Category: Indie Romance


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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In my review of Werner Herzog’s breathtakingly beautiful Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, I went on a lengthy discourse of my definition of a “spiritual experience” removed from any explicitly religious context. To me (an agnostic), a spiritual moment or experience are those times in your life where you are exposed to something of great beauty or an undeniable moment of human communion. And, of course, when I described films that I found to be spiritual experiences, I mentioned Terrence Malick’s stunning masterpiece, The Tree of Life.  Beyond the film’s peerless cinematography, The Tree of Life was philosophical and existential in a way that few American films have ever been. Breaking his streak of waiting years and years between films, The Tree of Life‘s follow-up, To the Wonder, was released after only a two year hiatus, and Mallick hasn’t come close to losing his touch.

Though Bergman was fairly explicitly agnostic, Terrence Malick joins Werner Herzog as being one of the most spiritual and philosophical directors since the great Swede slipped from this mortal coil. What his detractors mistake for ephemera and a sense of muddled clarity is in fact the poetic subtlety of his work matched with Malick’s grand, almost unachievable ambitions. Between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, it is clear that Malick is obsessed with the notion of man’s struggle to find meaning in our lives. But rather than tackling that most ancient of philosophical questions, Malick is more interested in looking at the heartbreak that comes when that definition isn’t present and the pain and suffering that life itself foists upon us without our consent just through our existence. And if The Tree of Life asked these questions from the point of view of a child discovering the terrible power of the universe, To the Wonder paints a portrait of adult loneliness and desperation and the ultimate fragility of romantic relations.

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Even more than The Tree of Life, plot is a secondary concern in To the Wonder. What story that exists is advanced not by typical plot devices by the emotional power of images, soaring orchestral music, and often half-heard narration. To the Wonder‘s goal is the evocation of a specific set of emotions first and then one can spend the second half of the film trying to suss out the ultimate meaning and ambitions of the film (which are there if one has the patience). And so, like The Tree of Life, if you don’t have the patience for Mallick’s fetishistic devotion to cinematography over traditional characterization and story, To the Wonder will be a torturous experience unlike any other. But, if you can handle a film whose ambitions are more equivalent to a visual tone poem than a conventional film, this film is as must watch as they come.

But, I suppose if I’m going to get any of you to actually watch this film I must tell you “what it’s about” even if the story almost doesn’t even exist. After spending time in France, environmental scientist Neil (Argo‘s Ben Affleck) returns to his native Oklahoma and brings the French single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), he fell in love with back with him to the United States along with her daughter. But the taciturn and emotionally reserved Neil can not give the free-spirited and effervescent Marina the affection and emotional support that she needs and not long after making it to Oklahoma, Marina begins to feel trapped in her new existence. Complications arise when, during a break in their relationship, Neil strikes up a romance with an old friend, a widow (Midnight in Paris‘s Rachel McAdams), who proves a contrast to the jubilant joie de vivre of Marina. Meanwhile, a lonely Catholic priest, Father Quintana (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) experiences a crisis of faith.

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The only other films that I can think of that reach the complexity of understanding of adult romantic relationships as this film are masterpieces like You Can Count on Me and Manhattan, and those films have the advantage of having actual plots. Terrence Malick’s ability to project so much emotional complexity through so little is an act of cinematic wizardry without equal. Even his peers of Bergman or Fellini in terms of visual mastery rage against conventional plot through post-modernist gamesmanship, but there’s still the structures of great storytelling. In To the Wonder, I suppose there is an underlying plot but it is so secondary to the simple power of images and suggestion. You can’t accuse Malick of being a minimalist because Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is too lush and magical for that to be true, but more than any other filmmaker of the modern age, Malick has reduced cinema almost to the bare building block of individual images and wrests stunning art away in the process.

That’s not meant to insult other aspects of the film. Olga Kurylenko’s performance in particular stands out despite the fact that she has very few actual lines on screen that aren’t her voice-over narration. Similar to Berenice Bejo in The Artist, Kurylenko has to evoke almost the entire spectrum of human emotion but hardly ever say anything. She does this and more. It doesn’t hurt Kurylenko’s case that Malick’s camera turns her into a stunningly beautiful figure out of some majestic painting. Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams also shine. Affleck probably speaks less than thirty words in the whole film yet he still captures the essence of Neil. But, the other stunning performance from the film was Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana which should do more to make audiences understand the loneliness and isolation of the clergy than any film that has come before.

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If Malick doesn’t get a Best Director nod and if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get a Best Cinematography nod at this year’s Oscars, it will be a crime. When these two men work together, what they produced goes beyond magical; it borders on divine. To the Wonder is photography at its absolute finest and unmatched. Malick has an unerring ability to make even the most mundane aspects of human life look gorgeous with a near religious fervor. One need look no further than the sequences shot in grocery store parking lots or on run-of-the-mill suburban streets to see Malick and Lubezki’s talent to wrest beauty from whatever is on hand. You could watch The Tree of Life with what little dialogue there is as well as the narration turned off, and  if you love cinematography, you would hardly lose much of the experience.

Now, before you see my score for this film, I’ll reveal it early and say I’m giving it the same top marks I gave to The Tree of Life which I only give out a handful of times a year (To wit: Only one film from 2012 received an “A+” from me, The Master), and To the Wonder is the first film from 2013 to get that nod. But, I think The Tree of Life is a marginally better film. It has a grander, more existentialist ambition than To the Wonder. But, to me (and I know how divisive Malick’s later work has become), To the Wonder is a simply flawless film that more than accomplishes its goals of examining the nature and futility of human relations. Malick works entirely within his own sphere of film-making, and if there’s any doubt that he’s crafted yet another masterpiece, you must simply be incapable of enjoying Malick’s particular style.

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For those with any interest with cinema that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the medium, To the Wonder goes beyond must-watch. To not see this film (or The Tree of Life) would be a dereliction of your duty as a film-lover. Every frame in this film shines with the detailed composition of a Renaissance painting. It is a haunting masterpiece from the opening seconds until its heartbreaking close. Terrence Malick has another film scheduled for release in 2014 and if this means he is back to making films at a regular pace and they are all as powerful as this, Malick just reconfirms his position as not just one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern age but one of the most visionary filmmakers that has ever lived. Malick walks among the gods of the medium.

