The Sense of an Ending


Jim Broadbent may be stalking YOU.

(2017) Romance (CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter White, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Andrew Buckley, Karina Hernandez, Nick Mohammed, Charles Furness, Guy Paul, Alexa Davies, Dorothy Duffy, Kelly Price. Directed by Ritesh Batra

 

Our memories are in many ways what shape us; they are the filter of our experiences and our means of recalling the important things in our lives both positive and negative. As any police detective will tell you however memory is notoriously unreliable; we have a tendency to bury the unpleasant ones and often change facts to suit our world view. Confronted with the things that actually happened to us, our memories can turn out to be a fragile, ephemeral thing.

Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired and spends his days running a used camera shop in London, one of those delightful niche shops that give London character. He is a bit of a curmudgeon who compared to most shopkeepers doesn’t really want to be bothered by actual customers; they tend to throw a monkey wrench into his carefully organized existence which he protects like a mama bear with her cubs. He has an existence largely removed from the world and that’s very much by choice.

He is essentially a jovial sort on the surface but a bit of a dodderer, enough to be the source of rolling eyes for his barrister ex-wife Margaret (Walter) and his pregnant lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery) who is preparing to embark on single motherhood. Both feel genuine affection for the man (Margaret keeping his last name even though they’re long divorced) but he can be exasperating at times.

Then he gets a letter from a solicitor announcing that the mother (Mortimer) of an ex-girlfriend has passed away, bequeathing to him a small sum of money and more important to Tony, the diary of his ex-friend Adrian (Alwyn). He is reminded of his college days when he (Howle) and Veronica (Mavor) were a thing and Adrian was his closest friend and a person he looked up to with almost a sense of hero-worship. However when Veronica ends up dumping Tony in favor of Adrian, the young Tony writes a poisoned pen letter to the both of them that ends up with tragic consequences.

Now the aged Veronica (Rampling) isn’t willing to part with the diary and Tony isn’t willing to let it lie on general principles (“She willed it to me. It belongs to me” he whines) and  so he pursues legal recourse but possession is nine tenths of the law and in any case no constable is going to force a grieving daughter to give up a diary that she doesn’t want to. Without other recourse, Tony decides to take matters into his own hands and starts stalking Veronica and discovers that what happened in his past isn’t exactly what he thought happened and his own role in events was not what he remembered.

Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, this is directed at a somewhat stately pace by Batra who has also helmed the excellent The Lunchbox. In some ways this has a Merchant-Ivory vibe to it, not necessarily because some of it is set in the past but more the literary feel to the film as well as content that appeals to a more mature, thinking person’s audience.

The smartest thing Batra did was casting Jim Broadbent. One of the most reliable actors of our time, Broadbent – who has an Oscar nomination on his resumé – is given a complex character to work with and to his credit gives that character further dimension. Tony has a heavy streak of self-deception in his nature and Broadbent humanizes that aspect of the part. When confronted with his behavior, I do believe Tony doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong and he is surprised when others think so. He simply doesn’t understand why Veronica behaves towards him as she does. He may not even realize that he opened a second-hand camera shop due to her influence (she was a photographer when he met her and her love for Leica cameras stayed with him to this very day) although I suspect he does.

Rampling is fresh off an Oscar nomination of her own and while this is a much different role for her, she reminds us what a capable actress she always has been and continues to impress with roles that in lesser hands might have ended up being one-dimensional or at least possessed of less depth. Veronica has been visited by tragedy that Tony simply doesn’t understand and it has haunted her the remainder of her days.

The movie won’t appeal much to those looking for escape or for those who may lack the seasoning to appreciate the movies nuance. In my own taste I don’t think there is such a thing but I have to say that it may be too nuanced for some. While I generally recommend reading a book to watching a movie in most cases, this has a very literary feel that I find refreshing in a day and age when movies tend to rely more on CGI and star power.

The film is a bit flawed in the sense that its twist is heavily telegraphed although to be fair the book this is based on is told chronologically so in a sense that follows the book as well although the movie relies on flashbacks more so than the book. What makes the movie worth seeing is the character study particularly of Tony; Broadbent gives us plenty of meat to chew on from that standpoint.

Definitely if you are in the mood for a mindless blockbuster this isn’t where you want to go but if you are in the mood to have something appeal to your intellect, if you want a slice of English life or if you just want to watch some fine acting this is a pretty good selection in that category. It’s definitely flawed but Broadbent and Rampling are both so wonderful that they make even a flawed movie seem like great art.

