Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Silver Linings Playbook

Date: November 27, 2012
Time: 6:40 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: Derrick
Food:  small popcorn, small Coke
Runtime:  2 hours, 2 minutes
Rating:  R
Director: David O. Russell

Quick Impressions:
I’ve been excited about this movie for a long time.  For one thing, I almost always like David O. Russell movies.  I appreciate his sense of humor and his ability to find humanizing comedy in situations others might mistakenly consider tragic.  The Fighter was probably my favorite Oscar contender of 2010.  Also, I have loved Jennifer Lawrence since first seeing her in Winter’s Bone (probably my second favorite Oscar film that year, though I also really enjoyed Black Swan). 

The other thing is, I’m always on the lookout for good, realistic depictions of bipolar disorder in popular film and television.  I love Tom Wilkinson’s Oscar nominated portrayal of Arthur Edens in Michael Clayton so much because his mania seems surprisingly realistic.  Not only that, but the film actually shows that though Edens is raving and out of control, people who take the trouble to try to understand him notice that he’s raving coherently, breathing new life into the old adage, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The Edens character beautifully illustrates a frustrating truth about bipolar disorder—when you’re manic, you seem much crazier to other people than you do inside your head.  Trying to coherently express thoughts that are racing far more quickly than you can verbalize them is frustratingly impossible. 

Though I’ve never read the novel The Silver Linings Playbook, I thought that Pat Solitano was bipolar based on the movie’s previews, and he is.  Bradley Cooper (an actor I’ve never particularly liked before) does a fantastic job playing a thirty-something man coming to terms with an unexpected diagnosis that makes him reevaluate his entire life to that point.  And I have to say, to me, Cooper’s portrayal of the disorder seems incredibly authentic. 

(I get annoyed by the way the media too commonly portrays bipolar people as perpetually demented, dangerous mass murderers/sex offenders and equally annoyed when people casually misuse the word bipolar to mean “flaky.”  You don’t get committed for being flaky.)

In all honesty, the only element of the movie that I found hard to believe was that Pat hadn’t been diagnosed bipolar until he was well into his thirties.  But then I had to remind myself  of three things 1) Men less frequently seek psychiatric help, 2) Dysfunctional families often view disturbed behavior as normal out of habit, 3) Men are usually more physically violent than women, so violent outbursts may in some social settings (such as Eagles’ games) be seen as relatively normal.

The Good:
I loved the movie.  It’s extremely funny.  I laughed out loud numerous times, and most of the time, other people in the audience were laughing with me.

The characters are so rich, realistic, and likable, clearly the result of a strong script paired with equally strong performances (and also, no doubt, inspired direction).  There’s not actually much to the story.  It’s just about people coming together to engage in meaningful relationships that help give them direction and stability.  But that’s life, basically, and it’s more difficult for some of us than for others.

Watching the worried expressions on Pat’s parents’ faces as he talked about his goals, I thought, Well, this rings pretty true.  When you’re manic, you think you ought to be accomplishing grandiose things (and when you’re depressed, you’re railing that you haven’t accomplished them), whereas your parents are basically thinking, “We just don’t want you to be dead.  Please somehow stay alive until we die.”

Another thing I loved was Pat’s frustration that nobody trusted him.  Trust takes so long to build, and just one stupid mistake (one act that’s “not you”) undoes it all in an instant.  And then everybody is watching you all the time.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Jennifer Lawrence):
People really seem to like Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress this year, and I can see why.  It’s a relatively weak category (based on what I’ve seen so far), and Lawrence has proven time and again that she has enormous talent and the ability to anchor a movie.  I just love her.  She’s wonderful at communicating emotion onscreen.  It’s like she uses her entire body to focus energy that she then directs outward at the audience.  I acted with a couple of people who could do that in high school, but when I tried it, I generally just ended up being extra shrill and pitchy and losing my voice and everyone’s interest.

She is really good as recently widowed, troubled soul Tiffany.  Watching the movie, I identified strongly with Pat, and Lawrence’s Tiffany really reminded me of a close friend of mine from college (particularly her abrupt and unapologetic exit from dinner).  Through her first several scenes, I thought that perhaps people were overpraising a good but not great performance from Lawrence, but then came the scene in the diner.  She does that amazingly well, transitioning from one emotion to the next not only quickly, but fluidly.  It seems sudden but entirely realistic.

She’s also amazing after the dance.  I really connected with the character then, and I envy the actress’s talent.  I can’t imagine that she won’t be nominated, and I’m really not sure who would beat her.  (Helen Hunt might be in supporting; the child star from Beasts of the Southern Wild is probably too young to win; most people don’t seem as excited by Cloud Atlas as I was.  Helen Mirren is always a possibility, I suppose, and then there are like two-hundred foreign films I still need to see.)  Anyway, I really like Lawrence’s chances.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Bradley Cooper):
I have never liked Bradley Cooper—until now.  (I don’t know why, either.  It’s not that I actively disliked him, more that he just left me cold.  When People named him Sexiest Man Alive last year, I thought, “Him?”  (Imagine Jason Bateman commenting on Ann in Arrested Development.)  He just always seemed like a really boring guy to me, but he’s definitely compelling in this role.

As I said, I laughed a lot during this movie, but there was one scene when my husband looked over at me sort of apprehensively, and I kind of winced.  (I’m not sure what he was thinking my reaction might be, but I’d have to be seriously deluded not to find that scene recognizably familiar.) 

When Pat is looking for his wedding video—Wow!  I don’t even know what to say.  Cooper definitely portrays bipolar behavior perfectly in that scene.  Part of the credit goes to David O. Russell, of course (and probably also to the book’s author), but Cooper’s performance is astonishingly convincing.  Based on that scene alone, he deserves a Best Actor nomination.

(Weird aside—I also find Cooper much more attractive physically when he has a cut above the bridge of his nose suggesting that he might start beating people up at any second.  I’m not sure why that is since I am definitely not attracted to men who might start beating me up at any second, and my husband—obviously the most attractive man in the world—almost never has a cut above the bridge of his nose.)

(Weird aside #2—If I were a man, I probably would have gotten arrested a lot in my early twenties, which makes the convenience of being able to pee (accurately) standing up seem far less compelling.)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Robert De Niro):
On the drive home from the theater, my husband remarked in wonder, “You know, I’ve never seen Robert De Niro’s early work.  I basically know him from Meet the Parents.  Now I see why people think he’s such a good actor.”  (This made me remember back when he used to be my favorite actor for a few months when I was in high school, and my sister and I got obsessed with the movie Sleepers.)

De Niro is really good as Pat’s loving but troubled father.  I haven’t read the book but kept wondering if perhaps Pat Sr. is bipolar himself and has used OCD type behaviors as a life-long coping mechanism.  In any event, I appreciated the way the movie showed that mental illness doesn’t just come out of nowhere.  I think De Niro’s character also shows that there’s hope for Pat to have a happy and satisfying (if not quite normal) life, despite his special challenges.

De Niro has a wonderful moment when he wakes Pat up to talk to him about football (or rather, to use football to talk to him).  Best Supporting Actor is such a crowded category this year, teeming with worthy performances, but De Niro deserves a nomination.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Jacki Weaver):
Jacki Weaver does a lot with the part she’s given.  Even when she isn’t speaking, her eyes speak volumes.  Her best moments are all non-verbal, and those wounded/worried/loving stares of hers were so convincing that I left the theater with the vague impulse to buy my mother flowers and take her out to dinner to apologize for something I can’t quite remember.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (David O. Russell):
Here’s what I love about David O. Russell’s movies.  They leave you with the idea that, even if you’re not perfect—if you happen to be damaged in some way or deemed dysfunctional—you’re still allowed to have a life, a life as filled with love and meaning as you can make it.  Nobody’s family is perfect.  Nobody’s life is perfect.  And if you embrace the humor in human imperfection, you’re a lot less likely to wind up in a worse place than your crazy parents’ house.