Final Score: A+

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There are certain films that I have to watch a couple of times before I realize how brilliant they are. It wasn’t until my second or third viewing that I began to truly appreciate how great The Big Lebowski or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were. But, sometimes, there are films I simply fall in love with on first sight. They speak to me with such resonance and deeper meaning that they become a window in to my own life. Chasing Amy and Annie Hall are the classic examples there. While Marc Webb’s (The Amazing Spider-Man) 2009 directorial debut may not quite reach the zenith of one of the greatest films of all time as Annie Hall does it has certainly earned its moniker as the millennial generations response to that classic film. I’ve watched the film more than a dozen times since it was first released and with each subsequent viewing I find something to love about this modern classic.

What separates (500) Days of Summer from the rest of its romantic comedy brethren is what separated Chasing Amy and Annie Hall from their peers. Though the film is nominally a comedy and scores plenty of laughs, (500) Days of Summer is as much a drama about the inherent silliness and psychological danger of intense romantic commitments and putting “dream girls” on a pedestal as it is any type of typical comedy. It is a serious treatment of the last hurrah of “young love” before we realize that maybe the world doesn’t work the way we’ve wanted it to. It earns its comparisons to Annie Hall through a strikingly non-linear structure and an almost total lack of a fourth wall, but it is in its grown-up and honest portrayal of modern romance that (500) Days of Summer makes its most momentous impact.

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Told over the course of (you guessed it) 500 days, the film is the type of total portrayal of a relationship that is hardly ever seen in your typical rom-com. It chronicles the early attraction, the courtship, the break-up (trust me it’s not a spoiler), and the emotional fall-out of a tough break-up. Tom Hanson (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, idealistic romantic stuck working in a dead-end job writing greeting cards in L.A. because he’s too scared to pursue his real passion of architecture. Tom believes in “true love” and destiny which can be blamed (to quote the film) “on an early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” And when the effervescent but complex Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) stumbles into his life, Tom thinks he has found the one. But, once again to quote the film, “This is a story of boy meets girl but this is not a love story.”

Summer and Tom are clearly a match from the first moment that Summer compliments Tom on his fandom of the Smiths as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” plays on his headphones in a shared elevator ride. And though Summer is very much attracted to Tom, Summer is not looking for a real relationship. She believes in being young and casual and not tying oneself down with stifling commitments. Tom tries to go along with Summer’s wishes to keep things slow, but Summer can be the master of mixed signals, and whether either one liked it or not, their relationship begins to show signs of the messy emotional entanglements Summer so desperately wanted to avoid. And when Tom’s intense feelings for Summer aren’t reciprocated equally, it’s only a matter of time until their magical relationship comes crashing to a destructive end.

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Before my viewing of this film again on Friday night (with the same friend that I watched Primer with; I mostly watched the film cause he had never seen it), I hadn’t watched the movie in over a year and a half after I watched it with a girl that I was… dating? It was complicated in the same way that Tom and Summer’s relationship was. It was a (unknown at the time) depressingly prescient viewing of the film as our courtship would play out almost to the tee the way the movie played out with me as Tom and her as Summer (though I was thankfully never as hopelessly lovestruck as Tom… Thank God). And as much as I appreciated the themes of this film even before I lived out a real-life version of its plot, this particular viewing was especially emotionally brutal as I could finally relate to just how honest and richly detailed (500) Days of Summer‘s portrayal of unreciprocated romance.

It also doesn’t hurt the film that (500) Days of Summer has a fully realized and masterfully achieved aesthetic vision guiding its also excellent storytelling. If the movie is iconic for any reason whatsoever (outside of its intense fandom), it’s the general recognition that it has one of the greatest soundtracks of the last twenty years. Along with Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rushmore, I can’t name many films with a better integrated soundtrack.  There’s a sequence in the film where Regina Spektor’s “Hero” is being played that is possibly one of my 10 favorite scenes in any film ever where Tom’s expectations of the events of a party Summer is throwing are shown simultaneously with what really happens to positively brutal effect. And who can forget the glorious use of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams” for a fourth-wall shattering sequence after Summer and Tom sleep together for the first time.

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But the film’s aesthetic strengths are more than just its brilliant soundtrack (a perfect mix of modern indie pop and classic British pop like the Smiths). The friend I watched the film with is a sucker for great style in terms of clothing, and he consistently remarked on how the film’s fashion aesthetic was practically perfect. And, alongside Tom Ford’s A Single Man (a film that I watched last night with the same friend), I would be hard-pressed to name a film that labors such an almost fetishistic effort into presenting the best of fashion (in this film’s case, modern fashion as opposed to A Single Man‘s 60s fashion). And, the visual beauty goes beyond the clothing. The movie is gorgeously shot. And the cinematography accurately mimics Tom’s state of mind so that the film is stunningly beautiful when he’s happy and dark and miserable when he’s sad. Not to mention the fact that the movie finds itself capable of mimicking multiple different cinematic styles when it engages in its fourth-wall leaning fantasy sequences (i.e. Bergman and Fellini references).

And of course, the performances from the two leads are sublime. Alongside his breakthrough turn in Brick, this was one of the movies that really shot Joseph Gordon-Levitt into the mainstream consciousness. I hate to belabor my Annie Hall comparisons but if you took Woody Allen’s performance as Alvy Singer but gave Woody actual dramatic chops, you’d have an idea of what to expect from JGL in this film. It’s one of the strongest romantic comedy performances in recent memory, and the way that he makes you feel Tom’s psychological torment is astounding. Zooey is also phenomenal. Jess from New Girl and Summer from this (her two most high-profile roles) couldn’t be more different, and in many ways, Summer is meant to be a subversion of the typical Zooey “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype. She shows a modern woman with complexity and depth that you never see in modern rom-coms and it must be commended.

