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Entries in Drama (69)

Friday
Jan112013

Amour

Love isn’t simple. It throws things at you that you never would expect and at any time, that blissful existence you have with a significant other could change dramatically. That’s the idea behind Michael Haneke’s new film, Amour, which follows an old married couple who live a simple life until the wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), has a stroke and finds herself paralyzed down her right side, unable to perform the simplest of tasks, which are left up to her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). This isn’t a story about aging gracefully or unrequited love that movies so often romanticize. This is about a downward spiral that many of us will inevitably face. If nothing else, Amour faces old age and the struggles that accompany it head on and although it isn’t perfect, it’s a nice change of pace.

Upon meeting Anne and Georges, you immediately love them because you see how much they love each other, even after many decades of marriage. With a world that has commercialized love to the point of cynicism, it’s refreshing to see a couple with feelings for each other that haven’t been manufactured or manipulated by those who treat it like a business. After Anne has her stroke, your appreciation for them, particularly her husband, become even stronger. Georges has to help her with everything, from standing up to getting in bed to going to the bathroom. That beautiful, lively woman he fell in love with all those years ago is now in constant need of care and, despite the hardship he shows, he doesn’t really complain. Even when she starts wetting the bed, unable to control herself, he assures her it’s okay and sets about changing the sheets.

As the movie goes on, it becomes increasingly heartbreaking watching this woman struggle to do the simplest of things while her husband does all he can to make her comfortable. She eventually becomes depressed and finds herself in constant pain, forced to face her own mortality, realizing that this is the beginning of the end. One can only imagine how frightening such a realization must be. This is a thematically tough movie to watch and the dedicated performances by both of the stars are brave and nuanced.

Where Amour falters is in its final moments. Georges starts to become more scared and less caring, even going so far as to smack Anne as she lays defenseless and paralyzed in bed. To finally reach an emotional breaking point when so much burden is suddenly thrust upon you without warning is understandable, but to do what he did and will do before the credits begin to roll is not. Some will argue his final action is done out of love, not selfishness, wanting only his wife to be at peace, but it never comes off that way. The simple drama about the hardships of love at the end of life flies wildly off the rails into something few will expect, its entire thematic focus shifting to something vastly different and darker. As that simple drama, it works magically. As what it eventually becomes, it hardly works at all.

Nevertheless, this is an assured movie that is very well made, even if its narrative proves itself unable to complement the craft. Haneke directs the movie with a keen eye, in a way that is simple, but not simplistic. His approach is reserved, usually doing nothing more than placing the camera in one spot and keeping it still. In this way, he lets the dialogue and story flow naturally, without the unnecessary cutting back and forth most movies see as a necessity. But in the end, Amour is more a movie to appreciate than to like, mainly due to the ill-advised final sequence of events, which takes much of the goodwill created for Georges and throws it out the window. Because of its flawless acting and steady camerawork, Amour is still worth seeing, but that ending plays sourly, completely changing the context of its title to something unwelcome and unnecessary. What a disappointment.

Amour receives 3/5

Friday
Dec142012

Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson is a film that shoots for Oscar glory and falls far short. It’s an admirable attempt at making something special, but that attempt, sadly, results in a failure. But just because something isn’t worthy of an Oscar doesn’t make it bad. Hyde Park on Hudson doesn’t do much wrong; the problem is that it doesn’t do much at all. It isn’t terrible by any means and it keeps you interested until the end, but for a movie that takes place at the back end of the Great Depression and during a tumultuous time when war seemed inevitable, it fails to resonate. It limits its focus so much that the world around these characters seems to disappear. The effect of the Depression and the anxiety from the impending war are all but forgotten, mentioned merely in passing rather than properly explored. It’s definitely worth seeing, but only with the reservation that its ambition is confined to faux-Oscar aspirations.

The film begins with narration from Margaret (Laura Linney), the fifth or sixth cousin (depending on how you count) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray). One night, she is called to visit the President and they begin to have an affair. She sticks with him through all of his trials and tribulations, including the visitation of King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), who hope to gain American support against the approaching Nazi evil.

The fact that Hyde Park on Hudson’s plot synopsis can be described in such a short space is evidence of its limited intentions. The film is less interested in exploring the anxiety and fear of what a war could bring and instead spends almost all of its time with Roosevelt and his crew at Roosevelt’s country estate in New York. The drama never rises above trivial relationship matters, as if they’re more important than the country as a whole. The biggest missed opportunity, though, comes from the King and Queen. Despite expressing their concern over the looming threat their country will soon face, their scenes consist mostly of discussions over the food they will be served at the upcoming picnic in their honor. The idea of hot dogs (perhaps because they’re unfamiliar with the concept) seems grotesque to them and they spend more time contemplating over whether or not they’re going to eat them than how they’re going to convince America to come to their aid. All these conversations throughout the entire movie culminate into little more than a supposedly humorous bit. “Oh, look at the prim and proper Englishman eating a hot dog!” This late scene is meant to act as a bridge between the shared humanity of America and the United Kingdom, but it comes off as little more than an inconsequential farce.