Russell deserves a nomination for directing, so I hope he gets one.

Based on the strength of the film, I also think he deserves a nomination for Adapted Screenplay (though as I said, I haven’t read the book).  (Basically, anything written in the twenty-first century usually gets read after the movie by me, or at least after I know about the movie.)

Here’s one thing I loved about the way the movie was written.  Pat’s ranting critique of A Farewell to Arms is highly relevant to the way his own story ends.  No spoilers here, but that was a little metadramatic flourish that I really enjoyed.

Best Scene:
The scene that felt most authentic to me (by a landslide) was the search for the wedding video, but the scene that I enjoyed most may have been the dinner party.  Two great performances collide, however, in the scene at the diner.

Funniest Scene/Best Joke:
Pat’s comments about his lack of an iPhone really cracked me up.

Best Action Sequence:
This isn’t an action movie, but the final dance routine is certainly something else.

Runner-up:  The Eagles’ game.  (The thrill is more in the anticipation.  “Now son, we know you’re violent and the police are watching you, so stay out of trouble and go to this Eagles’ game.”  Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.)

The Other Performances:
I was so surprised and pleased to see Julia Stiles.  My sister’s never liked her, but I think she’s a perfectly capable and charming actress (albeit one with limited range).  I thought she was very good as Tiffany’s arguably more successful sister.

It was nice to see Dash Mihok, too.  When he was Benvolio in Romeo + Juliet (after a small part in Sleepers), I expected his career to take off, but it never really did.  I was glad to see him as the police officer assigned to keep an eye on Pat.  I wish he would get a leading role in a substantial movie sometime.

Chris Tucker was great as Pat’s friend Danny, too.  It’s really nice to see him do something different, more subdued.  (It’s funny when an escaped mental patient is more subdued than your usual screen persona.)  I actually wanted to see more of Danny, but the movie already felt long.  Maybe I should read the book.

John Ortiz makes the henpecked Ronnie pretty sympathetic, Anupam Kher gets a delightful line as the only psychiatrist present at a gathering of people not thinking very soundly, and Paul Herman is so convincing as Robert De Niro’s bookie friend that I would place a bet with him right now.

The Negatives:
The only real problem with the movie is that compared to the first half, the second half is slow.  I’m not sure that’s actually a problem, though, since Pat begins taking his medication about half way through the movie.  So if the second half of the movie lacks a certain manic energy, perhaps that’s just a good old fashioned dose of verisimilitude.

One character I could never get very interested in was Pat’s brother.  I didn’t care about him, and I didn’t care if Pat got along with him or not.  The character probably could have been cut from the movie with nothing lost.  (True, he’s the one who had tickets to the Eagles’ game, but I actually thought the “going to the Eagles’ game” interlude was what slowed the pace down the most.  I realize the sequence accomplished certain necessary things, and the mayhem was certainly entertaining to anticipate, but I really don’t see why his brother had to be there when Ronnie was also present.)  Maybe when I watch the film a second time, though, I’ll feel differently.

Silver Linings Playbook presents a very realistic depiction of someone who has just gained awareness of his bipolar disorder.  It’s also very funny, touching, and occasionally romantic.  After years of existing, Bradley Cooper has finally gotten my attention (that he’s been craving, I know) with a very powerful and authentic lead performance.  Jennifer Lawrence is arguably even better as the troubled Tiffany, and both Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver give Oscar worthy supporting performances as Pat’s parents.  Surely this movie will get nominations for Picture and Actress, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the supporting performances, the director/screenwriter, and possibly even Danny Elfman’s score nominated, too.  I loved the movie.  I plan to own the Blu-Ray.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Rise of the Guardians (2D)

Rise of the Guardians (2D)
Date: November 23, 2012
Time: 4:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope, Merry, Matt, Jason, Grandma, Grandpa
Food:  small popcorn, large Icee mixed red and blue

Runtime:  1 hour, 37 minutes
Rating:  PG
Director:  Peter A. Ramsey

Quick Impressions:
My family has been excited about Rise of the Guardians all year—because the movie theater keeps telling us that we had better be. 

We had a full house for Thanksgiving, and the day afterward, most of the out-of-town guests were still here, so we took up the better part of a row at the theater.  I didn’t get to ask everybody what they thought, but I did get feedback from my immediate family.  All four of us had a different favorite character.  My husband loved The Sand Man.  Our three-year-old girl loved the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher.  Our nine-year-old boy liked Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin) best.  Personally, my favorite was Jack Frost (Chris Pine), (though I did find North was the funniest, Tooth the prettiest, and Sand Man the most artistic). 

The movie’s story is pretty simple, and the moral is one of the stock holiday fare, but that doesn’t make it less effective.  Once again, my three-year-old watched the entire movie attentively and when interrogated, reported that she liked it better than Life of Pi, but not quite as much as Wreck-It Ralph.  My stepson loved it.  My husband loved it even more.  I enjoyed it, but not as much as they did, though it certainly has a number of compelling strengths and is very watchable from start to finish.  Now that I’ve seen it, I would guess it has a pretty good shot at an Oscar nomination, though I don’t think it will win.  (Personally, I’d give the Oscar to ParaNorman, but so many animated films are deserving this year that I don’t see how the Academy can go wrong.)

The Good:
Visually, the movie is stunning!  I feel like I’ve said that a lot this year, but maybe part of that comes from the fact that we’ve had such a quality crop of animated features in 2012, and animated films are usually very rich visually.  I noticed Guillermo Del Toro’s name come up as an executive producer in the credits, but I don’t know if that means he had any sort of creative input on the film or not.  I recently discovered that director Peter Ramsey began as an artist, though, and Rise of the Guardians looks like the work of an artist.

The movie is a treat visually.  The realm of every Guardian is depicted with creative vision and thorough artistry.  (Visually, I liked Easter land the best—particularly the giant stone eggs.  Clever.  Of course, if you’re talking about character interaction, you can’t beat the support staff at the North Pole who keep amusing us even as the credits roll.)

The characters themselves also had a distinctive look.  (My daughter was suspicious of Santa’s tattoos.  She seemed hung-up on the Naughty one and told me several times that she worried this might be “the Bad Santa tricking everybody or else why did he put that on his arm?  It never comes off, so they might get suspicious of him when they see it.”)

I’ve never seen a more original (or more beautiful) version of the Tooth Fairy, and the menacing Aussie Bunny is certainly not the creature I pictured filling my Easter Basket when I was a child.

By far the most exceptional is Sand Man.  Though he never speaks, he makes a tremendous impact and may be the best thing about the movie (in terms of sheer artistry).  He’s like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and a firework (one of those shimmery gold ones that takes its time running down the night sky after it explodes).

Alexandre Desplat’s score is also quite nice.  I thought the song that played during the credits, though (the one with the almost operatic sounding female vocalist) seemed like a strange fit for the movie.  Obviously, I also like the work of child actor Dakota Goyo who voices Jamie because I thought, Jamie would be a good name for a little boy, just like I thought, Max would be a good name for a son when I watched Goyo play Hugh Jackman’s son Max in Real Steel.

Best Scene Visually:
All kinds of stuff catches your eye in this movie.  (Dreamworks projects always feature superior animation.)  But one of the strongest moments in the movie happens when North calls Jack into his office and makes his point using a nesting doll.  I love nesting dolls, anyway, but I thought the scene worked so well because it used a visual example of an important idea also conveyed in words.  (It’s interesting, too, that the idea Santa shares with Jack in this lesson is of central importance to the overall story.)  The scene is so effective because it conveys an important point by using apt words and images together.  It’s a moment that’s simultaneously funny and profound.

I wish more scenes in the film had worked this way, with the stunning visuals revealing a core concept that was then emphasized with well-written dialogue.

Funniest Scene:
Though the North Pole characters are consistently the funniest in the movie, my favorite joke was the bit with the Tooth Fairy at the end.  (That also drew a big laugh from my daughter.)