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I’m hungry and need to eat lunch so I’ll draw this review to a close. If you can’t tell, I adore (500) Days of Summer. Though I don’t think it’s necessarily one of the greatest films ever made (as evidenced by the score I’m about to give it instead of an “A+”), it is, without question, one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. Without fail, I force every single one of my friends to watch this film that haven’t seen it already. I don’t even know if I can name any real substantive flaws with the movie off the top of my head. The movie has developed an odd hatedom over the last couple of years which I mostly chalk up to hype backlash and a general fatigue of Zooey Deschanel. You shouldn’t let that deter you from watching this true modern classic of the romantic-comedy genre. It’s a beautiful and important look at modern relationships.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. So, some context for long-time readers about why I haven’t done any other blogging this week. As some of you may know, I work at a bar where there are slot machines. Generally, they’re fairly safe, but every once in a while, they get robbed. I was robbed Tuesday at knife point by a dude on heroin. He put a big-ass butcher knife against my ribcage and made me give him all the money in the bar. Anyways, for obvious reasons, my mind hasn’t been on blogging and so I apologize for that and for the possibility that this review is going to be a mess)

The 90s were the true hey-day of independent cinema. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still an extraordinary amount of great independent film-making being done today (Margaret, The Master, Winter’s Bone to name a few). But, the birth of modern indie cinema as we know it in the early 90s was a pure feat of wonder that was only multiplied ten fold when visionaries like the Weinsteins (over at Miramax) realized that there was a mainstream audience for these independently developed films. One of the most popular (and well made) indie dramas of the 90s, which was overwhelmed at the 1997 Academy Awards by a certain movie about a ship and an iceberg, was the Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting. And while age has worn a tiny amount of the luster off this still wonderful film, nothing can take away from the superb performances from Matt Damon (The Departed) and Robin Williams (Hook).

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As a film on the topic of undiscovered genius, Good Will Hunting is slightly hit-or-miss. But, as a film on the idea of social alienation and the long-term psychic costs of abuse and abandonment, Good Will Hunting remains one of the most emotionally powerful films of the 1990s. I bring up the aspect of undiscovered genius because though the film makes clear, time and time again, how absurdly smart Will is, those moments aren’t nearly as interesting as the time he spends with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Perhaps, there’s a slight coldness to the Stellan Skarsgaard (Thor) sections of the film, but mostly, the Oscar-winning script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Argo) shines so bright when we’re confronting the emotional problems of one of the most psychologically complex characters of the 90s that everything else just pales in comparison.

Unbeknownst to anyone but his circle of friends, a lonely, angry MIT janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is a genius of nearly Einsteinian proportions. When a Fields medal winning MIT Professor (Stellan Skarsgaard) puts a complex mathematical proof on a chalkboard at the beginning of a new semester, none of his students are able to solve the proof, but Will is. But, Will, an orphan with an angry streak a mile wide, doesn’t want to be the genius the world wants him to be. But, after punching a police officer, Will is given the choice between going to jail or going to math lessons with the professor as well as weekly therapy sessions. After pissing off every therapist who comes his way, Will finally meets his match in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) whose brand of tough love reaches the emotionally damaged young man. But, when a bubbling romance with a Harvard girl (Minnie Driver) revs up Will’s abandoonment issues, it threatens to undo all of the work he’s accomplished with Sean.

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First and foremost, I feel relatively certain in my proclamation that this is the best performance of Matt Damon’s career. The only reason I can’t say the same thing for Robin Williams is that Dead Poet’s Society exists. Will Hunting is the type of meaty, complex role that any young actor would kill for, and perhaps because he wrote the script with co-star Ben Affleck, Damon is acutely aware of the psychological pathology on display in his character (an abused child with a genius intellect with crippling abandonment and intimacy issues). Throw in the heart-wrenching vulnerability and emotional nakedness that he displays as his walls are slowly torn down, and it’s easy to see why Damon’s performance and the Will Hunting character have become an archetype in cinema for the troubled genius.

But, the best performance of the film is Robin William’s Sean Maguire. It speaks directly to Robin William’s immense talents as a performer that though he is most famous for comedic roles like Aladdin‘s Genie or the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam that he is also capable of producing jaw-dropping feats of dramatic acting. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1997 Academy Awards, and looking at the list of the other nominees, I can’t imagine anyone else winning. Once again, the role and the performance have become so iconic that the tough and troubled mentor has become its own archetype. Sean helps Will work through Will’s issues, but Will is just as instrumental in helping Sean work through his own problems. And William’s beautifully understated performance (which still allows him to utilize deadpan humor to great effect) is a wrenching and haunting portrait of despair and mourning.

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In fact, my only substantive complaint about the film is Gus van Sant’s direction which leans a little too far into 90s indie cliches that we’ve thankfully gotten rid of since then. It’s not that his direction is bad. There are inspired shots, but often the film feels leading. Where the screenplay is showing subtlety or restraint, the film’s visual composition (and particularly the score when it’s not Elliott Smith songs) are too obvious. It’s a similar complaint that I have with Forrest Gump, but clearly, Good Will Hunting is leagues better than that film. And, though I appreciate how Will’s romance with Skylar is used as a way to examine Will’s abandonment issues, Skylar’s characterization is fairly paper-thin. She is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, and in the face of the richness of Will and Sean, it’s a shame that such a major character seems so flatly drawn.

If by some stroke of poor luck, you’ve yet to see Good Will Hunting, you need to remedy that situation immediately. It is one of those rare defining films of a decade that is completely deserving of the praise heaped upon it. It’s not quite perfect. I think when I sat down to watch it the other night that I was likely to give it one of my rare “A+”s and it didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s still an absolutely superb film. It actually makes me sort of sad to think that Matt Damon’s early career dedication to subversive and complex roles like this and Rounders has disappeared as he’s took on the task of less complex, blockbuster roles (The Departed a major exception). I wish he would go back to the indies that helped turn him into the star he is now. And Good Will Hunting is 100% responsible for that.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. After I put up this review, I will have now seen and reviewed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees except for Amour which still doesn’t even have a release date on Netflix yet. The Michael Haneke directed foreign film may take a while to make it to our shores in DVD/Blu-Ray form. Anyways, that’s exciting so I can finally move back to my core list of films which I’m still in the process of remaking.)

