the film comes on co-star Tatiana Maslany’s 32nd birthday.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
TBA

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Chris Pine realizes there's No Way Out.

Chris Pine realizes there’s No Way Out.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Paramount) Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Andersson, Colm Feore, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Elena Velikanova, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott, Gemma Chan, David Paymer, Bogdan Kominowski, Maggie Daniels, Matt Rippy, Hannah Taylor Gordon, David Hayman, Isobel Pravda, Annika Pergament. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

In many ways war has become obsolete. A world war seems pretty unthinkable when so many nations have nuclear capability. In the 21st century rather than waging war on a battlefield, it seems far more effective to wage economic war electronically.

Jack Ryan (Pine) is studying for his doctorate in economics when the World Trade Center comes down. He is moved to join the Marine Corps and is advancing in rank when his helicopter is shot down. He is badly injured and must learn how to walk again. He catches the eye of a pretty physical therapist named Cathy (Knightley) who is preparing to be an eye surgeon and doing a student rotation in PT at Walter Reed. He also catches the eye of Thomas Harper (Costner), head of a CIA team whose mission is to prevent terrorist attacks. Harper recruits Ryan to keep an eye on terrorist money laundering on Wall Street, helping him complete his doctorate and placing him at a high-profile Wall Street firm.

That proves dividends when Jack notices certain accounts at a Russian firm have been hidden from his company. That seems extremely suspicious to Jack so he goes to Moscow to run an audit where he meets billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) who sets off all of Jack’s up-to-something sensors. Things are further complicated when comely Cathy, now Jack’s girlfriend and completely unaware of his double life as a CIA analyst, impulsively travels to Moscow and becomes caught in the middle of what could be a crippling economic blow to the United States.

As the first Ryan film not to be directly sourced from an existing Tom Clancy novel, the movie rewrites the origins of the bestselling character and updates it somewhat (the first Ryan film appeared in 1990, eleven years before 9-11). Pine becomes the fourth actor to portray Ryan in five films which is perhaps one of the reasons this franchise, while profitable, has never really taken off like Bond for example, which seems to survive the changing of actors much better than Jack Ryan does. Also, the Bond films have surmounted the end of the Cold War much more effectively than the Jack Ryan movies which really need a Soviet presence to work properly.

This is perhaps the least visually impressive of the Ryan movies but yet still packs a decent visual punch. We don’t really get to see the high-tech CIA headquarters much (read: at all) and most of the really impressive visual stuff takes place at the headquarters of the Russian financial corporation that Ryan is auditing.

The cast is fairly impressive, with veteran Costner coming off with the win as the laconic CIA officer who, when asked by Jack if he and Cathy can have a moment to discuss their relationship situation after she discovers his double life, says flatly “No. This is geopolitics, not couples therapy.” It’s a highlight in a movie that lacks light moments.

Pine plays Ryan as a literal analyst; he always seems to be thinking ten steps ahead of things. Often this leaves him feeling cold and unapproachable to the audience. I would have liked to have seen more humanity from Ryan, who as portrayed by Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck, always seemed to manage some humanity while still coming off as the smartest guy in the room. Pine gets the second part right.

Branagh, once the heir to Sir Laurence Olivier’s mantle in terms of being the finest actor and director of Shakespeare onscreen, has of late been trying his hand at action movies, having previously directed Thor before taking this one on. He has a fine visual sense as a director and uses that to his advantage here. As for action sequences, there aren’t really a lot of them here – a motorcycle chase near the end of the film, a fight with an assassin in a hotel room and a very suspenseful sequence in which Jack is trying to retrieve data from the computer of Cherevin before getting caught. That contributed I think to what I felt as an overall lack of energy in the movie; it didn’t seem to flow the way I would like an action movie to flow.