I also really loved the scene that played during the credits, and I heard lots of people around me laughing, too.

Best Action Sequence:
My daughter loved the final showdown against Pitch Black and laughed out loud at the last time Pitch appeared onscreen.  (I didn’t actually think it was funny at all, but she seems to enjoy come-uppance scenes, probably because the bad guys in movies actually scare her.)

Personally, my favorite action sequence was the race to collect all the teeth.  (I realize that “action sequence” more traditionally means “fighting,” and the tooth collecting bit is more of a comedic montage, but it was still fast-paced, so I think it counts.

Best Scene:
Just as I was getting really annoyed with the movie (for a reason I’ll explain in a minute), the flashback I’d been waiting for the whole time finally happened.  I love the scene from Jack’s past.  In cinematic terms, it’s definitely nothing innovative, but for me, that’s part of what made it so good.  It was a familiar type of scene in a film that could sometimes be disorienting.

I’m sure that the reason I like Jack’s character the best is that it’s the most dynamic.  The story is really about him, and he’s pretty much the only one who gets significant character development.  I’m a sucker for tragic backstories, anyway.  I remember during the backstory part of Rachel Getting Married, consciously thinking to myself, This scene is so manipulative as I bawled my eyes out, anyway. 

I liked Jack’s flashback and the way that it validated/defined the character.  It wasn’t really anything unexpected (except maybe to Jack), but it was done well, and it helped the character complete his journey, making him even more likable.

(It’s also kind of funny to think that Chris Pine’s character is marooned in the ice discovering that he once had another life.  If Leonard Nimoy showed up, it would be exactly like Star Trek.)

The Negatives:
When I asked my three-year-old what her favorite part of the movie was, she replied, “The fighting part.”  I wanted to say, “Okay, but wasn’t that basically every part?”

Personally, I think the script could have been stronger.  Granted, the screenplay was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsay-Abaire, but he didn’t win the Pulitzer for Rise of the Guardians.  From the film’s earliest scenes, I didn’t quite feel satisfied, but figuring out exactly what was bothering me took a while.  By the time we finally learned Jack’s backstory, it dawned on me.

Even though Rise of the Guardians contains wonderful dramatic elements, these elements are not arranged and showcased as effectively as they could be.  I liked almost everything the story had to say.  I just didn’t like the way it said it.  The story didn’t seem very focused to me.  (And the Guardians definitely weren’t focused.  It was like they all had ADD, and whatever they were doing at the moment totally pulled their focus and kept them too preoccupied to formulate any kind of greater plan.  Of course, I guess that’s an occupational hazard when you remain focused on one holiday or one task for hundreds and hundreds of years.) 

I will admit, though, that I prefer dialogue-heavy, character-driven movies with lots of talking and close-ups and emotions and ideas.  Long action sequences often disorient and overwhelm me.  And even though I like a beautiful image as much as anyone, I really prefer a story to be told with words (unless I know ahead of time that I’m going to a ballet or something).  My stepson’s favorite movie this year is my least favorite, Battleship.  From my point of view, nothing happens in Battleship.  From his, nothing doesn’t happen. 

Of course, Rise of the Guardians has a much stronger story than Battleship (and far fewer explosions).  But I still don’t think it has enough exposition.  The movie begins with a scene that seems ripped from a serious adult drama (like an actual stage play type drama), but as soon as we jump to the North Pole, things start moving and just don’t stop.

From my point of view, the movie jumped quickly from 1.) “Who am I?  Will I ever know my destiny?” to 2.) “Okay guys, let’s do it!” without ever really explaining who the “guys” were or what they were actually doing.  I mean, yes, most of us already know Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, et. al., but we don’t know them like this.  Even the cast list calls the characters North, Tooth, Bunny—not the longer, traditional names.  

To me, aspects of the movie are disorienting because (like Jack Frost) we know nothing about how being a Guardian works, and we discover the boundaries and the workings of the world as we moved through it.  In some ways, Jack Frost seems more like the anguished lead in a stage play, and the rest are more like characters in a video game (where it’s natural to move from themed land to themed land without explanation).  In Rise of the Guardians, we don’t know the significance of anything until we’ve already encountered it or the danger of what may happen until it’s already started happening.

Now I’m not saying that I was confused really.  It’s pretty straight forward.  Good versus evil.  We’ve all heard the story a million times—except for that surprising revelation about the significance of the baby teeth.  (I was spatially disoriented a couple of times, though.  Kind of a—“Wait a minute, where are they now?  Are they in Russia?  Are they inside a giant clock?”—thing, but maybe that’s because I was trying to wrangle my three-year-old.  I think I somehow missed them saying, “Now we’re all going to where the Tooth Fairy lives because xyz.”  They must have gone there for some reason, so this was probably something I missed because my daughter was wiggling, making it my fault, not the movie’s.  I thought they were in the sleigh tracking Pitch, so I was surprised when suddenly all the Tooth Fairy stuff happened, but I think my daughter must have distracted me.) 

Still I think a bit more exposition would have improved the movie.  Why hurry?  Slow down.  Explain more about how Guardians work—and, more importantly, the place of those who are not human but are not Guardians (yet), either.  Jack doesn’t seem to be the only immortal(ish) being who is not a Guardian at the beginning of the story because they all wait to see whom the Man in the Moon actually chooses to help them.  So who are these others?  And what is Pitch, exactly?

I also think the movie could have had more humor in the form of witty dialogue, or really, just stronger dialogue in general.  Almost all of the best moments were visual, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but more compelling dialogue would only have added to the great work the visuals were already doing.

Now I realize these criticisms may not sound all that bad to many people—the movie was too exciting and fast-paced.  That seems kind of silly, right?

But here’s the thing that bothers me the most—Pitch Black, the Boogie Man.  Why is he rising up now?  (Too bad for him he didn’t try all this a few of hundred years ago before What’s-His-Face and Whoozits went ice-skating.)  Where did he come from?  Why is he so obsessed with Jack?  What does he want (really)?  Was he once human, too?  I’ll assume that he’s lying to Jack about his own motivations and feelings, but does he have feelings?  Why does he deserve no pity?  (We get a hint of an answer in what Jamie says to him at the end, but I just don’t think this is quite enough.)  Jude Law does a magnificent job voicing him, but I think the villain is extremely underdeveloped.

And then there’s the matter of the hero.  Gosh, he’s easy to trap, isn’t he?  All you have to do is call his name.  I thought that whole section of the movie didn’t make much sense, particularly the stuff about the staff.  I’m attempting a spoiler-free review, so I can’t explain exactly what I mean.  If I were Jack, though, I would have been more susceptible to the seductions of Pitch because the Guardians didn’t exactly go out of their way to convince him (or me) that they cared about him or that he had any sort of value beyond their immediate (and inconvenient) need for his powers. 

It’s also annoying that­ they let him go (with only a few feeble protests) and later blame him for going.  That sequence of Jack leaving, getting sidetracked, and eventually returning was the weakest part of the movie—not in what it accomplished.  I loved the flashback, and obviously he needed to see that.  I just thought the way he got to that point felt awkward and heavy-handed.  (And why didn’t that little girl light up?  She had just been with them, interacting with them, even more so than Jamie!)

I was also a little bit confused about the character of Cupcake.  There are all these average, indistinguishable-from-other-movies neighborhood children coming around, and then there’s Cupcake.  Her character felt superfluous and was clearly named Cupcake because we don’t call children by mean nicknames anymore.  Why did they introduce someone so conspicuous?  They didn’t really need her.