Perhaps because it is the most easily commercialized and most consistently mass-produced genre of film this side of low-budget horror movies, it’s real easy to cast aside most romantic comedies out of hand. With cookie-cutter plots, emotionally vapid stars, and diabetes-inducing sweetness, rom-coms are an easy contender for one of the worst film genres. Which is sort of funny when I consider that two of my top three films of all time are romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy). So, leave it to David O. Russell (whose The Fighter I found almost uniformly over-rated barring the performances) to provide one of the best romantic comedies in years with the darkly comic and subversive Silver Linings Playbook.

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Part of me is suspicious of how much I enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. Because despite the pitch black comedy trimmings, the film is still structured very much like a conventional romantic comedy. It’s only in the details where David O. Russell (and the author of the book the film is based on) finds ways to distinguish his tale. But, the details are so intimate and impressive that you almost forget the familiar story structure. And in a film where the lead performances are as electric as this one, it’s easy to forgive yourself for just wanting to bask in the glow of what will certainly be remembered as career-defining roles (not simply because Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for this film).

After spending eight months in a mental hospital for nearly beating a man to death who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Wet Hot American Summer‘s Bradley Cooper) returns home to live with his parents in Philadelphia. Determined to win back his wife’s love (despite a restraining order), Pat tries to get in shape and turn his life around with the help of his dad (The Godfather: Part II‘s Robert De Niro) and mom. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, life itself is a struggle for Pat and his anger, and all it takes to set him off in to a rage some nights is disappointment in the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

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One night, at a friend’s dinner, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence), a widow whose sister is close friends with Pat’s ex-wife. Tiffany has her own mental problems and after suffering from severe depression after the death of her husband, Tiffany began sleeping with nearly any person she could just to feel something. Tiffany promises to give Pat’s wife a letter if he’ll help her enter a dancing competition. And so, as these two become closer and learn to deal with their anger and depression and mood swings together, the question becomes whether Pat will get back with his ex-wife or if he’ll find love in the arms of the wounded Tiffany.

Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old. She is a full year younger than I am. Yet, she has now been nominated for two Oscars and won one for this film (making her the second youngest Best Actress winner behind Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God). She’s starred in two of the biggest summer blockbusters of this decade (The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class). Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t simply set herself up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation. She is easily the best actress of her peer group. If I thought she was great in Winter’s Bone, I was not prepared for the tour-de-force performance she brought to bear in this movie.

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Her performance as Tiffany in this film is the kind of role most actresses spend their entire career trying to land. The fact that she’s playing a character with such depth and emotional complexity at the age of 22 is just astounding beyond words. Jennifer Lawrence should only get more talented as she ages, and I expect her to rack up a Meryl Streep-esque career before it’s all said and done. Tiffany is a contradictory, explosive, deeply hurt woman who is barely hanging on by a thread, and with every second she spends on screen, Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel her pain, joy, and love. Congratulations Oscars. You actually got this one right.

And Bradley Cooper… I was almost at a loss for words when the film ended. I did not think Bradley Cooper was a good actor (except for his awesome work on Alias), let alone a great one before watching this movie. I literally could not have been more wrong. This may sound crazy, but Bradley Cooper was so much more interesting in this role than Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (though I still think Joaquin Phoenix should have won for The Master). Bradley Cooper committed so much to the craziness of Pat that it became frightening in some of the more intense scenes. Maybe this performance was a flash in the pan and a fluke, but I pray that it’s a sign of great things to come from Mr. Cooper.

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It also doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro gives what is arguably his finest performance since Goodfellas as Pat’s obsessive compulsive father. It becomes clear rather quickly that Pat Sr. has just as many anger problems as his son (with a serious OCD problem thrown in for good measure and a gambling addiction), and Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro a chance to flex his acting muscles that he hasn’t been using after a decade of stale comedies. Chris Tucker is also surprisingly excellent as a fellow patient from Pat’s mental institution who is always escaping early with hare-brained excuses and plots.

Silver Linings Playbook‘s willingness to deal so frankly with mental illness and depression and anger is beyond refreshing. Though the film is a comedy (and my sister and I found ourselves laughing hysterically during the movie), the movie doesn’t make light of Pat’s bipolar disorder or Tiffany’s acting out. When it occurs, it is tragic and scary and real. And through this lens of actual human frailty, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds where most other rom-coms fail by presenting two realistic, flawed heroes to guide us through a tale of growth and redemption. That the film still manages to be hilarious is a testament to just how strong the writing is.

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If you pushed me to try and find flaws in the movie (and the reason I’m giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” trust me it was close), I would have to say that perhaps the ending feels a tad bit rushed and that the visual direction of the film is a little stale. Otherwise, Silver Linings Playbook has even eclipsed the wonderful Life of Pi as my favorite of the Best Picture nominees of 2012. For fans of great acting, great storytelling, and great romance, Silver Linings Playbook has it all. And, I imagine it will be a couple years before another romantic comedy this great rolls around.

Final Score: A

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During one of the countless intellectual interludes in My Dinner With Andre, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory debate about the purpose of art. Wally Shawn, a struggling playwright, feels that art, particularly the theatre, should capture the pain and heartbreak of life in honest detail. Andre Gregory, an unstable eccentric, feels that art should “take us to Mount Everest.” That it should transcend the pain that we all feel and show us a path to our better selves and out better futures. I don’t think that either man is entirely right and that superb art from both schools of thought has been continually released for much of man’s existence. Whether you want the blunt, harsh fury of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth or David Simon’s The Wire or you prefer the fantastical uplift of The Tree of Life, someone is making a great work of art that suits your needs.

I bring that conversation from My Dinner with Andre up not because I just reviewed the film (though that moment stuck more than almost any other) but because the second directorial feature from How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor seems to have found the magical balance between the honest and the transcendent. Josh Radnor made his directing mark with the charming if muddled HappyThankYouMorePlease, but nothing from that film or his television work could have prepared me for the emotional powerhouse of his latest film, Liberal Arts. For fans of movies like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer, Liberal Arts isn’t simply an easy film to recommend. It is an absolutely must-watch film from a young writer/director who is proving himself to be one of the freshest voices in indie film-making if he can keep this type of quality up.