REASONS TO GO: Broadbent and Rampling deliver strong performances as you might expect.
REASONS TO STAY: This is probably not for younger audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as an image of violence, a bit of sexuality and mature thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer and Goode were previously featured together in Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Six Rounds

Black or White


Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

(2014) Drama (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Newsome, Indigo, Bertha Bindewald, Joe Chrest, Ireyon Johnson, Janeline Hayes, Lloyd Dillon, Ernest Wells, Angela Jones, David Jensen, John McConnell, Robert Larriviere, Lindsey G. Smith. Directed by Mike Binder

In many ways, race is the central issue for America not only in the 20th century but sadly into the 21st as well. It informs many of the political struggles that have been going on. After all, do you think that there would be quite the push for the strengthening of gun owner rights if there wasn’t a white fear of young black men? While some things are better than they were 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma to Montgomery in an effort to assert voting rights for the African-American citizens of this country, for the most part things are sadly, drearily, depressingly the same.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is barely coping with life. His wife (Ehle) has just passed away in an auto accident. He’s lost but he can’t afford to be; he has a granddaughter to raise. Eloise (Estell) entered the world under difficult circumstances; her mom, Elliot’s daughter, died in childbirth and her dad, Reggie Davis (Holland), a raging drug addict, wasn’t fit or interested to be a father. Elliot has a lot of issues with Reggie, blaming him for a lot of things some of them deserved, some not.

Rowena (Spencer) is Reggie’s mom and she’s very sympathetic to Elliot’s plight but in some ways not. She wants to be closer to her granddaughter, understandably and especially now but Elliot is struggling with this. He respects Rowena although he doesn’t really like her much, believing she has a blind spot when it comes to her son. Rowena, frustrated by Elliot’s intransigence, consults her brother Jeremiah Jeffers (Mackie), a high-powered lawyer who sues Elliot for custody of Eloise on Rowena’s behalf.

Eloise is confused by all of this; she loves her grandfather very much but she also loves her Gramma Wee-Wee, as she calls Rowena. However left to her own devices, the seven-year-old would want to stay with the man who’s been around her all her life. Not that anyone’s asking her, of course.

But Rowena has ulterior motives. She sees Eloise as an opportunity to save her son; surely once he is given the chance to be a dad, he’ll step up to the plate. Elliot will do anything to keep this from happening; however, the case is far from open and shut. You see, Elliot has another friend; it’s the bottle and he has climbed into it hard after his wife’s untimely passing.

So with Reggie sniffing around, Elliot getting paranoid and Rowena becoming increasingly unsure that she wants to use Jeremiah’s bulldog tactics which paint Elliot as a racist alcoholic, even if it is true – which it only is half-true. What is going on is a struggle between a man who has lost everything and a desperate mother with a little girl caught in the middle.

This is the type of movie that can be incredibly powerful in the right hands and veteran Mike Binder would appear to be those hands, but frankly he doesn’t pull it off. Instead of making this a powerfully emotional film that acts as a lens on modern race relations, Binder instead goes for the easy answers with an ending that absolutely wipes out any credibility the movie might have had.

Costner was particularly motivated, financing the production himself for the most part. This is a much more layered role for him; he tends to play fairly easy-going guys who have a penchant for doing the right things although often his characters have a checkered past. His immense likability helps make this movie charming, despite the fact that his character isn’t doing a lot of charming things, showing up so blotto that he can barely stand at times and using the N-word when confronting Reggie. He also has a speech during the courtroom proceedings which while I think it gets to the heart of what the movie is trying to get across, damages Elliot’s case significantly.

Elliot sees his wife in (often) alcohol-induced flashbacks and certainly they make it clear that she was his rock, leaving him floundering in her absence. It is telling that we only get to see his wife in flashback; his daughter, with whom he was estranged and seems to be much angrier about, never appears in any sort of flashback. Clearly Elliot hasn’t forgiven her yet.

Fortunately Costner isn’t alone. Spencer has blossomed into one of the most dependable actresses in Hollywood; ever since making her splash in The Help she hasn’t delivered one performance that has been anything less than fantastic. Mackie is also a terrific actor who is terrific here as well. There are a couple of relative newcomers here however who deliver fine performances; comedian Bill Burr who as Elliot’s partner gets a couple of dramatic sequences, and young Jillian Estell who carries herself extremely well for an actress this young. Something has to be done about that hand grenade hair though; it’s distracting.

With an opportunity to make a really important film on race relations, the writers and filmmakers instead go the safe route, substituting cliche for insight. That makes this relatively easy to digest and certainly free of controversy. In this way it doesn’t offend anyone, but the movies that invite the most discussion and in some cases actually make the most difference socially speaking are the ones that are offensive to at least someone. If you’re going to have Kevin Costner utter the “N word” at a young African-American man, you might as well not squander the opportunity by being timid in all other aspects but unfortunately that’s exactly what this movie does.

REASONS TO GO: Costner at his likable best in a more layered role than he usually gets. Spencer, Mackie, Burr and (surprisingly) Estell are all strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable throughout. The ending is a whopper that really derails the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drunkenness, intimations of drug use, a fight and some occasional strong language as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to the memory of J.J. Harris, who was Costner’s personal friend and his first manager. Harris passed away in 2013.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kramer vs. Kramer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Strange Magic

In a Better World (Haevnen)


In a Better World

Some father and son heart-to-hearts don't quite have the desired effect.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Juels Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Toke Lars Bjarke, Kim Bodnia, Wil Johnson, Elsebeth Streentoft, Camilla Gottleib, Odiege Matthew, Simon Maagaard Holm. Directed by Susanne Bier

All of us have some sort of moral compass that guides them, be it a motivation to do the right thing or one to act only in one’s own self-interest. There are also times in all of our lives when we are required to use that compass in order to make a profound decision, one that may affect not only our own lives but of those around us.