As the bad guy, Branagh is very understated (as opposed to the villain he played in The Wild, Wild West in which much scenery was chewed) and makes a nice foil for Ryan, full of quiet menace but with real rage boiling underneath the surface. If the movie were a tiny bit better, he’d have been a classic espionage villain but even as it is he is still a superior villain. I wonder what Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan (still the best of the bunch) would have done with Branagh’s Cherevin.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific cast. Believable plot. Nifty production values.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a curious lack of energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  Yeah, there’s violence and some intense action; there’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was originally cast as Jack Ryan in the very first movie in the franchise, The Hunt for Red October but wound up turning it down to make Dances With Wolves instead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sum of All Fears

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: I, Frankenstein

Little Accidents


Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

(2014) Drama (Archer Gray) Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas, Jacob Lofland, Chloe Sevigny, Beau Wright, Randy Springer, Louie Lawless, Joseph Longo, Travis Tope, Alexia Rasmussen, Kate DeLuca, Tim Gooch, Mike Bizzarri, Peter Herrick, Steven St. Gelais, James DeForest Parker, Mike Seely, Kimberly Shrewsbury. Directed by Sara Colangelo

There are those who say that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t discern what those reasons are. However, there are those who think that life is a series of accidents great and small, that things happen entirely through random chance. I guess your point of view depends on whether or not you believe in luck or that you make your own luck.

Amos (Holbrook) is a quiet, single young man living in the small town of Beckley, West Virginia. He doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary except for one thing; he was the sole survivor of a mining accident that took the lives of ten of his fellow miners. After having been out of town recuperating and undergoing physical therapy, he has finally returned home, still unable to use all of his limbs fully. The town waits with baited breath to see how he testifies about the accident. Should he say it was company negligence, the families of the dead (and Amos himself) would get an enormous payday. However the rest of the miners know that if that happens, the company will close its doors and they’ll all be out of a job. Both sides are putting a great deal of pressure on Amos.

Bill Doyle (Lucas) is the manager of the mine that collapsed. The company is already putting distance between him and them, telling him to get his own legal representation and putting him on suspension. But he has far more on his mind – his son JT (Tope) has disappeared and there has been no trace of him for days. His wife Diane (Banks) is beginning to suspect her husband had something to do with the disaster – certainly the town thinks so. Despite her grief, the town is turning their backs on her and her husband, shunning them.

Owen (Lofland) is going through a difficult time. His father was one of the miners killed in the accident. His mother (Sevigny) is showering him and his Downs-afflicted brother James (Wright) with gifts of video games and iPods. Owen, a high school freshman, wants desperately to fit in among the older kids, even bribing them with beer but they tend to make fun of him and think of him as beneath them. He carries a terrible secret – he alone knows what happened to JT.

The power of the secrets carried within begins to tell upon all of the main characters who start to unravel. Diane begins an ill-advised affair while Amos dithers between telling the truth about the accident and lying about it. Owen, wracked with guilt and pain, strikes up friendships with both Amos and Diane, one representing the father he lost and the other representing the friend he might have had.

First-time director Colangelo chose to film in a small West Virginia coal mining town and that gives the film the right atmosphere of authenticity but the real authenticity comes from the emotional reactions of the players involved. Owen, in particular, acts like a child unequipped to deal with a terrible situation, acting out and behaving out of panic.

The one exception to this is the relationship between Diane and Amos, which doesn’t ring quite so true and doesn’t have the feel of a relationship motivated out of sex nor one out of emotional need. It’s like they’re together because they don’t have anything else better to do and I felt zero sparks between the two of them.

That said, I think Holbrook has huge potential. The former model and poet is electric here, showing the quiet dignity of a Gary Cooper mixed in with the warm humanity of a Tom Hanks. While he has gotten some buzz in previous appearances, here he shows not only that he can carry a film emotionally but he has the screen presence to hold our attention every moment he’s on the screen.

Lofland, who was impressive in Mud, is just as good here. He carries the look of a boy haunted by demons larger than he can bear and still he has time to be protective of his younger brother. He does lash out at his mom who attributes it to missing his dad, and then he sort of adopts Diane as a surrogate mom, the mom he wished he had perhaps. It’s a terrific performance and when you consider Lofland’s age, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he may turn out to have the kind of talent that we’ve seen from Abigail Breslin, Haley Joel Osment, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Hutcherson and Dakota Fanning.  He may end up being better than any of them.