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Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor) is a college admissions counselor in his mid-30s yearning to recapture the magic and endless possibilities of his own college days. When his favorite (well, second favorite) college professor (Six Feet Under‘s Richard Jenkins) retires and asks Jesse to speak at his retirement party, Jesse immediately grabs the opportunity to return to his alma mater and bask in the nostalgia of his youth. At a dinner with his professor’s friends, Jesse befriends their 19 year old daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson). Jesse has to return to the real world in New York City, but he begins a correspondence with the Ohio-bound Zibby about classical music and it isn’t long before the seeds of romance form. But is their connection simply an attempt by Jesse to bottle the magic of being young or is it something real? And can his conscience handle the moral dilemmas that arise when you date someone 16 years your junior.

Josh Radnor has a tendency to oversell a bit on How I Met Your Mother, but it’s a network sitcom. I guess it’s to be expected. But much like HappyThankYouMorePlease, Liberal Arts affords Radnor the opportunity to prove how talented and multifaceted of an actor that he truly is. Jesse is a complex figure. Sensitive, pretentious, effete, nostalgic, full of regret, still hopeful, love-struck, morally conflicted, lost. Radnor slips into all of these forms with a stunning ease. Though there are certainly similarities between Jesse and Ted Mosby and Sam Wexler, the nuance and subtlety of Radnor’s performance just radiate a talent that Radnor’s been suppressing on network TV for almost ten years now (and I’m a huge How I Met Your Mother fan making that complaint). If more people noticed his skills, he could be a big star.

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Elizabeth Olson garnered a lot of buzz in 2011 for her fearless performance in Martha Marcy Maylene, a film I’ve yet to see but which is on my list for this blog. Now, it’s easy to see why. She is a young actress with a maturity and presence beyond her years which made her a perfect fit for the precocious and sagely Zibby. Although Zibby possesses a maturity and perspective that is at least ten years ahead of where she should be in life, Olson still gives the character the tenderness and raw vulnerability that any girl who’s not yet twenty would have particularly as her romance with Jesse hits rough spots. Proving herself to be more talented than both of her more famous sisters combined (though lets face it; what was the last thing you heard about Mary Kate and Ashley), Liberal Arts is another notch in the quickly growing belt of a young starlet that everyone should keep their eyes on.

And the film has a bevy of supporting players buoying the two lead stars. Richard Jenkins turns a heartbreaking performance as the college professor who thinks he wants out of the academics game only to realize too late that the emptiness of retirement and his own impending mortality is more than he cares to face. Juno‘s Allison Janney provides one of the film’s funniest moments as well as one of its most revelatory scenes as an old professor of Jesse’s who Jesse maintained an infatuation with even fifteen years after college ended. John Magaro also rends the heart as a David Foster Wallace loving nerd whose hellish college experience was the antithesis of Jesse’s collegiate bliss and strikes up a fruitful friendship with Jesse. And certainly not least, Zac Efron steals every second he’s on screen as the hippie sage Nat who helps the confused Jesse find his center.

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But above the wonderful performances, it was Radnor’s insightful script and sensitive directing that took Liberal Arts to the rank of a new modern indie classic. It’s the rare film that captures something inherently true about love and growing up while still showing honest (the most important word in this sentence) hope that we can get our acts together and find the happiness we seek. Liberal Arts understands the way we romanticize our youth. It understands how that is a byproduct of getting older but while we’re young, we feel our own set of terrors and doubts. It recognizes the instant charm of attraction and innocent romance but then subverts the holy hell out of every “older man dates younger girl” story you’ve ever seen. The film isn’t afraid to break your heart but by the end of the movie, Radnor finds the truth and beauty past the pain and uncertainty and you feel hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we can reach the Everest that Andre Gregory spoke of.

Watch this film. If you ignore the rest of my ramblings in this review, walk away with that bit of advice. I watched the film last night when I got home from a long, stressful day of work, and for 97 minutes, I escaped my own problems and my own neuroses and lost myself in the beautiful tale that Josh Radnor wove. If this is the sign of what the rest of Josh Radnor’s writing and directing career is going to look like, I am excited because Radnor has great things in his future. For everyone who has loved and who has longed for an emotional/intelelctual/romantic fulfillment that never seems to arive, Liberal Arts is the movie for you.

Final Score: A

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(A quick prelude before the actual review begins. I’M BACK! So, I’ve been on a hiatus since early November. Long time readers/friends in real life know that I’ve been working on a screenplay. I’ve written five, count ’em, five drafts of my original screenplay Aftertaste. I’ve plotted out scene-by-scene the direction of two other screenplays and written about 30 pages of the actual script of another. I’ve read Syd Field’s book on screenwriting and just generally, I’ve been in the midst of a creative renaissance. It’s been really fantastic. So take into account all of the writing I’ve been doing, the fact that I had finals at the beginning of December and I’ve spent the last month and a half as the assistant manager at my local FYE working 30-40 hours a week, it’s easy to see why I’ve been too busy to update this blog. But, I have THREE consecutive days off in a row from work for the first time in what feels like an eternity, so I thought I’d return to the hobby that got me my internship in NYC last spring as well as the hobby that inspired me to write my screenplay in the first place. I’m back everybody!)

Barry Levinson’s Diner is one of the great under-appreciated coming of age films of all time. It didn’t gloss over the awkward pains and embarrassments of growing up or try to tidy up the ambiguities we face as we enter the real world. With subtlety and a terrific cast, it succeeded in delivering a realism that almost no other coming-of-age tale could hope to equal. 1994’s Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller, has a reputation as being the ultimate Gen-X coming of age film and while it has moments of almost heart-breaking veracity and is supported by a stellar cast at the top of their game, the film at times comes off like a blatant hodge-podge of 90s hot-button issues.

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The mid-90s was the end of an era. Grunge was beginning its slow descent into being corporate sell-outs and only a few years removed from post-grunge atrocities like Nickelback and Creed. Generations of teenagers who had rejected the “Generation Me” mindset of their Reaganite parents were about to learn the cold hard truth that their own counterculture would eventually have to grow up. You can fight the power as long as you want but eventually, someday, somebody’s going to have to pay the bills. In the angst-fueled Reality Bites, a small group of friends face the post-college world and come to terms with becoming an adult in their own painful ways.