Despite all my rambling complaints, I did enjoy Rise of the Guardians.  Both children really liked it, and my husband loved it. For children, it’s a very satisfying adventure about the importance of belief (in oneself and in general) and belonging.  It wasn’t the best animated movie I’ve seen this year, but 2012 has been an exceptionally strong year for animation.  It features tons of action, stunning visuals, solid voice acting, and a few genuinely funny moments, so it’s definitely something that everyone in the family can enjoy.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Life of Pi (2D)

Life of Pi
Date: November 21, 2012
Time: 7:45 pm
Place: Tinseltown  
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope, Merry, Matt, Grandpa, Grandma
Food:  Whoppers, Blue & Red Icee

Runtime:  2 hours, 5 minutes
Rating:  PG-13
Director:  Ang Lee

Quick Impressions:
I haven’t read Yann Martel’s Booker prize winning novel (yet), but I have read Herodotus, and I must say Life of Pi reminds me of the Greek story of Arion and the Dolphin.  As we left the theater Wednesday evening, that was the first association that popped into my mind, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. 

Wednesday night as I prepared for Thanksgiving by making pie—two apple, one pecan—I kept thinking about what Pi made of his life, his compelling approach to theology and narrative.  Because I try to keep my reviews spoiler free, I can’t share some of the insights—and questions—I find most compelling, but I can say without reservation that as Oscar baity movies go, Life of Pi is very solid.  (Sadly, the same cannot be said of my pecan pie which came out of the oven firm enough but mysteriously liquefied by the time we were ready for dessert.)

The Good:
Before I saw this movie, I knew four things about it: 1) Its preview, featuring a surreal scene of animals drowning and a tiger staring down a young Indian man on a lifeboat, played before seemingly every theatrical release of 2012, 2) It was based on a book, 3) It was generating Oscar buzz, 4) M. Night Shyamalan did not direct it.

Actually, I learned tidbit #4 first.  What seems like ages ago, I remember several entertainment news headlines reassuring me that M. Night Shyamalan was no longer attached to direct Life of Pi.  

Great news, I thought.  I love it when M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t direct things

As the end credits rolled, I remember thinking to myself, It’s good that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t direct this.  He would have made it all about the ending instead of focusing on the journey.  Then I thought, Quit beating up on M. Night Shyamalan, you pretentious nobody.  You liked The Village, and you saw The Happening.  In reality, of course, I have no idea what Shyamalan would have done, but I do know what audiences hearing his name would have expected, and if you go into the movie thinking, So what’s the twist ending?  What’s the twist? that kind of ruins it.

A movie helmed by Ang Lee on the other hand could turn out to be anything.  Sense and SensibilityHulk, Brokeback Mountain—his most famous films that don’t have a comma in the title necessitating the awkward use of semi-colons in my pretty little list—are all similar in many ways, but not in ways so obvious that the audience approaches the movie like a game they know all the rules to already.  Lee does seem to like a tortured romance, and the scenes with Pi and Richard Parker do play out rather like a love story.  The bond between Richard Parker and Pi is at the very heart of the story, and Lee does a commendable job of focusing on that and making us care about the boy and the tiger.  For the movie to work, we must care, we must engage in the story of their journey together.  And, though at the end we realize that the relationship is more complex than we at first believed, because the movie has worked, we understand that the story is not something other than what we thought it was, but rather, something bigger than what we imagined.

And the story is very engaging, so engaging that even my three-year-old watched it intently (though not quietly.  She had a lot of questions).  Most of the movie is just a teen and a tiger stuck on a life boat in the middle of the ocean, but honestly, that’s the best part of the movie. 

Visually, Life of Pi is stunning from start to finish.  Much of its beauty seems surreal, but to its credit, you really can’t tell that the tiger is computer-generated.  The CGI tiger looks ten thousand times more real than any creature in the Star Wars prequels and has as much charisma as any of his human co-stars (considerably more, in fact, than Rafe Spall).  But there’s no way they starved an actual tiger (even though, I believe several tigers were used in the film), so it must just be impressive CGI (or really impressive make-up on two guys in a tiger costume).

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (David Magee):
Speaking of actors crawling around on all fours disguised as animals, the screenplay was written by David Magee, who also wrote Finding Neverland (a favorite of mine from 2004 about the making of Peter Pan which features a human playing a dog). 

As I said, I haven’t read the book, but I think Magee has a definite shot at a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (though it’s bound to be a very competitive category this year).  You hear the premise and think, So it’s a guy and a tiger on a boat for two hours.  How interesting could that be? 

What makes a great novel doesn’t always make such a hot movie, but I like how we get lots of narration at the beginning, but less as the main action of the story Pi has been prepping his audience for actually begins to unfold on screen.  I think the movie does a good job of deciding which part of the novel is actually the story and then setting up and showcasing that story in an effective way.  I haven’t read the screenplay, but I’m assuming the screenwriter should get partial credit for that.

I think the screenplay is best when Pi narrates the end of his journey with Richard Parker and describes his reaction to the final behavior of the tiger.  We are shown what we need to see and told what we need to hear.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Ang Lee):
I’ve said already that I think Lee handles the scenes on the life boat expertly (or if I haven’t, I’m saying it now).  Even though Best Director is always an extremely competitive category, Lee’s name at least belongs in the discussion for his work here.  
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the discussion around the Patel’s dinner table before they leave on their voyage.  Their family dynamic comes across so clearly in just a few minutes.  All of the actors do a marvelous job, and the scene sticks with us (or at least it stuck with me).  I think it’s important to see where Pi comes from before we try to make sense of where he’s going.

Other likely Oscars:
Now that I’ve seen this movie, I can’t imagine how it could fail to receive a nomination for cinematography.  It might also be nominated for Original Score since several moments the visuals seemed to showcase the music and vice versa.

The Performances:
I don’t expect any Oscar nominations for acting here, even though the cast delivers perfectly good performances.  

Suraj Sharma brings the young Pi to life very capably.  As played by Sharma, Pi displays both earnestness and a winning sense of humor, and those are tricky qualities to balance.  This is Suraj’s first movie role, and I think casting an unknown was a wise decision because Pi’s the type of character best appreciated without the baggage an established star would bring to the role.  The problem is that he’s constantly being shown up by the cinematography and the apparently-real-but-likely-quite-often-CGI tiger.  He gives a good performance, but I completely expect it to be overlooked, in part because it seems effortless.  (Of course, bad performances don’t seem effortless, but that’s a well-known fact that Oscar voters like to pretend they’re not aware of.)

I particularly liked Pi’s parents, played by Adil Hussain and Tabu.  The two have a natural chemistry and interact together like they’ve been doing it all their lives (interacting, I mean).  All of the scenes of the family together feel very real.  We barely get to see this family in action, but what we’re shown is so vivid and engaging that we feel a great sense of loss along with Pi when the shipwreck separates him from his parents and his brother.  If her part were slightly larger, I’d say Tabu had a shot at a Supporting Actress nomination, but I just don’t think she has enough screentime.

I’ve read that the role of the writer was recast several times to avoid using a big name star whose fame would distract the audience.  Casting Rafe Spall was inspired because he definitely does not distract the audience.  In fact, you barely even notice he’s there.  On the whole, I’d say he probably should have been a bit more distracting.  (Of course, he did distract me because I kept thinking, Wow, that’s Timothy Spall’s son?  He’s surprisingly handsome.

Gérard Depardieu has one very brief scene, but I’d guess that he was cast for the opposite reason.  I think he’s actually in the movie so that the cook leaves a lasting impression.  I mean, the guy is barely in the movie, but when we’re asked to call him to mind again later, it’s very easy because he’s Gérard Depardieu.

I usually like the charismatic Irrfan Khan, and he’s very good here as the older Pi.  Khan’s got a lot of energy, so he’s a scene stealer even when he’s not doing anything but sitting still and calmly talking.  (Of course, stealing scenes from Rafe Spall is not exactly difficult.)

Shravanthi Sainath is lovely as Pi’s girlfriend Anandi, a character in the film all too briefly.

Best Scene Visually:
It’s impossible to single-out just one scene.  Both day time and night time on the island are gorgeous and odd.  Also good is Pi’s dream sequence as he and Richard Parker stare out into the vast, starry sky and endless sea.