Despite a desire to see more come of these scenes, it would be disingenuous to say they weren’t at all interesting. They still have their charms and they offer some of the biggest laughs in the entire movie. In fact, every scene, even away from the bickers between the King and Queen, is like this. You want more, but you’re happy anyway. This is due to the excellent cast giving terrific performances. The performers take a long, meandering movie full of dialogue heavy scenes and they manage to make it engrossing. While those Best Picture Oscars will remain elusively out of their grasp, don’t be surprised when it picks up some acting nods. Bill Murray, in particular, is terrific and does everything he can to bring President Roosevelt back to life. It could be argued that a nomination given to him would be more because of his storied career rather than because of this single performance’s greatness, but he nonetheless deserves it. He’s come a long way from the goofy comic so many grew up with. He’s a legitimate and incredibly talented actor that shines in what could be the toughest role of his career.

Hyde Park on Hudson is still, ultimately, a disappointment and it uses a bit too much camera trickery for such a straight forward drama (I’m not too sure that scene where everybody is standing outside chatting needed a frantic 360 degree rotation around them), but it still works. In a way, it plays like a good book, complete with descriptive narration that, for once, isn’t completely unnecessary. It adds feel, time and place to a movie that is severely lacking in all three and Laura Linney’s soft, sweet voice makes it even better, almost as if she’s soothing you off to sleep. It’s these positives that you’ll remember when walking out of Hyde Park on Hudson, which is precisely why it’s worth seeing.

Hyde Park on Hudson receives 3.5/5

Wednesday
Nov212012

Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is a director who is disputed over constantly. Those disputes aren’t about whether or not he was talented—all agree he was—but rather on which of his movies stands head and shoulders above the rest. With so many great ones to choose from, opinions inevitably vary. Some argue Vertigo was his finest work. Others point to North by Northwest. I personally hold Psycho up as his greatest achievement. That was a film that pushed the boundaries of the time with a subject matter that many deemed vile and unworthy. Its road to the big screen was a bumpy one, but the results were magnificent. Creepy low angle shots and brilliant use of shadows and props created what is still to this day one of the scariest films ever made. This week’s film, succinctly titled Hitchcock, takes place during its filming and the results are a mixed bag. Despite an Oscar worthy turn by Anthony Hopkins in the title role and endless material to borrow from, the film itself feels substanceless, neither an in-depth biopic of the man nor a particularly involving “making of” look at Psycho. It’s definitely a good movie, but it needed more meat to truly stand out.

Being an avid Hitchcock fan, both of the person and of his films, will bring simultaneous feelings of disappointment and appreciation to Hitchcock. Numerous film references abound, some subtle, some blatant, but they’re all something that will give viewers of his work pleasure, like the numerous shots of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette from his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, if you’re aware of his personal demons, those that extend from what he captured onscreen, you’ll find surprising and unwelcome restraint.

Hitchcock had a weight problem, one that haunted him his entire life, like when he was rejected from the military during World War I for his weight. His weight fluctuated his entire life. He could never seem to truly keep control of it. In the film, little is said about this subject, which is explored only through a nagging wife, played by Helen Mirren, who tries to get him to eat fruits instead of junk. When he passes out at one point in the movie, it seems to be more a byproduct of his constant stress from filming Psycho rather than from his unhealthy physical condition. Similarly, Hitchcock was famous for obsessing over his female stars, which is mentioned only in passing dialogue rather than shown as an attribute of the man as portrayed in the film. In these ways, the writing lacks focus. Its title implies a biopic, one that will reveal who Alfred Hitchcock truly was behind the camera and elsewhere, yet it’s as shallow an exploration of a larger than life person as I’ve ever seen.

Nevertheless, the film somehow remains fascinating. Not once was I bored, nor was I angry that it wasn’t living up to its potential, even if that feeling of disappointment was lingering in the back of my mind. This is in large part due to a brilliant performance from Anthony Hopkins, who perfectly nails Hitchcock’s mannerisms, right down to the way he would slightly upturn his head when staring head on and cross his arms over his protruding belly. The only thing preventing a full transformation is Hopkins’ recognizable voice, which he seemingly doesn’t even try to hide. That in no way diminishes the care he put into who he was playing; everything else is so perfect, the voice hardly seems a distraction. He pulls off some truly great scenes, including a late one as he stands outside the theater doors on Psycho’s opening night, orchestrating the screams of viewers inside who have just reached the famous shower scene.