All in all, this is a wrenching movie about the choices we make, the consequences of those choices and the secrets we choose to keep and how they affect us. It’s a slice of life movie sure, but there is something almost epic about this particular slice even though the film itself is very intimate and low-key. It is the subjects of this movie that are greater than the sum of its parts. This may end up like Winter’s Bone in the sense that it brings a huge star to public notice – world, meet Boyd Holbrook. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Fine performances by Holbrook, Lofland and Lucas. Excellent emotional realism.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Relationship between Amos and Diana is unconvincing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language, some sexuality and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were torn between two locations, one in Northern Kentucky before settling on Beckley, West Virginia only a week before pre-production began.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/14: Since the movie is not yet in general or limited release, there are no scores as yet on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Skies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Amour (2012)


Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramon Agirre, Rita Blanco, Carole Franck, Dinara Drukarova, Laurent Capelluto, Jean-Michel Monroc, Suzanne Schmidt, Damien Jouillerot, Walid Akfir. Directed by Michael Haneke

For most of us, our fondest wish is to find someone to grow old with. We look at growing old as a pleasant thing, our hair turning white and our skin wrinkled, holding hands with our loved one as we are surrounded with children and grandchildren, living lives in retirement of quiet pride in a life well-lived.

Growing old though is no golden-hued trip down an autumnal lane. It’s not for the faint of heart and even though we may have the company of someone we love, it isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card.

Police break down the doors in a Paris apartment and are immediately are met by an unpleasant stench. They search the room and find a decomposing corpse. There had been a nurse but she hadn’t been seen around lately. Mail had been piling up.

We flash back and see a piano concert. More to the point, we see the audience, rapt and moved by the impassioned playing of Alexandre (Tharaud), who is a former pupil of Anne (Riva). She and her husband Georges (Trintignant), both Parisian music teachers now retired and in their 80s, attend the recital and go backstage to greet Alexandre but he is surrounded by well-wishers and so they leave gracefully and return home.

At breakfast though, Anne suddenly stops reacting. Her mind seems to go away and when it comes back she has no memory of having gone despite several long minutes having passed. Georges is concerned but Anne has a pathological fear of hospitals…but when she has a major stroke, she is forced to stay at one for awhile. When she returns home, her right side is paralyzed.

At first it’s a bloody inconvenience. Anne is still much the same forceful, strong woman she’s always been but now she must rely on Georges for more and more. Soon it becomes necessary to hire a nurse (Franck). Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Huppert) who is a touring musician herself, visits from New York with her obsequious English husband Geoff (Shimell) and is aghast but seems more concerned with the physical deterioration than with the emotional burden that both George and Anne are bearing. They both know where this is going and how it inevitably is going to end.

This is the Austrian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year although it was filmed in Paris and French is predominantly spoken (some dialogue is in English). Haneke is an Austrian and the film was produced by French, German and Austrian sources. It also is the rare movie that also netted a Best Picture nomination – every movie that previously got that double nomination has won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Riva also has a Best Actress nomination while Haneke got Best Director and Best Screenwriter nominations as well.

The story is a very personal one for Haneke who watched it happen in his own family. Nearly all the action (other than the scenes in the recital hall early in the film) takes place in the apartment and in that circumstance the movie could easily feel stage-y or claustrophobic but it never does. This has become their entire world. It gives us a good sense of how their world begins to shrink down to just the two of them.

Riva is amazing here. It’s a gutsy performance because there is no glamour whatsoever to it other than initially. The indignities of becoming infirm are well on display and Riva, best known here for her sexy turn in Hiroshima Mon Amour shows them with an unblinking eye, allowing you to share in her despair and frustration. She’s been one of France’s top actresses for half a century and here you see why.

Trintignant came out of semi-retirement to act in this movie. Also one of France’s leading thespians (with astonishing performances in A Man and a Woman, Z and Red) his performance here is central to the film. It is harder to watch the deterioration of a loved one than to be the one deteriorating in many ways, and you can see his pain and frustration in his eyes. His work here has largely been overshadowed by Riva’s and in all honesty deservedly so but that doesn’t make his performance any less important or less commendable.