Probably my favorite scene is the one with the flying fish because of the phosphorescent shimmer they leave in their wake, though I equally loved the opening scene at the zoo.  Nothing too flashy happens, but nothing has to.  Things are so beautiful as they are.

When I asked her, my three-year-old decided that her favorite part was “the island where those meerkats are running.”

Best Scene:
To me, the key scene in the movie is the one where a very young Pi stares into the eyes of Richard Parker for the first time.  What happens afterward clearly does make an impression, though perhaps not the impression Pi’s father intends to impart.

My sister was worried that my three-year-old would freak out at the end of that scene, little realizing that my daughter—whose favorite movie is The Lion King—watches many nature documentaries about big cats.  

After the whole goat ordeal was over, my daughter grinned and said, “I like the tiger.”  Apparently Pi liked him, too.

Best Action Sequence:
It’s pretty hard to beat the shipwreck and its aftermath.  The moment when Pi realizes that Richard Parker is on the boat is pretty memorable.

Funniest Scene:
When Pi tried to mark his territory in an animalistic way, the tiger’s response made several people in the theater laugh.  Even my three-year-old found it laugh-out-loud hilarious.  In fact, the tiger is always highly entertaining because it behaves like a tiger, and as the internet has taught us all, cats are very, very funny.

The Negatives:
The movie’s only major failing is that it promises way more than it can possibly deliver.  The preview prepares you for a visually stunning adventure movie about a boy and a tiger.  Then the movie starts, and you’re told over and over again (emphatically) that Pi’s story will “make you believe in God.”

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie, but it doesn’t make you believe in God.  We don’t even see any clear evidence that Pi’s story makes the Rafe Spall character believe in God.  In fact, living the experience doesn’t even make Pi believe in God because he believed in God already.  All that we really learn by listening to Mamaji’s claims and Pi’s story is that perhaps it is from his godfather that Pi inherited his propensity for grandiose exaggeration.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movie doesn’t have something substantial to say about faith, the nature of belief, even the role of narrative in the creation of meaning.  (Theologians, mystics, philosophers, literary theorists, hipsters on the lookout for a new text to bring to their next epistemology discussion group—people who have faith or want to have faith or want to know why other people have faith should enjoy this film.  So will three-year-olds who like big cats.)  But in order for the story to say anything to you on a spiritual level, you must already be aware that you have one.

You watch the last scenes of the movie and think, “Hmm.  That wasn’t what I expected.  How interesting!  I’ll to think about that.”

You don’t gasp and scream, “My mind was just blown!  What happened?  How could I have been so blind?  Do tigers even exist?  Is anything real???????!!!!  There is no spoon!  All this light is blinding me!!!  At last I can see that the only answer is God!” and then fall down weeping on the floor among the rejected pieces of popcorn. 

(For the record, I don’t expect the movie (or any movie) to trigger such a reaction.  I’m just not sure why we get such a heavy-handed set-up for a conclusion that does not in the slightest convince anybody of anything let alone that God exists.)

I probably need to read the book to answer some of my remaining questions.

For instance, I understand why it matters (a lot) that Piscine Molitor Patel got tired of being
teased and renamed himself Pi in a dramatic and memorable fashion.  But I’m really not sure why his father decided to give him the name in the first place.  (I didn’t miss the explanation.  I’m just wondering if we get more information about the godfather character in the book.)  I can see the significance of the name (and the story of the name) myself, but I wish I knew if I should be seeing more than I do.

The ending took me and my husband completely by surprise, but I thought the movie concluded better than the first story.  Perhaps this means I prefer Option #3: All of the Above.  I am a writer, after all.  Perhaps for me, truth lies in the creation of narrative.

In all honesty, I liked the movie far more than I expected to, and the nitpicky faults I did find with it—or significant questions that I had--can’t really be discussed without spoilers.  The beginning seems a little slow, but I think that’s just because on a first viewing, I didn’t know what to expect from the story to come.

I will say that of all the sequences, the part about the island was the least defined and explained (from a narrative standpoint).  That’s definitely the strangest part of the film, and it’s also the part that generated the most lively discussion after the movie.  (Almost none of us interpreted the sequence in the same way.)  My sister’s boyfriend is an artist and noticed visual details about the island that the rest of us missed. 

I am also quite sure that if I knew more about Hinduism and Islam, I probably would have caught references to them that I missed since I noticed some nods to Christianity.

My three-year-old enjoyed Life of Pi and watched the entire thing, asking questions a little too often (and a little too loudly), perhaps, but engaged nonetheless.  I went with a large group of people of all ages, and we all liked it.  In fact, I liked it far more than I thought I would.  The movie is consistently engaging and visually amazing.  While it’s on, it presents plenty of spectacle to hold your attention, and then at the end, the movie also gives you a philosophical treat to take home for later.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Skyfall

Date: November 17, 2012
Time: 3:00 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope, Grandma, Grandpa
Food:  $3 popcorn, Whoppers, blue & red Icee
Runtime:  2 hours, 23 minutes
Rating:  PG-13
Directors:  Sam Mendes

Personal Trivia:
I discovered during the pre-show that Penelope "can't wait" to see that movie that is actually an appliance commercial.  (And she said that after they ran into the appliances!)

Quick Impressions:
When I was ten, my grandparents took me to the movies to see Turner & Hooch, in which Tom Hanks & a slobbery dog team up to solve a murder.  Though privately I questioned their taste, I never turn down a trip to the movies, so I enjoyed my popcorn and had a pretty good time until the end credits rolled and my Grandma declared, “That was cute!  Of course, if you hadn’t been with us, we would have seen James Bond!” 

I was like, “WHAT???!!!!”  

(My grandma had a similar moment seconds later after I told her that I would have preferred to see Licence to Kill—which I still love, by the way, because Desmond Llewelyn gets so much screentime!)

Honestly, who doesn’t love a good Bond movie?

I waited a week to see Skyfall because I was fairly sure I could convince my family to see it with me, and of course, that was not a problem.  Even my three-year-old—when asked if she wanted to see James Bond—declared, “Of course!  That will be awesomeness!”

Her enthusiasm was not misplaced.  Skyfall is a great movie.   It’s even better than Licence to Kill (and light-years better than Turner & Hooch).  As far as I’m concerned, every Bond movie should feature a Tennyson recitation, a rollicking chase through the London Underground, and Albert Finney as a Scotsman with a shotgun.  Skyfall also gets bonus points for most effective incorporation of a Reformation priest hole.

Since it opened, I’ve heard people raving that Skyfall is the best Bond movie of all time.  Going that far seems extreme.  I mean, the franchise spans fifty years.  How can you compare installments made decades apart?  Goldfinger is an amazing movie (and still my favorite), but you can tell that it was made in another era.  Skyfall does its best to side-step and wink at Bond clichés, but those things weren’t clichés yet the first few times we saw them. 

I will say that Skyfall is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and probably one of the most emotionally satisfying Bond movies as a standalone.  (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service works well as a standalone, too, but it’s not anywhere near as entertaining a movie as Skyfall.)

Of course, even though Skyfall would be highly watchable for someone with no previous Bond experience, you’ll get the most enjoyment out of the movie if you’ve quite familiar with the franchise (especially if you’re in the majority of Bond fans who very fondly remember Sean Connery originating the role).  You do not, however, need to watch Casino Royale and Quantam of Solace first.  (It might be helpful, particularly to introduce the relationship between Bond and M, but everything completely essential to understanding the film, Skyfall itself gives you.)

The Good:
Bond movies don’t usually win Oscars for some reason.  (Well, the most likely reason is that they don’t usually deserve them.)  But I like Skyfall’s chances for Original Song.  I’ve seen so many outstanding animated features this year, and not one of them features an obvious musical standout.  Frankly, I’ll be stunned if Adele’s song doesn’t get a nomination.  (Of course, I was stunned last year when there were only two nominated songs, though on the plus side, they were my two favorites of the year.)  The song is immediately likable, quite catchy, and liable to stick with you a while.  Plus Adele has lots of fans who would tune in to see her perform at the Oscars, so I’m now pretty much expecting that to happen.  I also think the song’s major competition is the original song from the upcoming movie version of Les Mis, which I haven’t heard yet.  So far, I’m rooting for Adele for the win.