College valedictorian Leilana Pierce (The Age of Innocence‘s Winona Ryder) thinks she’s on the right track. An aspiring documentary film-maker, she’s a production assistant on a popular television talk show. She’s beginning a healthy relationship with TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller), and her parents just gave her a BMW. But when her slacker best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), who may also be in love with her, moves in with Leilana and her friend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), Troy and Leilana’s complicated history and Leilana’s unexpected unemployment force everyone in their circle of friends to grow up more quickly than they expected.

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Similar to Diner, much of the film’s appeal can be attributed to the movie’s strong cast. As terrible as this may be to say, Ben Stiller’s acting career likely peaked with this performance as the sensitive and mature but still screwed up Michael. Winona Ryder’s career performances fluctuate from brilliant (Heathers) to awful (The Age of Innocence) but she was at her best here as the ambitious, bitchy, vulnerable, and lovelorn Leilana. It was a demanding role which required her to vascillate between sympathetic audience surrogate and angsty, whiny brat at the drop of the hat and she pulled it off.

The real star of the film though was the intense and naturalistic performance of Ethan Hawke. Although the writing of the Troy character occasionally bordered on ridiculous and some of his actual dialogue was absurd, Hawke’s mesmerizing performance made you forget any flaws with the writing. With his piercing stare and James Dean wounded vulnerability, Hawke turned this performance into the stepping stone for the rest of his star career although said star has been on the wane lately. It’s a shame Hawke never become a true top-tier talent.

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The film’s writing doesn’t always due justice to the film’s wonderful cast. Although the angsty, self-centered narcissism of the film’s cast may have seemed authentic and gripping in the mid-90s, it makes the cast seem remarkably unlikeable for most of the film and not necessarily in interesting ways. And while Leilana’s characterization seems sufficiently 3-dimensional, the supporting players often act in ways that are utterly unbelievable and the film can never seem to get a tag on what role they want Troy to inhabit. That may have been the intention but at times, it just makes the film seem muddled.

And on that same note, the film’s use of “facing the camera” vignettes (which are part of Leilana’s in-universe documentary) tell parts of the story to directly when a more subtle approach would have been affective. The film isn’t afraid to “tell” the audience the story it wants to portray rather than showing it. When the film tackles themes like sexuality and finding a meaningful job or alienation, it does them well but Reality Bites is just as likely to have a character make some type of bland platitude directly into the camera and insult the audience’s intelligence in the process.

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Minor complaints aside, Reality Bites is still a wonderfully charming indie romance and it’s easy to see why so many people that were teenagers in the 1990s find it so meaningful. My screenplay Aftertaste actually shares many thematic similarities to Reality Bites and could almost have the exact same logline. So, this film gave me some ideas about some pitfalls that I need to avoid in my own film as I continue to write more drafts of Aftertaste in the hope of selling it. If you’re a fan of indie coming of age films, Reality Bites might not be perfect, but it’s a genuine and deeply enjoyable gem from the indie film’s heyday.

Final Score: B+

 

(Quick side note. I promised you all I’m on a streak. Somehow, Netflix sent me 4 instead of my usual 3 DVDs, and they’re all films that I’m very excited to watch/think have the potential to be really good or great. This film was one of them. It was really good. Plus, I just bought Cabin in the Woods on blu-ray. It’s Joss Whedon. How can it not be good? We shall see though. We shall see. I’m loving this blog right now though.)

A lot of films are victims of inaccurate publicity. Brokeback Mountain is so much more than the “gay cowboy” movie. Watchmen had much grander psychological motivations than simply being another action-fueled superhero movie (although it still had plenty of action). Magic Mike was a tragic examination of the death of the American dream and a reverse-look at sexual objectification. It wasn’t just a stripper movie. When I first heard about 2007’s indie “comedy” Lars and the Real Girl, I thought it was going to be a semi-exploitative look at one man’s sexual obsession with a life-sized sex doll. Even Netflix’s description of it makes it seem that way. Thank god that’s not true. It’s a touching and intimate look at loneliness and the self-defense mechanisms we create for ourselves to protect us from the pain and hurt of the real world.

In the frozen reaches of the Dutch Midwest, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a sad and dejected loner living in the garage of his late parents’ house where his brother Gus (The Assassination of Jesse James‘ Paul Schneider) lives with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). He only leaves his garage for church and work, and despite the regular invitations to dinner from his sister-in-law, he spends time with no one. One day at work though, he hears a co-worker talking about life-sized anatomically correct female dolls, and six weeks later, one arrives of his own. He names her Bianca and has deluded himself into thinking she’s a real girl. However, he doesn’t have her for sexual purposes. She’s simply the friend and companion he’s always needed, but his eccentricity has his brother convinced he’s mentally ill, and with the help of local shrink Dr. Dagmar (Pieces of April‘s Patricia Clarkson) as well as the rest of the town, they try to help Lars through this strange patch in his life.

If that plot description seems either vague or boring, fear not. I simply don’t want to ruin the direction the film takes which is one of the most optimistic and hopeful statements on our ability to rally around and help each other in our moments of need that I can think of from modern cinema. That it manages to do so without seeming hopelessly naive speaks to the endearing idealism and hope that permeates throughout the film. And the film moves at its own stately pace, but it’s never dull. For a film that’s characterized as a comedy, it’s never especially funny. That’s alright, ultimately, because it’s an engrossing character study in loneliness and despair while simultaneously looking at those parts of small-town America that we can still cheer for (as opposed to the economic implosions, the bigotry, and the small-mindedness).

Ryan Gosling’s career is one of Hollywood’s most interesting to study. He made a name for himself as having the potential to write his own ticket after starring in one of the definitive chick-flicks of the 2000s, The Notebook. He could have played it safe and made a career as the sensitive and troubled romantic lead. Thank God he didn’t go down that route. Instead, he transformed himself into one of the indie darlings of the aughts, a role he continues to play into this decade. Along with Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl is one of Gosling’s most high-profile indie roles, and it’s easy to see why. He never turns Lars into a joke. He’s a sad and lonely boy trapped in a man’s body. And you watch him learn to accept and come to terms with his place in grown-up society over the course of the film as well as work through decades of feelings of abandonment and lost love.

