Tuesday, September 27, 2011

One Minute Review: Due Date

You don't often see a movie criticised for the effectiveness of it's actors, but that is precisely the problem with Todd Phillips' Due Date. The movie just doesn't quite work because Zack Galifianakis as the flamboyant actor wannabe Ethan Trembley is too good at playing stupid and clueless and Robert Downey Jr. as uptight Peter Highmore is too good at playing a jerk. They thus, in an unfortunate act, negate the inherent sweetness that made obvious inspiration Planes, Trains and Automobiles so great and end up just kind of cancelling each other out.

Problem is, every time Phillips seems like he is zeroing in on an honest moment between the mismatched couple he pulls back quickly with a lewd remark from Peter or a dimwitted one by Ethan and the movie quickly loses it's momentum as it falls back into raunchy caricature comedy (a scene in which Ethan responds to Peter's story about his father with uncontrollable laughter is particularly unfortunate).

The film is thus no more than a collection of boundary pushing sight gags and throwaway one liners. It features drinking a man's ashes as coffee, a masturbating French Bulldog, bullet wounds, crashed cars, and, in the film's biggest laugh, said French Bulldog getting spit on. And some of it, if maybe less of it than desired, is quite funny. It's proof that Phillips has no problem with pushing the limits for comedy, but falls far short with a story that nearly begs for just a touch of something more human.


Beginners is a very funny film but it isn’t a comedy. Sometimes the funniest ones aren’t. Instead it’s a drama. I don’t mean to use that word to imply the heavy-handedness that it sometimes connotes but to use it in that lovely way that David Mamet defines it. It’s about a collection of characters who find themselves in a moment and who we watch as they try to figure it out and do with it only the best that they possibly can given the circumstances.

True drama does not force us into feeling anything other than the empathy or scorn we acquire along the way. Beginners is thus a peek at these people as they love, lose, hurt, jump for joy and ultimately feel their way forward one step at a time. There is no beginning or ending to this story; just the momentary glimpse we are treated to that starts with the opening credits and closes with the ending credits to which we nod our heads and give thanks that we were blessed to have been invited along for the ride.

The story takes place between two intercut time periods. One involves Hal (Christopher Plummer, as illuminating as he’s ever been) whose wife of 40 years has died and who now, in old age himself, has come out of the closet as being gay. It’s not that Hal just woke up one day and realized he was gay, but did what was the right thing at the time and respected his wife until she was no more. That’s how things were back then. It’s not how they are anymore. Sometimes the most profound truths are found in the broadest of spaces.

The other story involves Hal’s son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) who is picking up the pieces and getting himself together after his father’s death. Oliver, a quiet graphic artist who cared for his father right up until the end, finds himself alone and awash in a sea of confusion. His only companion seems to be Hal’s dog, who he communicates to through subtitles, his job isn’t rewarding his creativity and nothing really seems to matter.

At a party Oliver gets a little drunk and meets a quirky French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame) who can only speak through post-it notes due to a throat infection and who leads a life as unstable and confusing as Oliver’s. The two hit it off instantly.

What’s most remarkable about Beginners is how well it juggles it’s drama to strike an even balance in that rare middle ground between comedy and tragedy. The film intercuts these two time periods so that we don’t labour on Hal’s death, which is intercut with scenes of Oliver finding his footing again through Anna, which is offset by Hal’s death and so on down the line; the past and future coming together to create one complete portrait.

The film is smart in that it doesn’t let itself be defined by any single one of its characters. It isn’t pinned down to one overbearing theme or tone or meaning. It’s thus a film of just-so-happens: The film isn’t about an old man being gay but just so happens to have one; it isn’t a film about a young man trying to find himself after his fathers death but just so happens to have one; and it isn’t a love story about two awkward and confused people coming together but it just so happens to have those as well. They are there, but they don’t get in the way of the film being about their life as they live in it, one day at a time.

There’s every possibly for the film to fly off into a messy spiral. It could have been socially conscious of the taboo of coming out as gay, it could have been another weepy indie melodrama about lonely hearts or it could have been a too-hip-for-it’s-own-good exercise in style as director Mike Mills' first feature Thumbsucker was.