I also think Roger Deakins is likely to get a cinematography nod.  (It probably helps that he’s been nominated nine times before.)  I don’t know much about cinematography beyond what looks good to me, and Skyfall is stunning from the first frame to the last.  The urban scenes in Shanghai made me want to put in purple overhead lighting at home (which I’ll have to discuss with my husband), and the casino in Macau is like something out of a pleasant dream.  London also looked great.  So did Scotland.  The film had a clean, cool aesthetic and often looked like an exceptionally well-rendered video game.  (I mean that as a compliment, but the correlation may have occurred to me because I spent so many days playing Golden Eye in a haze of vicodin after undergoing an exceptionally complicated wisdom tooth extraction.)

Actually, I expect Skyfall to get several Oscar nominations, but none for the major categories (unless somehow it sneaks into Picture).

The problem with increasing the maximum number of Best Picture nominees with the idea that more audience favorites will now be able to get recognition is that even if the five extra slots were devoted exclusively to the year’s most popular movies (which they haven’t been so far), still not all of the most awesome movies of the year would get in. 

I will be extremely surprised if the Academy Awards somehow nominates The AvengersThe Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall for Best Picture.  I just really don’t see that happening.  Maybe one of the three will get in (and I will die of shock if that one is The Avengers, so maybe Skyfall has a shot, but it’s kind of a long shot.)  Skyfall may be a dark horse for a Best Picture nod (which is strange, when you think about it, because it most definitely is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year).  With only five slots for directing, though, it’s a virtual guarantee that Sam Mendes won’t be nominated, but the box office success of the movie is a huge victory for him.  (I mean, every time Mendes directs a movie, people ask, “Will this be as big a hit as American Beauty?” and until now, the answer has always been, “Nah.”)

I don’t expect there to be any acting nominations, either, but I’ll highlight the most likely performances now, anyway.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Judi Dench):
I’m not a Hollywood insider, but I’ve been watching the Academy Awards since I was a child, and I’m pretty sure that Judi Dench is the only one who has a solid shot at a nomination.  For one thing, everybody loves Judi Dench.  She’s getting older, but she still looks lovely and keeps turning out quality performances (like her essentially leading role in the well-received The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel earlier in the year).  For another, M is at the center of the story (both in terms of plot and character development), and I haven’t clocked it, but I’m pretty sure that Dench gets more screentime than anyone but Daniel Craig.  Finally, Dench is a marvelous actress who augments an already prominent role with a superior performance.  (It takes a talented actor to make moments of introspection come across more powerfully than dialogue on screen.)

She reads Tennyson beautifully, and I love that scene (even though it’s extremely contrived.  See if I care.  It was still wonderful to watch).  There are also at least two separate moments I can think of when she stands staring out of windows.  Dench does so much with these quiet, poignant opportunities or reflection.  Without saying a word, she draws us in completely.

(Wouldn’t it be amazing if both Dench and Helen Hunt (The Sessions) got Supporting Actress nominations, and then Dench won, but in her acceptance speech declared that Hunt’s performance was superior?  That will never happen, and I’m not even sure that I want it to, but it would be like a mirror of the Academy Awards in 1998.)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Albert Finney):
Full disclosure:  I love Albert Finney.  He’s one of the most versatile and compelling actors I can think of, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting and ridiculous that he’s never won an Oscar.  I really wanted him to win for Erin Brockovich, and I also hoped he might at least be nominated for Big Fish.  Albert Finney is one of those performers who has deserved an Oscar many times.  (Who else could pull off Ebeneezer Scrooge, Hercule Poirot, and Daddy Warbucks?)  The man is seventy-six years old now, and this is the most exciting part he’s had in years.  Granted Kincade comes across as incredibly useful comic relief, but what’s wrong with that?  He’s an exciting character that the audience (vocally) loved, and he gets to deliver what might be the best line in the movie (based on the audience response it elicited).  It’s actually very difficult to pull off comedy in a dramatic situation without reducing the character to a gimmick.  He’s particularly fantastic during the shotgun practice scene.  I doubt he’ll get a nomination, but I can dream.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Javier Bardem):
Javier Bardem has an Oscar, and two other Oscar nominations, and a baby with his Oscar-winning wife Penélope Cruz, so it’s not like he needs a nomination.  But he gives a tremendous performance as a memorably charismatic and strange villain.  In fact, Bardem makes Silva easily one of the most memorable Bond villains of all time.  Most previous Bond memorable villains are so memorable because we’re told and shown that they’re incredibly strange.  Silva is also incredibly strange, but this actually comes across in Javier Bardem’s performance.  Somehow, Bardem manages to make Silva both incredibly strange and incredibly real, so he ends up being much scarier than many of his predecessors.  The cosmetic enhancement he reveals under interrogation, the theatrical contest he proposes to Bond before his arrest—these are the types of bizarre things we expect from a Bond villain.  But Bardem takes a guy who is creepy on paper and makes him even creepier in person.  He’s fantastic the first time we see him, in the scene in which he tries to intimidate a captive Bond.

The Other Performances:
Daniel Craig is very good as a more realistic, human Bond with psychological scars, adversity to overcome, and decisions to make, but he doesn’t do anything spectacular enough to get Oscar recognition in an already crowded category.

Ben Whishaw already favorably impressed me once this fall in Cloud Atlas, and he’s a very welcome addition here.  I hope that he and Ralph Fiennes—also very good, as always—stay on for future installments.

My husband was quite impressed with Bérénice Lim Marlohe.  I agree that she was beautiful but wish the character had gotten more development (or maybe that she had been given more opportunities to continue to develop).

I preferred Naomie Harris to Marlohe and loved what they did with the character.  Besides being attractive, Harris makes Eve feisty and fun, a pleasure to watch as she interacts with Bond.  (My stepson didn’t believe that she also plays Tia Dalma in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  He protested, “She got a lot prettier then.  She was so ugly in Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Maybe I have strange taste because I thought she was pretty as Tia Dalma, too.  (I mean, she didn’t exactly exude a girl-next-door quality, although I guess that depends on where you live!))

Helen McCrory is also very good in a small part.

Best Scene Visually:
I’d actually give this to the surreal opening credits set to that unforgettable Adele song.  The entire movie looks great, so it’s really hard to pick out just one scene. But I liked the way the opening song included visual elements of the casino, and the scene of Bond approaching the casino included the melody of the song.  As I said before, the casino is so surreal and dreamy.  It seems to exist in some supersaturated hyper-reality. 

Best Scene:
Of course, my favorite action sequence was the one that took place mainly in subterranean London.  You know you love the London Underground when you see the radio surprise Silva has in store for Bond and think longingly, “Ah, I wish I were there!”  How can you not love an action sequence that dials up the drama, takes place in London, and unfolds onscreen as someone recites lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” 

And if you think that’s a little too much of the movie to qualify as one scene, then I suppose I liked Silva’s initial chair time with Bond the best.

Best Action Sequence:

Funniest Scene:
That all depends on your sense of humor.  While you’d hardly call it a delightful romp, Skyfall is much more whimsical than Casino Royale and Quantam of Solace.  There are quite a few jokes, but they do not come in the form of done-to-death puns or ridiculous stunts—unless you count Extreme Elevator Pull-Ups and Dragon Wrestling.

A lot of people laughed at Bond’s response to one of Bardem’s less than successful efforts to unnerve him.  (I mean the part when Bond is tied to the chair.)  Even though Bond is clearly just messing up Silva’s attempt to mess with his mind, I do remember a lot of hubbub several years ago when Daniel Craig reportedly said that James Bond ought to romance men as well as women.  (I can’t remember exactly what he said, and I’m not even sure that he actually said it.  All I know is that the story floated around in entertainment news for several weeks way back when, and this scene could well be winking at that.)