Some of its more intriguing moments come when the film explores Hitchcock’s inherent interest in the macabre or when they show off his cunning, like when he argues his way past the infamously strict censors who enforced Hollywood’s Production Code (which was then abandoned a mere eight years later in favor of the current MPAA ratings system). It concludes on a high note as well, with an ingenious ending where Hitchcock addresses the audience regarding how he will be on the lookout for inspiration to lead him to his next movie, just as a bird lands on his shoulder. But these moments are fleeting and don’t encompass the film as a whole. Hitchcock is such an interesting man and Psycho such an amazing movie that led a troubled production that there’s a wealth of content to explore, yet nearly all of it is brushed over. Frankly, a documentary would have suited this subject better. It’s difficult not to criticize the movie for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but I suppose that’s not such a bad problem to have. It may not be what one might hope, but at least what it is, is good.

Hitchcock receives 3.5/5

Friday
Oct262012

The Sessions

There are some movies you watch and immediately know that it’s going to receive multiple award nominations from all types of organizations. The Sessions is one of those movies. It’s a deeply human story about life and love and it stars an underrated actor playing a severely crippled man who looks at the world from a different perspective than we’re accustomed to, thus allowing us to see the world that way as well for a brief period of time. It’s one of those movies that is noticeably flawed, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses so much that the flaws seem negligible. The Sessions is funny, emotional, heartfelt and warm and it’s a must see.

Based on a true story, John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a handicapped man who has suffered from polio since the age of six. As he says, he isn’t exactly paralyzed. He still feels sensations, but his muscles have become so weak that he can’t move anything. He’s a deeply spiritual man (at one point he says he has to be spiritual because living the way he must would be unbearable without having someone to blame) and one day he seeks out the advice of Father Brendan (William H. Macy). He explains to him that, even though he knows it’s forbidden in the Bible, he wants to have sex. He knows his disease only gives him a limited amount of time to live and he wants to experience all that life has to offer before departing. Surprisingly, Father Brendan gives him his blessing, so Mark sets up some appointments with a sex surrogate, Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt), who teaches him about physical love.

Hollywood movies these days put a strange importance on sex, perhaps because society has dictated its. Most movies look at it from a childish viewpoint, as something that all men must do, lest they remain a virgin, an arbitrary sexual term that bears no real weight. The Sessions looks at it from a decidedly different and refreshing viewpoint. Despite being the main protagonist’s central goal, sex isn’t treated like an immature necessity, but rather as a pleasurable experience, just one of many that we humans are able to enjoy. Mark hasn’t had many experiences like it and it’s not so much the sex he wants, but that he simply wants to feel something. He wants to feel alive for a brief (sometimes very brief) period of time. One beautiful scene shows Mark’s thoughts as he partakes in sexual activity, but they aren’t filled with lustful desire like some may expect. Instead, he’s picturing running on the beach and feeling the sand beneath his toes, the rush of a waterfall as it flows through his fingers and running his hands through a loved one’s hair. This wondrous scene simultaneously devalues the notion of sexual importance in the typical societal sense and brings to light its real importance as a special, intimate feeling that we take for granted.

Also refreshing is the film’s stance on Catholics or, for that matter, religion in general. Father Brendan, for example, isn’t a vindictive oppressor like many men-of-the-cloth representations, but rather a sympathetic man who understands that basic human needs and desires sometimes outweigh biblical interpretations. He’s initially hesitant to give his approval, as I imagine any priest would be, but he doesn’t let scripture cloud his judgment. Not once is there a statement in favor of or against his decision, but in the end, he does what he knows is right, even if that means going against his faith. That’s not to say The Sessions takes a stance on faith either—it seems neither for nor against it—it merely exists as a personality trait of the characters within the story.

Despite his handicap, Mark is never treated as lesser. He’s as complex a human being as anyone in the movie, perhaps more so given his humorous outlook on life in spite of his predicament. The movie uses his handicap as a means for comedy at times (the image of a fully naked woman sitting on a crippled man’s face is surprisingly amusing), but it never feels mean spirited because he does the same thing. He jokes about himself and sometimes relates those jokes to God, whom he says must have a “wicked sense of humor” to keep him on Earth with such a disease. He’s a lively and passionate man that you can’t help but care about not out of pity, but because he’s a genuinely wonderful person.

Where The Sessions fails the most is in its worthless side stories, most notably the one involving Cheryl’s home life. Her troubled private existence is so incredibly thin and barely explored that it fails to bring forth even the slightest bit of compassion from the viewing audience. There are numerous other little missteps as well that threaten to derail the movie, but the central story and performance are so good, so touching, so life affirming that in retrospect, it hardly matters. The Sessions is practically guaranteed to receive some well-deserved awards nominations in the coming months, including a Best Actor nod for John Hawkes, who gives what may be the best performance of his career. This is one that’s well worth sitting down for.

The Sessions receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct122012

Argo

Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.

The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.

Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.

The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.

If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.

Argo receives 3.5/5