Instead it slowly strikes an even and honest balance which manages to allow it to not be tied down by any conventions. Beginners is a film that is so gleefully comfortable just being itself. It takes pride in simply having the courage to be about these people, in the time that they lived and it represents them with respect and care. Any movie can be about something. It takes a truly courageous one to admit that it’s about nothing but the people that it is about and does that to the very best of it’s abilities. This is one of the year’s best films.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Celebrity Connection:Guillaume Canet

If the name doesn`t instantly ring a bell that isn`t surprising. I didn`t know who Canet was before last night when I watched the Kiera Knightley and Sam Worthington marital infidelity flick Last Night. The movie was good if not quite as profound as it had hoped to be but Knightley especially brings a lot of character and depth to her performance. It`s one of those walk but don`t run kind of movies whose deliberate pacing and lack of big melodrama made sure that it didn`t really connect with North American audiences.

Regardless, watching it, I couldn`t help but notice Canet (who you may know from Joyeux Noel, The Beach, Tell No One or Love Me If You Dare) who looked strangely familiar:

Could Guillaume Canet really be Patrick Dempsey in disguse. You decide.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

One Day

The thing about European directors is that they don’t put all of their faith in dialogue. They are okay with letting actions speak louder than words. And they aren’t afraid to hold a scene for a few seconds longer than an American would dare, to capture a look or a glance or an embrace that propels the story forward on an emotional level and allows the audience to become emotionally invested in the moment. One Day succeeds on a diet of those very moments in which actors allow joy or hurt to wash over them in an uninterrupted moment of truth. The plot may suffer under the unfortunate burden of a gimmick, but the emotions that course through it are very real.

And the plot is indeed, very much unfortunate. It takes place one day every year from the late 80s until the present. That day is July 15 and the first time we encounter it we find Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) on their graduation day. Obviously coming from a few drinks, Emma and Dexter part from their friends and, not having spoken much to one another, but thinking what the hell, go back to her place.

She is nervous, hasn’t had much experience with this. When she comes out of the washroom she finds him putting his pants back on. He says he’ll stay and they both decide to sleep in the same bed but just remain good friends.

So one day, every year, we drop in on them, whether they are together, apart, single or in a relationship, just to see how things are getting on. Emma morphs from the geeky school girl into a true beauty and moves from plans of grandeur to working in a cheap London taco place, where she is offered a managers job because she seems to have the fewest future prospects, to hooking up with an shaggy bum trying to make a run of being a stand-up comedian.

Dexter has a mom (Patricia Clarkson) who is dying of cancer, a father who is loving but distant, goes on to become the host of some cheap musical variety show and delves into sex and drugs before finally settling down.

Along the way the duo meet up, share pleasantries, exchange entries into their life diaries and go about their business. Sometimes they just stop by to say hi, and sometimes they go off on trips together. Sometimes they like each other and sometimes they can see each other slowly drifting away and the whole time you just wish they would both wise up, see the conclusion that is so inevitable to the rest of us and just get on with getting together already.

And yet in spite of all of this there are those little moments that sneak in, between the cracks of scenes in with Hathaway shoots a glance or Sturgess comes to some unspoken realization in which the film let’s us know that, despite it’s plot, it is dealing with serious melodrama and serious melodrama is founded on serious emotions. Hathaway and Stugress make a believable pair and it’s in those quiet human moments where the film settles down, takes a moment to breathe and invests something real into the story. It’s in those moments that the film finds the true beauty that is inherent in this story.

It’s unfortunate then that the film doesn’t have the courage to just tell it’s story straight. We are jerked around so much in time with such frequency that it’s hard to settle down into the natural rhythms of these characters and their story. The film was directed by Lone Schefig, whose last film An Education also told the story of an unlikely romance, but took the time to flesh out a story that unfolded in the moment across a natural span of time.

Here Schefig provides all the charm, heart and wisdom of that film but constantly feels at war against the inherent limitations of her plot and one gets to realizing that, charming as it has been, one day in the life of characters just isn’t enough. Here’s a film that, thanks to its stars and its makers is far better than it should be (it certainly, if nothing less, achieves everything it sets out to), but still just one step short of what it could have been.