Kincaid is also very funny, and so is Q, though he’s no Desmond Llewelyn.

The Negatives:
The movie starts out with a bang, but then it slows down for a while.  The scenes in Asia look (and sound) fantastic but seem almost too surreal.  For me, the pace really picked up once Bond met Silva.  Up to that point, I’d been appreciating the movie, but once Silva was introduced, I loved every successive scene more and more.  (It helps that I’m a huge Anglophile who wishes I had an old house in Scotland that I could use to explode helicopters.)

The scene with the elevator fascinated me more than anything had to that point.  Part of me wondered, Is that really necessary?  Is there not maybe, an easier way?  Then I thought, Is he really behaving like someone fit for field duty?  But that gave me pause.  I’m not sure if the movie was being a little extreme, if Bond was being a little extreme, or if I have absolutely no idea how practical things (you know, like secret agents, elevators) work.

The scene in the casino was like ingesting a Halloween’s worth of eye candy, but I found myself wondering a little about the dragons.  (Of course, to be fair, I brought a three-year-old to the movie with me, and this was the part where I was pulling a muscle in my shoulder trying to rescue her errant bag of fruit snacks.  So maybe I missed some things.)

What I really didn’t like was the scene in the shower.  I know that she had been disappointed when he didn’t show up before that, but how did he know that?  And while I’m on my rant about women being treated in an unfair manner, I found it so interesting that M was being taken to task for being a “bad mommy.”  If M had been male, would Silva have called him a “bad daddy”?  It seemed like most of the complaints people leveled against M were gender based (except for losing the list, obviously).  I’m not saying that the movie was taking a sexist position.  (In fact, it went out of its way to feature a female minister brow-beating her.)  But when M is asked to “think on [her] sins,” the audience is being offered that food for thought, as well.  From a certain point of view, she is horribly guilty, but one of the things she’s “guiltiest” of is being a non-nurturing woman.  What kind of a Bond movie is this?  Can you imagine, a movie about James Bond showing us how a strong, professional woman responds to an attack that is, in part, unfairly focused on her lack of traditional femininity!  And that’s in the dead center of the plot.  (Of course, she does win us to her side by embracing this mothering role and being, ultimately, the best mother she can to James Bond.)  Still, the franchise has come a long way since the days of Pussy Galore!

To my surprise, Skyfall was one of my favorite movies of the year.  It looks and sounds fantastic.  The action scenes are impressive, even inventive.  The story is solid, and the performances are universally strong (much stronger than they have to be, really). 

My three-year-old cried when she woke up at the end and realized she’d slept through the last forty minutes of the movie and “didn’t get to see what happened.”

“Well,” I said helpfully, trying to cheer her up, “the bad guy lost, and….”

“NO! DON’T TELL ME!” she wailed, like I had just revealed a massive spoiler.

And she’s got the right idea.  Skyfall is a movie you should see for yourself.  It’s not perfect, but it’s very hard not to love.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: The Sessions

Date: November 13, 2012
Time: 5:20 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: Derrick
Food:  small Coke, small popcorn

Runtime:  1 hour, 35 minutes
Rating:  R
Director: Ben Lewin

Quick Impressions:
The Sessions is a film by writer/director Ben Lewin about a highly disabled man (John Hawkes) who wants to experience sexual intimacy for the first time before he dies and does so with the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy) and the guidance of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). 

Like many people, my mother had never heard of the film.  Since (again like many people) she knows John Hawkes only from his previously Oscar nominated supporting role in Winter’s Bone, I explained that the leading role in the film was played by “the guy who played the missing uncle in Winter’s Bone.”  Unfortunately, this tidbit gave her the erroneous (but highly entertaining) impression that The Sessions is the sequel to Winter’s Bone, and that Uncle Teardrop had (unbeknownst to Jennifer Lawrence’s character) actually contracted polio and run off to California with Helen Hunt.  What a movie that would have been!

In all honesty, I chose to see The Sessions this week instead of the far more popular Skyfall because I’m trying to see as many films generating serious Oscar buzz as I can without going completely broke and taking advantage of my mother’s willingness to babysit my three-year-old daughter.  (Plus the upcoming holidays may afford us another opportunity to see Skyfall, but I’m never going to convince visiting relatives to see The Sessions.)

John Hawkes’s leading performance has long been one of the Oscar buzziest of the year, so that’s basically why I wanted to see the movie.  Going in, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the film.  But I did.

I have to say that there were times while watching The Sessions that I felt uncomfortable and beyond skeptical about where things were going.  The film ended beautifully, however, and I came away satisfied and oddly uplifted.  I must say, this is one of the most faith-affirming, religion-positive films I have seen in a long, long time.  Catholicism, Judaism, Vague Spirituality—this movie is very faith affirming and life affirming, respectful of the human soul and in reverent awe of the love (of all kinds) that binds us all to one another. 

Not only is The Sessions a beautiful film, but it’s also based on a true story.  Mark O’Brien was a real person, left so weakened by the polio he contracted as a child that he spent most of his time in an iron lung and was (functionally) paralyzed from the neck down.  (In the movie, his character explains that he has full sensation.  He’s just not able to use his muscles.)  Despite such adversity, he managed to earn multiple degrees from Berkeley and make a living as a poet and journalist.  (I presume the poetry Hawkes occasionally reads in the movie is O’Brien’s actual work.  Some of it is quite lovely.)  The film’s story is based in large part on an article O’Brien wrote about his experiences with a sex surrogate.  Although the screenplay by director Ben Lewin (himself a polio survivor) fictionalizes some details, Cheryl Greene (the surrogate played by Helen Hunt) is a real person who has written and spoken about what her interactions with the late O’Brien have meant to her.

The Good:
With a premise that could easily tug on the heart (and the for-your-consideration) strings, The Sessions could have been a shallow, manipulative, contrived mess.  But it’s not.  It’s a warm and surprisingly uplifting story with genuine heart.  It’s not our pity for the disabled protagonist that keeps us invested in the story.  It’s our empathy for the lovable, witty, kind and very human protagonist.  Hawkes’s Mark O’Brien comes across as a funny, sweet, pious man with a wicked sense of humor and a more positive outlook on life than I often have.  He’s a very likable guy, and he’s capable of amazing honesty—probably because he has nothing to lose, nothing to gain by self-deception.

It’s also very refreshing to see religion and religious figures portrayed in a positive light.  The spiritual guides in this movie seem truly to care about those they shepherd, body and soul.  Much of the film has a familiar but pleasant, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” kind of sensibility, which is fine, but gains much more oomph when punctuated with the powerful addendum, “And God loves you.”  Not only that, but God wants to help you to love yourself.

Even though one of the characters with the most screen time is a priest, The Sessions is not a preachy movie at all.  In fact, some people would probably be horrified by the humanity of this permissive, enabling priest who gives such accommodating sex advice.  I call the movie faith-affirming (as I believe it is), but there are probably going to be people of faith who take exception to much of what happens.

The film focuses more on what’s being done than what’s being said, and it’s interested in the very, very specific, not in abstract, theoretical notions of morality.  Still, The Sessions puts forward a very clear idea of God, and that God is a loving God, whose servants also try to act in love working to help one another.  Catholicism and Judaism both come off enormously well.  It’s almost like you get the idea of why so many people practice these religions in the first place.  The way some films depict religious people, you start to wonder why on earth anyone would sign up for such emotional torture.  (Sadly, the crazy, unappealing religious characters who more often appear in movies are not just the fever dreams of a sick Hollywood.  There’s plenty of inspiration for those kinds of characters in real life.  But in real life, there are also incredibly helpful and loving people of faith, and those are the kind you too rarely see depicted in film.)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (John Hawkes):
John Hawkes might have a solid shot at winning Best Actor.  I mean, he hasn’t gone out of his way to insult the Academy this year (like Joaquin Phoenix), and his win wouldn’t mean anything staggeringly monumental.  If Denzel Washington wins, he will join Jack Nicholson as the only male actor to have two Oscars for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.  (Meryl Streep also has two Oscars for lead and one for supporting).  If Daniel Day-Lewis wins, he will become the only man in history to win three Best Actor Oscars.)  (Katharine Hepburn, of course, won four Oscars for Best Actress, a feat nobody else has even come close to equaling.)  John Hawkes would be just another previously nominated actor winning for the first time.