Anton (Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor living in a small town in Denmark. Well, some of the time anyway – he spends a good deal of time working in refugee camps in what appears to be the Sudan (although it’s never specifically spelled out in the film). Much of his time is spent patching up the victims of a particularly sadistic warlord nicknamed The Big Man (Matthew), who likes to bet his functionaries what the sex of an unborn child but being somewhat impatient, prefers to rip the fetus out of the womb rather than wait for it to be born. His moral resolve is tested when the Big Man himself comes into the refugee camp, demanding to be treated for an infected leg.

He is married to Marianne (Dyrholm) but only loosely. A fellow doctor who stays at home with their sons Elias (Rygaard) and Morten (Bjarke), the relationship between the two has come to a breaking point after Anton cheated on Marianne. Edging closer to divorce, Anton’s infrequent visits home are characterized by separate residences and strained silences.

Elias is bullied at school, particularly by Sofus (Holm), a large blonde kid who doesn’t like Swedes to begin with (apparently there is some hostility towards Swedes in Denmark) but doesn’t like Elias in particular, referring to him as “Rat Face” (due to his angular features and braces). Sofus delights in tormenting Elias, flattening his bicycle tires and stealing the valves so that Elias can’t re-inflate them.

This is observed by Christian (Nielsen), a new kid in town whose mother recently lost a long fight with cancer. Christian is angered at his father Claus (Thomsen), who lied to him when promising his mother would get better but worse still – for wanting his mother to die during the late stages of the disease when she was suffering terribly. Christian has developed an intense hatred of bullies and defends Elias, taking on the much bigger Sofus – beating him mercilessly with a bicycle pump, at last threatening the bully with a knife.

This brings the police into the matter, although both boys defend each other and protect each other, knowing that if the knife is found or attributed to Christian it would mean immediate expulsion. Right about then Anton returns home, staying in the family summer house.

When Anton breaks up a fight between Morten and another boy, the boy’s father Lars (Bodnia) warns Anton not to touch his boy and slaps Anton, causing obvious embarrassment mostly because it was witnessed by Christian and Elias, who have become fast friends. Anton, a pacifist, believes that not responding to the provocation was the right thing to do. Christian and Elias are not so sure, believing Anton to be afraid. In order to prove to the boys he isn’t afraid, he takes them to Lars’ auto shop and confronts the adult bully. Lars continues to abuse and slap Anton, but Anton never flinches. Pleased with himself, he is satisfied that he has taught the boys a valuable lesson. Christian, however, has taken a different lesson away and resolves to do something about Lars – something serious that will forever change the course of his life and that of Elias.

This is the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, winning also the Golden Globe for the same category (a very rare occurrence I can assure you). Director Biers constructs a morality play, setting it in a bucolic Danish town where life would seem idyllic, and in a refugee camp. She wisely plays the moral dilemmas of Anton (in treating the Big Man) and his son (in following Christian down a path of vengeance) side by side in parallel stories, emphasizing how similar the two situations are.

She is helped by having two fine juvenile leads. Both Nielsen and Rygaard are convincing, coming off as real kids without saving the day or acting beyond their years. Like all children, Christian and Elias don’t have sufficiently developed moral compasses at this point in their lives, and make decisions essentially based on incomplete information.

Persbrandt is not a name I was familiar with, but he does a terrific job as Anton, displaying the moral ambiguity of a man who cheated on his wife, yet lectures his sons about morality. Anton’s obvious anguish at having violated his own ethics is clear, as is his devotion to his sons. I understand he is one of the most respected actors in Scandinavia – I can certainly see why.

Dyrholm is also fine as a woman who feels completely lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back, or even if she wants to. Marianne can be shrill and sometimes takes her anger out on her son who blames her for not forgiving his dad. Thomsen, as the grieving father, is similarly solid. His grief renders him nearly inert, unable to take action as his son treads increasingly dangerous waters.

I like the conversation this brings up in terms of the use of violence as a tool of vengeance (in fact, the Danish title for the movie is “The Revenge”). Not that violence doesn’t exist in Denmark – of course it does – but it’s far less prevalent there than here, so the impact of the movie was probably more intense in Denmark than here. The truth is we become desensitized to violence, seeing it as a means of getting even, knowing that it solves nothing. Anton may have been ineffective in conveying his message to Christian and Elias, but it’s a good message nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A quiet little drama that settles in on violence and vengeance. Juvenile leads do a tremendous job.

REASONS TO STAY: Needed to make its points a little more subtly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence that’s occasionally shocking (some of it involving pre-teens), there’s some disturbing images and some snippets of foul language and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story Christian reads at his mother’s funeral is “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Anderson.

HOME OR THEATER: The great African vistas look terrific on the big screen but so too does the bucolic imagery of the small Danish town. In other words, catch it in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Disgrace