The film was overflowing with great supporting parts as well. Paul Schneider is a terribly underrated character actor. If you need any proof of that, just watch the criminally under-appreciated All the Real Girls with him and Zooey Deschanel. If you’re wondering how you would react if your brother started talking to a life-sized sex doll, it would probably be something like Paul Schneider’s Gus, but he also shows some sensitivity as he wrestles with his guilt of leaving Lars behind when he left for college. Kelli Garner is also charming as Margo, one of Lars’ coworkers who has a serious crush on Lars, but he’s too shy and awkward to even notice her existence. Emily Mortimer is fine (she always is), but she has considerable difficulty suppressing her British accent during many of the most emotional parts of the film. And has there been a role where Patricia Clarkson didn’t shine?

As someone who is shy and occasionally withdrawn (which makes my past political aspirations so weird in retrospect), the parts of this film where it explores Lars’ almost pathological inability to function around other adults was simply awe-inspiring. It’s a story about a man who went far too long (and he’s never formally diagnosed in the film) without getting proper care for a serious case of Social Anxiety Disorder, and it then becomes a tale of how a community rallies around a member who needs it the most in order to help him get better. But any moment in the film where we see Lars physically unable to make emotional or actual physical contact with other people was painful to watch because of how terribly real it all felt. I’m not nearly that shy, but the fear that we’re never going to be able to connect with the others around us is so real, and Ryan Gosling and the script bring that fear to life.

That a film can make you care about the imaginary relationship between a social trainwreck of a man and his life-sized doll girlfriend is a testament to the heart and insight of the script. It’s a small, quiet film (which is shocking considering the subject matter) with a subtle grasp of the fragility of our mental state and our relationships with those around us. It may not speak to some of the largest existential questions that face us as a people but the way it so freshly captures a tiny aspect of our harried time on this planet is sublime. For fans of quirky and ultimately moving indie comedies/dramas/romances (Lars and the Real Girl covers all those bases), this film will leave you sated.

Final Score: B+

It is rare that I am able to take films about drug abuse very seriously. Nine times out ten, they are preachy and judgmental rather than honest and insightful. Perhaps because I’ve lived with a drug dealer (although I didn’t do the drugs), I know that the issues here aren’t as black and white as the vast majority of drug films make it out to be. I know just how much damage drugs can wreak in a family. On my mother’s side of the family (though not actually my mother), drug abuse was/is a serious issue. However, 90% of films on the subject seem to not realize the subtleties of the issue (or that there are people out there who can get along perfectly fine while using drugs in a responsible way) and want to preach to audiences that all drugs are bad all of the time. There are no exceptions. So, it’s interesting to find a film which certainly seems to come down hard on drug use (especially harder stuff like heroine and falling prey to addiction) that manages to not be an overbearing, moralizing affair. I’m not entirely sure if Jesus’ Son is as insightful and poetic as its writers/director intended but it’s a surreal stream-of-conscious film that accurately captures the downward spiral life of a homeless, drug addicted drifter in the 1970s.

Following about four or five years in the life of the sensitive fuck-up known only as Fuck Head (Almost Famous’ Billy Crudup), Jesus’ Son is a sprawling, non-linear (slightly unfocused) story of one man’s descent into the darkest depths of addiction, his desire (and inability) to emotionally connect with those around him, and his one last chance to get himself out of the gutter. The film takes place through a series of often unrelated, episodes which put together one piece of the puzzle of FH’s fucked up life, and it jumps back and forth through the many years the film covers (often mid-scene as FH’s narration realizes he skipped some important detail). We meet his junkie girlfriend Michelle (Synecdoche, New York‘s Samantha Morton) who introduces him to heroin although she realizes she needs to get clean as he sinks deeper and deeper into depravity. We follow FH’s ill-fated attempts to work in the emergency ward of a hospital along the mentally unhinged orderly played by Jack Black who enables FH’s addiction even though he’s trying to stay clean. We see him after a break-up with Michelle hitch-hiking across the country only to be in a nearly fatal car-wreck where only he and the baby of the family he’s riding with survives.Through out it all, FH is fueled by heroin (and other drugs), loneliness, and his need to atone for his mistakes and make a connection with anyone, anyway he knows how (even if that means being a peeping tom on a family of Mennonites because he covets their potential happiness).

Although the ultimate message of the film is uplifting and hopeful, Jesus’ Son is not for the faint of heart. Co-written by Rampart and The Messenger‘s Oren Moverman, the film has the gritty, lived-in quality you’ve come to expect from his other films (and it was based off a novel which I’m sure provided many of the most immersive details). You see graphic scenes of heroine use. You see overdoses (several). There’s a darkly comic scene where one of FH’s junkie friends shot another junkie (on accident) but they were all too stoned to think to take the man to the hospital. You see the physical toll that heavy drug use takes on the body as the otherwise attractive Billy Crudup (he’s really a cross between Tom Cruise and Christian Bale) into a skeletal, beat up shell of a human being (and the same thing happens to the otherwise [unconventionally] pretty Samantha Morton). While not every scene is a winner, the episodic, vignette style of the film means that certain moments shine through stronger than others. There’s a scene where FH and Jack Black’s Georgie accidentally run over a bunny rabbit. Georgie runs back to collect the rabbit for food but instead cuts out baby bunnies from the rabbit’s stomach. The pair take a shit ton of drugs and despite a snow storm, frolic outdoors trying to care for the bunnies. However, the next morning, when they wake up, we discover that the bunnies (which FH had been keeping in his shirt to keep them warm) had gotten behind FH and he squashed him. The movie is chock full of small (and major) tragedies like that which will stick with me for a while.

I think Billy Crudup is a pretty under-rated actor. He was actually in one of the first movies I ever reviewed on here (Waking the Dead), and he definitely doesn’t get the respect he deserves. This is coming from a straight man, but as good looking and talented as he is, I’m always shocked that he hasn’t had a more fruitful career. This is a weird performance. Not Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village weird but it’s strange enough that I could see this being very off-putting to the casual viewer who won’t get what Crudup is trying to accomplish. He’s really capturing the frazzled, burnt out mind set of a kid who’s ingested every drug that comes his way the last 10 years. It makes his performance have FH come off like a bit of a simpleton but you would be too if your blood was more heroin than hemoglobin. However, he didn’t just show FH stumbling through life in his drug-addled haze. We also saw sparks of the sensitivity that makes him such a magnetic and sympathetic protagonist (and why we’re still able to root for him even after he’s destroyed everything around him). This is the second Samantha Morton performance I’ve seen in the last week or so and it was excellent as she was inSynecdoche, New York. Holly Hunter also had a smaller (but pivotal) role towards the end of the film as another recovering addict that FH meets and falls for when he enters a rehab clinic after hitting rock bottom.