He does give a genuinely magnificent performance.  Within five minutes of the movie’s opening, he manages to win over the audience almost totally.  He makes Mark O’Brien feel so real.  (And yes, I’m aware that Mark O’Brien was a real person, but so was just about every character in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and I promise you, when watching that movie I sometimes felt like I was spying on animated extras from Looney Tunes.)  (Keep in mind that I admire practically every actor in that film, but those performances were not their best work.)

The thing is, throughout the entire movie, Hawkes only moves his face.  Though the supporting cast is charming, his is most definitely the character that keeps us glued to the story, and that character does nothing but lie motionless (often in an iron lung) and talk.  The level of difficulty there is staggering.  He has to make us love that character using only (limited movements of) his face and his voice.  It’s not like we’re going to stay with him because he’s John Hawkes.  He’s not a big enough star to command that kind of attention.  All of the onus is on his performance, and he totally delivers.  Plus even for viewers who have only ever seen him in Winter’s Bone, Hawkes shows stunning versatility.  This character is completely different from Teardrop Dolly.  Another thing working to Hawkes’s advantage with Academy voters—he also appears in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m assuming he doesn’t play a paralyzed polio survivor who hires a sex surrogate.

Hawkes shines throughout the film, so it’s hard to single out just one moment.  I do think his early marriage proposal scene is useful to consider in conjunction with the way he interacts with Susan at the end of the movie.  You can definitely see how the character has grown.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Helen Hunt):
Helen Hunt is naked for most of this movie.  That may be a slight overstatement, but she does do full frontal nudity, and her breasts are exposed during many of her most important scenes.  I mention that for two reasons.  1) Hollywood seems to consider nudity brave (if you’re a woman.  If you’re a man, George Clooney makes good-natured jokes about your penis and everybody ignores your performance.)  2) Helen Hunt looks fantastic.  I kept saying to my husband, “Can you believe she’s almost sixty!”  He couldn’t.  That’s because she’s 49.  (I think I kept increasing her age in my mind because it’s been so long since she’s played the lead in a substantial film.  If she’d held out for another year, I probably would have made her 80.) Still, she looks good for any age.

As portrayed by Hunt, sex surrogate Cheryl is also naked emotionally (eventually), which is far more important as far as Oscar consideration is concerned.  Hunt has always been a very good actress, and there’s a strange dearth of Best Actress possibilities this year.  (Actually, that may be an illusion created by the fact that most likely contenders will star in films that haven’t opened yet.)  Hunt’s character is very likable as well (eventually), so that should help her chances, I think.

If I were putting together a “for your consideration” video clip for her, I’d choose either the final encounter in the motel (once they’re mostly dressed) or the crying part in the car just afterward (though the part where she’s going through the trash is pretty good, too).

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Ben Lewin as screenwriter):
The scene with Rhea Perlman is by far my favorite in the movie.  For me, in fact, that scene made the movie.  It provided such a lovely finish for Cheryl’s story.  Her desire to give others validation and healing was noble and kind, though often (as she reported herself) misunderstood.  It was amazingly satisfying to see her receive (by surprise) the same kind of validation herself (and from a very unexpected source, from her point of view).  That we also learn what happened with the mirror at that point (to make sure we get the connection) is just good writing because it manages to show us a profound connection without using the awkward device of obnoxious narration to beat us over the head with the point.

The Sessions definitely deserves a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Best Scene:
For me, the Rhea Perlman scene was best, but that’s more about Cheryl’s journey than Mark’s.  Another incredibly strong scene happens when Mark’s friend Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama) forgets that he’s coming over.  Watching Mark go through a range of emotions and Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and Cheryl (Hunt) come up with a solution because they care about him is somehow very satisfying.  So many moments in this movie could end in disaster because Mark (made physically vulnerable by his condition) has the courage to make himself so emotionally vulnerable as well.

Both scenes involving intercourse are quite moving and very well done also.

Funniest Scene/Best Joke:
I don’t want to give away the jokes, but I will say that despite its very serious subject matter, this film is replete with humor.  Mark is very funny (usually intentionally).  Not surprisingly given his extreme challenges, his humor is sometimes dark, but even when he’s depressed, he never seems as bitter as he could be.  The reactions of William H. Macy (and the other parishioners) to his confessions also contain a lot of humor, and I loved the ongoing not-quite-romantic relationship between Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and the motel front desk manager (Ming Lo).  Mark's early interview with Carmen is another comic highlight (of sorts).

The Negatives:
For a long time this movie made me incredibly uncomfortable, not because of Mark’s disability, not because of the idea of using a sex surrogate, and not because of the nudity.  None of that bothered me at all.  (In fact, to Hawkes’s credit, you really think of Mark as a regular, relatable person, even though he’s obviously severely disabled.)

No, I was disturbed about Cheryl’s potential lack of professionalism.  For quite a while there, I got the idea that her husband (Adam Arkin) wasn’t meeting her needs and that she was falling pretty hard for Mark.  Because this is a movie, I was really, really worried that Cheryl might behave in a selfish, despicable, irresponsible, and unprofessional manner.  Had she done so, I was completely prepared to complain about all her “failings” (as I perceived them).  For example, she’s a therapist who refuses to communicate with her husband about her own feelings even when he directly asked her.  Also, she’s a huge control freak who seems to resent any initiative taken by her husband, yet she finds herself falling for a man who is completely paralyzed and who trusts her like a child and has acquired all his sexual experience from her.  Things could have gotten so ugly.  Fortunately, they went a different (and more realistic) way, and the conclusion of the movie turned out to be beautiful and moving.  But I was on my guard for a long, long time because I’ve seen the way Hollywood “improves” a true story before.

I also found myself wondering about the exact details of how sex surrogacy works.  Specifically, Cheryl and Mark never seem to use condoms.  (He wouldn’t, I guess.  He’s Catholic.)  But I mean, how does that work?  Do those seeking sex surrogacy agree to undergo various blood tests beforehand?  I realize that he had never had sex before, but when I was a virgin back in 1988, I was taught that that’s what they all say.  Surely not everyone she has sex with has never had any kind of sexual encounter.  What about people who are uncomfortable with sex and need help because they were molested?  (I’m not implying that I lost my virginity in 1989, by the way.  It’s just that the movie takes place in 1988, when AIDS was pretty much at the forefront of everyone’s mind.)

I thought that the movie would have been better had it focused on Cheryl’s character either more or less.  The Sessions is really Mark’s story.  He’s the one baring all.  But as that happens, Cheryl ends up baring quite a lot, too.  I never really got how her family dynamic worked.  I appreciated the closure we got about her experiences with organized religion, and I felt like I understood the professional part of who she was and why she’d chosen that career pretty well.  But her professional life and her personal life seemed so disconnected.  I wish we’d seen either more or less of the character so I didn’t have so many unanswered questions about her.  (And don’t even get me started on her husband!)

I’m also curious about the priest character.  Is he as real as Mark and Cheryl?  Or is he a composite? 

Oh, and I wish we’d gotten to hear more of Mark’s poetry.  I liked it.

The Sessions is a much more heartwarming and entertaining film than I expected.  It’s also surprisingly genuine.  Writer/director Ben Lewin is a polio survivor himself, and clearly he intends the movie to say something more than, “Please give me an Oscar.”  But speaking of Oscars, John Hawkes gives an Academy Award worthy performance as a character whose disability never distracts us from his humanity.  Helen Hunt is very good, too, and William H. Macy makes a very likable (if somewhat unorthodox) priest.