The scene in the concert hall is masterful and I think a fairly defining shot for Haneke. We don’t see the performance but merely the reactions to it. We are voyeurs as it were, watching the watchers Georges and Anne among them, their faces drawing you to them even though at that point in the movie you don’t know who they are. While the scene may appear to be innocuous and non-germane to the overall story, it’s a moment that stays with you and then long after the credits role you realize that Haneke was telling you what your own role in the movie is about to be. It’s brilliant and reminds me once again why he’s perhaps the best filmmaker in the world that you’ve never heard of.

This is one of last year’s most acclaimed movies and justifiably so. There are some shocks and some moments that may be uncomfortable for you – it can be argued that we are given too much access. There are those who will find Anne’s deterioration depressing but to be truthful it is a part of life. Old age as I said earlier isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card. It’s indignity and infirmity, aches and pains, organs breaking down and senses not working right. It is a natural progression in our lives but it isn’t an easy one.

The title is well-considered. Love is easily described as never having to say you’re sorry but that’s just the Hollywood version. In truth love is not those easy moments where you have make-up sex, or a snuggly Sunday morning. Love is caring for your partner when they are incapable of caring for themselves. Love is changing the diaper on the woman you used to make love to. Love is hearing them berate you and understanding it’s the situation and the pain talking and refusing to respond in kind. Love is being there until the bitter end and sometimes, doing something so painful that your soul shrivels and dies inside you but if it takes away the pain of the one you love, it’s worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking. Deals with real world issues in a relationship and in aging.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a bit depressing although they will be missing the point if they do.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are very adult. There is one scene that is graphic and disturbing. There are a few bad words and a brief scene of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riva is the oldest woman to be nominated for an Oscar at 83; she received her nomination the same day that Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest nominee at age 9 for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100; the reviews are excellent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Myth of the American Sleepover

Battleship


Battleship

The actors are overshadowed by the special effects.

(2012) Science Fiction (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Liam Neeson, Asano Tadanobu, Hamish Linklater, Peter MacNicol, John Tui, Jesse Plemmons, Gregory D. Gadson, Jerry Ferrara, Joe Chrest, Rami Malek. Directed by Peter Berg

 

Most of us as kids probably had occasion to play the Battleship board game. It’s the one with a screen in the middle to prevent you from seeing where your opponent placed his fleet; you place your aircraft carrier, a couple of destroyers, a few PT boats and a battleship and choose co-ordinates to launch “missiles” to sink your opponent’s fleet. Those much older than I might remember when that game was played with pencils and graph paper.

Alex Hopper (Kitsch) – whose last name brings to mind an unfortunately timed DirecTV commercial – is a Hawaiian beach bum celebrating a birthday on a beachside bar with few prospects for the future. His brother Stone (Skarsgard), an officer in the U.S. Navy, is tolerant but nags Alex that he needs to find a path and suggests the Navy as a possibility. When Alex spots a comely lass who wants a chicken burrito, he decides to play the gallant and run across the street to a convenience store. He just misses closing time despite his desperate but drunken pleas to the owner. So, in a fit of grandiose stupidity, he decides to break inside, steal a burrito (leaving behind some cash – he’s not a thief after all) and fall through the ceiling tiles not just once…but twice. Oddly enough, this behavior impresses the babe who turns out to be Samantha Shane (Decker), who also happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Neeson) who’s Stone’s boss. After this mis-adventure, Stone insists that Alex join the Navy who no doubt would be absolutely thrilled to have a newly minted felon in their ranks.

Flash-forward a few years. Not only is the chicken burrito vandal in the Navy but he’s an officer which surely is the most science fiction you’ll find in this movie. Roughly about the same time Alex did the chicken burrito stunt, a group of scientists including the ubernerdy Cal Zapata (Linklater) have sent a radio telescope transmission to the mysterious Goldilocks planet which is the most earthlike yet discovered. In the intervening time, Alex hasn’t changed much and while he and Samantha are an item, his naval career is rapidly being flushed down the toilet and after a stunt where he arrived to a ceremony declaring a naval war games maneuver open (one in which warships from Japan and other countries will be participating) Admiral Shane has informed Alex not to make any long-range Naval career plans once the war games are over.