However, as I mentioned early, the film is based on a book. The book is a collection of short stories. I’ve never read the book but if I had to wager, I’d guess that the film’s writers just put FH into all of these different stories because the film can be a bit of a jumbled mess. There’s not a lot of cohesion here, and until the very end of the movie, you are never fully able to tell whether a character will be important or just a minor player in larger events. Maybe the film’s lack of focus is supposed to reflect FH’s own divided mental state, but that didn’t make the film any less consistent. Some scenes were brilliant. Some fell flat and it was all the more apparent because of the strength of the better scenes. Still, I recommend the film to fans of independent cinema as well as movies that take a serious and honest look at the issues of addiction and the escapism of drug abuse.

Final Score: B

I’ve actually debated whether to even write my review for this movie at all or not. It’s not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Mike Mill’s heavily autobiographical 2011 film Beginners. I thought it was a lot better than many of the movies that were nominated in this year’s very weak field of Best Picture nominees. Seriously, how did they manage to get things so right (at least in terms of the nominees, if not necessarily the winner) last year, and fuck things up so horribly this year. There were three different movies this year that I actively thought were bad (The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse). I haven’t seen The Artist yet so I can’t comment on its quality though I seriously doubt it will be better than The Tree of Life. That’s not why I’ve questioned writing this review though. I happen to have a fairly massive sinus infection, and I’m so much Claritin and Suphedrine that I’m buzzed as shit. So, I’m not entirely sure I can even put together comprehensible sentences. We shall see. Maybe this will be my grand experiment to see if I’m capable of Hunter S. Thompson style drug-induced ravings, although if I were channeling Raoul Duke, I’d need to be on something a little heavier than allergy/sinus medicine. Anyways, for those who have any interest in the LGBT movement or great father/son stories, Beginners is a wonderful and quiet film even if it allows itself to ramble on just a little to much (a trait we both share).

Told in non-linear order (along with still-image voice-overs to further break up the linearity of the film), Beginners is a story of romance, fathers and sons, and being true to yourself no matter what your age is. Oliver is a graphic designer dealing with the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) in one half of the film while also dealing with the shocking revelation that his father had come out of the closet as a gay man at the age of 75 after the death of Oliver’s mother/Hal’s wife in the other half of the film. Because a psychiatrist in the 1950s told Hal that his homosexual urges were caused by a mental illness, he sought to cure himself by marrying a woman and maintaining a heterosexual lifestyle even though he was miserable. So, even though he is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after coming out of the closet, Hal decides to live his remaining days to his fullest (even though he eventually begins to deny the impending reality of his inevitable death). Oliver on the other hand is a commitment-phobe who has never known how to love because of the loveless nature of his parent’s marriage. It takes him meeting fellow commitment-shy lost soul Anna (Inglourious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent [an unbelievably gorgeous woman if there ever was one]), a French actress in L.A. that Oliver starts a tentative romance with at a party where Anna’s laryngitis makes her unable to talk, for Oliver to finally learn to deal with his father’s death as well as his own commitment issues.

Christopher Plummer won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and while I’m not certain if he was better than Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (he was seriously one of the two redeeming factors of that film), it was still a tender and lively performance for a man in his 80s in real life. I might be wrong but I’m fairly certain that Christopher Plummer is now the oldest person to win an Academy Award. So, the sheer joie de vivre (though the characterization as well as Plummer’s performance were far more complicated than that) is incredibly impressive. Everything about Hal as he turned his back on his impending death and chose to celebrate living his life was an ode to existence in both its tragedy and brilliance. I still feel like Plummer’s award was more about A) the role and B) a testament to his career. I still think Max Von Sydow was better (I haven’t seen the other three nominees). Ewan McGregor was very withdrawn and restrained as Oliver, but that’s written into the character so I can’t fault him for it. He just wasn’t especially exciting to watch. Melanie Laurent is one of the most gorgeous women acting right now, and she’s also very talented. She was good in her role although once again, this part wasn’t nearly as demanding or interesting as Shoshana in Inglourious Basterds.

This movie isn’t really going to be for everyone. It meanders along at its own pace, and the plot is fairly simple. A man comes out of the closet, gets cancer, and dies, and then his son falls in love with an actress and has to finally deal with his own issues. There are long moments in the film where dialogue is put at a minimum and the film takes a stab at visual poetry. Not at any sort of Fellini-esque or Malick-ian level, but it will tone all of the talking down and let the faces/physical nature of the scene do the speaking. I loved all of those things about the movie but I know those tend to turn off the more casual movie fan. The film takes some fun stylistic experimental turns. Hal has a Jack Russell terrier that Oliver has to adopt when his father dies, and there are several scenes in the movie where Oliver converses with his dog via subtitles. It’s adorable. Also, the film makes good use of symbolic repetition by comparing visual stills from the 1950s and visual stills from today to make a point both about how much things have changed in the last 50 years but also how much they’ve tragically stayed the same for the LGBT community.

I want to review more but I fucking feel terrible still and I’ve sneezed legitimately like 30 times over the course of this review. So quick last thoughts. The movie meanders just a little too much for its own good and because so many scenes are so sharply realized, the weaker moments seem even more weak. That’s the curse of having some really great moments in a movie. Other than that, it was a beautiful film. Great, understated films don’t come around often enough, and Beginners know that you can create truth through quiet honesty. You don’t have to beat your audience over the head with your points. I also have to review the season premiere of True Blood. Although, I’m considering not reviewing it just because of how disappointed I wound up being with last season. The season premiere was good though. Not great, but I was able to enjoy it which was a serious step up from last time around. Anyways, we’ll see if I wind up feeling any better. As it is, I just feel like I have the bubonic plague.

Final Score: A-