Of course, in that intervening time the aliens haven’t changed much from other movie aliens and they’ve sent five ships as an advance guard to take over the Earth (although what anybody would want with our planet is beyond me). Their ships land in the ocean and just as the warships arrive nearby the aliens rise up out of the ocean and start raising holy pluperfect hell, wiping out most of the fleet including the ship Stone is in command of, and inconveniently, all of the officers on Alex’s ships that are above Alex, leaving him in command of his ship which he promptly orders to turn around and find the nearest convenience store that might have a chicken burrito. When informed there aren’t any nearby, in a fit of pique he sends his ship on a collision course with the alien mothership. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and Alex grumpily agrees to go rescue drowning sailors in the water after the Japanese warship gets trashed, including Captain Nagata (Asano) who has a beef with Alex over a soccer game and a fistfight afterwards.

Because the aliens have enacted a forcefield around the Hawaiian islands, the remainder of the fleet can’t get to them leaving Hawaii and the rest of the fleet virtually defenseless. However, there are still a few things left to save humanity; Alex’ tactical genius, a legless war veteran (Gadson) that physical therapist Samantha conveniently has on a hike near the mountaintop headquarters for the signal senders that ubernerd Cal Zapata is part of and an old veteran taken out of mothballs for one last stab at glory.

There are more holes in this than Casey Anthony’s testimony. Of course, one shouldn’t expect logic from a movie based on a board game but then again, why shouldn’t we? I get the distinct impression that the suits at Hasbro brought director Peter Berg into a screening room, showed him all three of the Transformers films and said “Like that, only more.”

He does deliver on the action sequences and special effects – there are plenty of exploding warships and overly complex alien weapons enough to keep the eye candy nice and sweet. In fact, the best sequence in the film is oddly the one most like the game, in which the navy uses seismic buoys that measure water displacement to locate alien vessels. Of course, nobody mentions why an alien race with the technology to put up a barrier hundreds of miles long that is impervious to weapons can’t put one up around their own ships. Guess they didn’t watch Independence Day. Also unfortunately, Berg neglected to cast any actors with enough screen presence to pull it off. Well, they cast Neeson but they could only afford him for three scenes once the special effects budget got approved.

Kitsch, after this year’s John Carter debacle is now at a career crossroads after having been the lead in two of this year’s biggest bombs. As in that film, Kitsch doesn’t display enough screen presence to really pull off what the producers intended. He’s certainly good-looking enough – and his stint in ”Friday Night Lights” have proven that the man can act – but to be a hero for a franchise movie like this one you really need to own the screen and that Kitsch fails to do.

Oddly, the people who acquit themselves best here are the non-actors. Gadson, a genuine Iraqi war veteran, knows a thing or two about heroism and that shows. He has more screen presence than most of the leads and while Hollywood doesn’t show itself to have a whole lot of roles open for a man with two prosthetic legs, certainly those that are Gadson could fill ably.

Rihanna also surprised me. The pop chanteuse shows a few acting chops here, her trademark blonde locks shorn and died black. She channels Michelle Rodriguez a bit here as a kick-ass Latina military woman and shows that she might well have a future in acting if she chooses to pursue it.

At the end of the day, this is entertaining enough to recommend somewhat although there are plenty of movies that are entertaining and with more substance behind them out there at the moment and more coming into the theaters every week. I can’t say you’ll leave the theater feeling like your money was wasted but on the other hand you won’t feel like you got the most for your buck either.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects. Wonderful sequence that echoes the board game.

REASONS TO STAY: Storyline a bit of a jumble. Acting is mostly atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a tribute to the board game, the alien artillery is shaped much like the pegs used in the original game.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

U.S.S. MISSOURI LOVERS: The decommissioned “Mighty Mo” is used as a set during the final reel and some filming actually took place there.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Brothers